Monster Masterclass: Little Nightmares
What makes a monster - and you can, too!
Content Warning: this article discusses monsters, intergenerational trauma, and the fear of becoming your parents (oof). It also contains spoilers for Little Nightmares and Little Nightmares II.
…The past couple of articles have been pretty gnarly, so we can have a pretty chill one as a treat!
Welcome to Monster Masterclass
Greetings, fellow mortals. I wanted to try something a bit different with this installment of Resident Anna. As a game developer who primarily deals with narrative, one area that I have always been particularly dazzled by is creature design and tech art - namely: how do horror games think up, develop, and ultimately implement such gnarly monsters?
And I’m far from the only one who goes gaga for them. Monsters have fascinated humans since time immemorial, appearing in almost all world mythologies in some form or fashion. As you can imagine, a dedicated academic and artistic community has cropped up around these enigmatic beings.
The work Monster Culture (Seven Theses) emerged in the 1990s as a frontrunner for understanding the basic qualities that monsters have. The following are the seven thesis as the author Cohen describes - the TLDR in italic text beneath is mine.
The Monster Is A Cultural Body
A monster is some sort of anxiety, event, or warning made flesh.
The Monster Always Escapes
Even if defeated, the monster may come back or rise again.
The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis
It is a monster because we cannot fit it into a neat little box. Humans like to be able to put things in neat little boxes.
The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference
It is a monster because it’s an Other. Othering is dangerous from a survival standpoint.
The Monster Polices the Border of the Possible
When the impossible is proven true, it makes us question our grip/control on reality. This makes humans deeply uncomfortable.
Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire
The monster is representative of the seductive taboo/forbidden practices.
The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming
We fear the monster because we see ourselves in it - and we know that there is always a risk that we may become it.
And while I think that these are 7 theses about the nature of monsters in many cultures around the world, I don’t think they are inherently the 7 theses. That is to say: I think there are likely more which are simply not included here, but for the purposes of this article/so it doesn’t become a proper dissertation, I think it would be wise to stick with these seven. This is only one of the many frameworks or lenses we can use to examine the monstrous - to say otherwise feels intellectually dishonest.
Monsters are as much a psychological phenomenon as they are a sociological one - a mirror as much as a sculpture: they are often representative of innate, deep fears (whether those are cultural or primal) that live within us. So it only seems right that they’re a mainstay in horror. But the forms these monsters take is an art unto itself - being able to craft a terrifying creature is a labor of love for the Othered, and monster and creature design is an artistic niche with a devout following (if artists like Trevor Henderson are the standard).
Using these seven theses, I wanted to do some analysis of some video game monsters. I thought for a while: what game or franchise would be best for this sort of thing? It would need to be something that has a pretty wide variety of monster designs that are all spectacular in their own unique way: for example, they can’t all be zombies and the like, despite my love for Resident Evil. I needed something that really got out of the box with it. Something so undeniably gnarly that it felt like they might come through the screen...
So naturally: it had to be Little Nightmares.
Overview: Little Nightmares
Little Nightmares is a 2.5D horror puzzle platformer series created by the Swedish game developer Tarsier Studios. Tarsier would partner with Bandai Namco to develop and publish the first two titles in the series, Little Nightmares (2017) and Little Nightmares II (2021). Much to my personal delight, a third entry, Little Nightmares III, was announced earlier this year at Gamescom. However, due to Tarsier’s acquisition by the Embracer Group in December of 2019, this third installment is going to be developed by Supermassive games of Until Dawn fame in conjunction with IP-holder Bandai Namco.
Regardless, I’m personally very excited for another Little Nightmares, and am very curious what Supermassive does for the next chapter.
The general premise of the series is that the player steps into the role of a small child: a young girl named Six in the first game, a lad named Mono (with Six as an AI companion) in the second. The series takes place in a dreamlike but hostile world, full of locations and creatures much larger (and much hungrier) than you.
It’s a pretty successful setup from a storytelling standpoint: everyone knows what it feels like to be a small, frightened child. Perspective for the purpose of immersion can be difficult to wrangle in horror, as some players will subjectively feel more connected with some points of view based on their personal identities and their associated intersections. But beginning a horror game from this universal touchstone of childhood is a great way to draw players in and instantly secure a personal connection… thus making it easier to get into your player’s head.
The art style of the game is gorgeous and markedly distinct. The almost claymation-like shapes and the sheer scale of the environments really highlight that the player is operating from the mind and eye-level of a child. Adults often appear grotesque and unfamiliar, whereas the shapes of your fellow children feel more identifiably like kin.
“We wanted to create a world that could almost have been reported by a child. If you listen to a kid recounting an event, it’s just full of energy and hyperbole, and things are always bigger, faster, stronger and larger-than-life.”
Couple this with the gameplay being defensive in nature where the player cannot fight back against monsters with any sort of weaponry, and the sense of helplessness begins to mount. There’s not even any dialogue to call for help. And even if you did, it’s not like anyone would hear you. In fact, it would probably only give away your hiding place. Players can only hope to sneak, hide, and swiftly solve puzzles in order to get away.
The first game takes place in an iron ship known as The Maw - overseen by a masked woman in a kimono known only as “The Lady.” Onboard the ship, she appears to operate a restaurant where grotesque looking adults appear to be feasting upon small children. Six is merely attempting to escape and evade being cooked and consumed after the events of Little Nightmares II, which serves as a prequel. In this prequel-sequel, Six and Mono work together to traverse a place known as the Pale City, where they are also pursued by horrific adults (and taunted by other awful children), all while being haunted by a specter known only as “The Thin Man.”
The story is loose and very much open to interpretation, amplifying the dreamlike “nightmare” quality implied by the series’ title. Each chapter/area within the Maw and the Pale City has its own vibe, its own puzzle mechanics, and most importantly: its own threats. Now that you’re familiar with the series and its setup, let’s take a look at some of its frightening inhabitants.
A long-armed but very short-legged man known as “The Janitor” is the first monster you meet in the original Little Nightmares. Six is a very hungry girl, so she’s lured into a cage with an offering of food in what I can only describe as a Looney-Toons-esque fashion. Her captor is none other than the Janitor, who looks after many of the other children in cages. Once a child has been selected to be eaten, the Janitor takes them, wraps them in butcher paper, and sends them to the next area of the Maw, overseen by the Twin Chefs.
The Janitor’s appearance is strange: it doesn’t appear to be one of the adults, but it also does not appear to be a child. Its proportions are all wrong: its arms are far too long for its body in a way that does not look natural. Its head is huge, and its legs far too short. It’s dressed in a drab trench coat, and based on its odd gait - the way it sweeps the floor with its long arms as if trying to feel its way about the room, we begin to wonder if he can even see.
The Janitor is the perfect intro to the monsters of this series, which is why he’s up first in the game - and in this article. Because the Janitor introduces a concept that you will have to stare down in Little Nightmares: the uncanny.
Renowned weirdo and occasional-psychologist Sigmund Freud noted in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny” that in his native language, “uncanny” or “unheimlich", literally translates to “not belonging to the home.” The uncanny sits in a precarious position of being something which could feel safe and familiar, something like “home”… but for whatever reason, it does not appear to be. But it almost is. It’s the border between the fantastical and the realistic. The familiar and the unfamiliar. The uncanny sits in this blurry median. Like monster Thesis 3: it creates a category crisis. Because we cannot distinctly put it into a category of “safe” or “unsafe,” it creates a real conundrum. The human mind does not like it. …But why?
When something doesn’t line up with how we perceive natural/primal order to be, humans experience what Bulgarian-French theorist Julia Kristeva calls abjection: characterized by disgust, horror, fear, or maybe even… desire. In her book Powers of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva explores the many ways that horror as a genre is built upon abjection: and how the phenomenon is actually greatly indicative of an affront to one’s own identity. For example: humans may be instinctually repulsed when confronted with a dead body - be that of an animal or another human. Why? Not because the body is in itself inherently disgusting, but because it exists as a reminder of our own mortality. Humans abject in order to preserve their own ego and sense of identity in a chaotic world… but being curious creatures, humans are also often intrigued by that which stands on the other side of the border. That which is supernatural. That which is disgusting, repulsive, or so “not of home.”
In the case of the Janitor, this further aligns with Thesis 5 of the Seven Theses: the monster polices the border of the possible. When confronted with the Janitor at the start of the game, Six is forced to realize that there are hostile, disgusting things happening within the Maw. When faced with the potential of being fed to guests as part of a feast, it makes sense that the creatures involved in the feast’s preparation are equally as abjectionable.
Yet to escape the Janitor, Six finds a way to essentially chop off his arms: the only vehicle by which he can navigate the world. Many players, myself included, feel a strange combination of relief and sadness as they hear his screaming from the next room over after the impromptu amputation. The Janitor may police the borders of the possible, he may present a category crisis, and he may be the gateway, the “mouth,” to getting eaten… but he’s still just a guy doing his job, potentially sustaining an on-the-job injury that would get him a seven-figure settlement in claims court. In some sense or another, he still feels like a guy being exploited by capitalism.
There is definitely a sense of tragedy about ol’ Spindly Armslong – he listlessly plays around with books and things lying on the ground as if he may have once understood their meaning, but it now eludes him. His dreary brown outfit, with its undersized homburg and oversized coat (his legs are so short that he almost resembles an upper body pulling itself around using only its arms), makes him look impoverished and desperate – if he wasn’t gigantic and murderous, you’d want to take him to the nearest hostel.
He’s one of the many peculiar monsters belonging to the Little Nightmares pantheon - but far from the last. Just like the universality of childhood, there’s one omnipresent threat looming in the distance for almost everyone. One that has a unique combination of terrifying and validating qualities that psychologists have studied for decades. A monster we all must grapple with: becoming our parents.
The Lady and The Thin Man
Again - guy who was really weird about his mom and wanted to make it everyone else’s problem, Sigmund Freud, was slightly on to something, here. Slightly. That’s as much credit as we can reliably give him on the subject.
The nature of intergenerational trauma is an evolving area of study that has steadily made its way into pop-culture over the last decade. The terrifying event of origin can be everything from natural disasters, to domestic partner violence, to genocide. This type of interpersonal distress is often cyclical, passed down from parent to child in a distinct set of behaviors and worldviews - at least, until someone tries to break the cycle. The American Psychological Association defines “intergenerational trauma” as follows:
It’s believed that intergenerational trauma is a combination of both “nature” and “nurture,” as the emerging field of epigenetics studies the manner in which adverse environmental effects can actually cause individual genes to change how they express. This is relevant to the field of childhood/adolescent development, as younger, still-developing brains have been found to be more susceptible to epigenetic changes. This unfortunately can be partially to blame for the “stickiness” of intergenerational trauma, as it quite literally is passed on to descendants in their genetic code. All of this is believed to be evolutionarily advantageous, as parents can pass down knowledge of threats to their offspring with the hope that they can subsequently be avoided.
Intergenerational trauma and epigenetics align with Thesis 1 of the Seven Theses: the monster is a cultural body. The word “culture” is often used in a very broad sense, but within this context, it can be applied to the distinct culture within a specific family, community, or ethnicity. In short: it is some kind of representation of something horrific specific to an identity. Similar to how classic monsters like Gojiro/Godzilla is deeply rooted to the trauma of nuclear warfare in Japan during World War II, or how Dracula relates to the Wallachian Tepes family’s vicious warfare against the encroaching Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. But culture can be applied in a much smaller scale, too. For example: the nuclear family.
Six and The Lady in Little Nightmares (2017)
In the original Little Nightmares, Six first awakens after seeing a vision of a lady in a traditional Japanese kimono and a mask associated with Noh, a major form of Japanese classical theater. The masks are used to portray certain qualities, such as gender, age, social status, and general temperament: and The Lady’s is uncharacteristically blank.
The Lady is the proprietress of The Maw, and appears to want to keep it going at all costs.
With graceful restraint, The Lady casts the hypnotic spell that keeps the engine running. Amidst the chaos of the world outside, The Maw is the only place that makes sense, and now this rumor of an escaped child threatens everything. Nothing can be allowed to interfere. The guests must eat. The Maw must survive.
Her clear survival instinct clashes with Six’s - so it only feels inevitable that the two will go toe-to-toe at the end of the game.
The boss sequence is intriguing: there is no real combat in this series, but Six wields a strange weapon - a mirror. The Lady is seen earlier in her chambers sitting at a vanity: its mirror is broken, perhaps smashed by The Lady’s own hand. Between the broken mirror and the uncharacteristically blank mask, we get the idea that The Lady is hiding something, namely: her face. Whether this is an act of body dysmorphia, self-hatred, or an allusion to how she is unable to express her own emotions remains unclear. But Six immediately notices how important her appearance is to her… and uses that against her.
The boss sequence, shown in video below, is genuinely stunning. Eerie, brutal, and satisfying all at once. As Six approaches her chambers, we hear The Lady humming what’s known in the instrumentation as Six’s Theme, leading some to believe that The Lady is, in fact, Six’s mother. Or, at least in an abstract manner, The Lady is what Six is ultimately fated to become.
At the end of the boss fight, subdued by… shame? Fear? Disgust? Six in her insatiable hunger is able over to overwhelm The Lady and ultimately bits her in a vampiric manner, appearing to consume her powers entirely before the game concludes.
Has Six inherited her mother’s/archetype’s body dysmorphia? Will the cycle continue? Was there any other way this story could have gone? Six approaches a light at the end of the game - will she break the cycle? Is Six the hero? The villain?
Will this happen to us, too?
That is the danger of The Lady and The Thin Man: the seventh of the Seven Thesis - the monster stands at the threshold of becoming. The cycle continues… perhaps forever.
Mono and The Thin Man in Little Nightmares II (2021)
Mono and the monster that he fears becoming behave differently in the prequel-sequel Little Nightmares II. The Thin Man is not the final boss like The Lady, but rather a threat that is present throughout the majority of the game.
Clearly influenced by the 2010s online mythos of Slenderman, the Thin Man is a frightening tall, grey-skinned man wearing a suit. His head is always cocked to the side, giving him a peculiar and distinctive silhouette.
As the ever-present hum of The Transmission chokes the airwaves, The Thin Man continues his endless journey through this desolate place, haunting the shadows, searching for something…
Similar to the start of the first game, Mono wakes up in the forest outside the Pale City after having a frightening vision of the creature he fears becoming. At least - the precursor to him: he sees that of a long hallway. As he enters the city and finds Six along the way, Mono finds himself repeatedly drawn to televisions displaying static. He becomes completely transfixed by them: and with each subsequent TV he peers into, he once again catches a glimpse of the hallway from before - only a little bit further down. He is usually pulled back into the present by Six, lest he be lost in the static completely.
Mono’s singular fixation on screens and this mysterious hallway could be evocative of Thesis 6 of the Seven Theses: fear of the monster is really a kind of desire. While this thesis is very much playing into the hands of monster-smoochers the world-over, it’s also applicable to the desire to know. It’s a common, deeply held human experience that we are interested in the things we fear - heck, the fact that I’m writing this blog at all is proof.
This phenomena has been studied, though no one singular cause has been identified. Some studies indicate that it likely has its roots in the human instinct to play, the trait of being sensation-seeking, or even just plain old novelty. In a purely armchair sense, this desire of wanting to know that which scares us likely comes from an ancient survival part of our brain: the more we know about this thing, we might be able to avoid it, evade it, or even exhibit mastery over it. But regardless of the cause, Mono seems to almost fall into a trance when confronted with a TV screen.
By the third time this happens, we see the Thin Man seated patiently behind the door at the end of the hall, accompanied by his typical grating-metal sound effects and visual static. In a scene reminiscent of The Ring, the Thin Man climbs out of the television and is in pursuit of the kids. However, after this, Mono has actually discovered his own latent television-adjacent capabilities. He’s able to travel through television screens like a teleportation system, giving him access to other parts of the Pale City instantaneously. In fact… it almost seems like Mono has the same abilities as the Thin Man.
In the final portion of the game, Six and Mono are just about to escape. Mono makes a daring jump across an expansive void, and Six grabs his hand from the safety of the ledge at the other side. But for whatever reason - maybe she wasn’t strong enough. Maybe it was to distract the Thin Man so she could get away… he slips from her hand. He falls down into the dark pit below.
At the end of the game we see him sit patiently in that chair - the same one The Thin Man sat in. We watch him slowly transform into the very figure of the Thin Man… having fully become that which is either his father, himself fully, or his destined archetype.
The way he sits… it’s almost like he’s waiting for the next version of Mono to come free him again. Stuck in a loop. Forever. Having become the monster that was in front of him all along.
Thesis 2: the monster always escapes.
Thanks for reading another installment of Resident Anna! Little Nightmares is one of my favorite horror series of all time, so I’ve been itching to write about it. I’m very much looking forward to the third installment of the series, and Embracer I swear to GOSH you better not be mean to the folks at Tarsier!
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