(Spoiler warning: full spoilers for Little Nightmares 1 and 2)
If you’re unfamiliar, Little Nightmares 2 is a horror puzzle-platformer video game developed by Tarsier Studios. It is a prequel to the first game, and features the first game’s protagonist as a computer-controlled companion. Players are tasked with navigating a hostile 2.5D world as grimy feral children populated by distorted monstrous adults that attack on sight and, more often than not, kill instantly.
In this post I’ll look to form a cohesive narrative theory of the second game, using only my personal play time and a little light Googling as resources. This is inherently difficult, given that the world of Little Nightmares, somewhat implied by the title, operates based on dream logic. Its surreal society draws a distinct line between children and adults, as if the two belong to different species.
Children are treated as vermin, the protagonists about the size of a mouse, forced to scurry from one piece of furniture cover to another. They are lured with food-baited cages and traps. Meanwhile, adults bear frighteningly twisted faces and features, something like the more disturbing creations of Jim Henson, if he had preferred to work with mummified skin instead of fur.
While the first game saw the child ‘Six’ journeying through a massive clunky cruise ship full of gluttonous tourists, perhaps commenting on the exploitation of other cultures for foreign money (as evidenced by that game’s villain’s adoption of Japanese dress and decorative themes for her restaurant), this time around we’re dealing with a rainy groaning city and its outskirts.
To summarize the plot as directly as possible before we dive into some of my interpretations:
A child called ‘Mono’ wanders through a forest, avoiding traps, until they meet another child held captive in a rundown shack by a masked woodsman/hunter. Together they flee, eventually killing him with a shotgun, and then float via debris across a body of water to the city where the rest of the game takes place.
They fight their way through a school filled with psychotic and rambunctious children, but they are false, hollow and made of porcelain. They are lorded over by a screeching teacher with an extending python neck, whom the children barely escape.
After that they find a hospital where a bloated ceiling-crawling doctor/mortician combines corpse and mannequin parts into new creations, some of which pretend at life. Once the children lure him into an incinerator they are able to move on to the game’s final areas.
In the streets and homes they find working men and domestic women, all enthralled by television sets to the point that they will suicidally seek their stimulus. Their faces appear to have been siphoned off, leaving only a wrinkled collapsed blank of flesh in their place.
All of this activity is centered around a broadcasting tower and a tall thin man who moves through television screens. This man kidnaps Six, and once Mono defeats him he must journey into the world within the televisions to rescue her. Unfortunately, she has been transformed into a giant corrupted version of herself, and clings to a childish music box that Mono must destroy to return her to normal.
After doing so they are pursued by a wall of flesh and eyes. They are close to escaping through a screen, but Mono is forced to make a difficult jump and winds up hanging from a cliff, clinging to Six’s hand. She lets him fall in order to escape herself, leaving Mono to the will of the eyes. He is seen sitting in a chair as they watch, never moving as large amounts of time pass. He ages and grows, becoming the tall man.
So what does it all mean, if anything? Only the developers know for sure, but after I played a foggy narrative through-line did occur to me. Mono… is a child actor. He lives in a world where his exploits are supposed to entertain the masses, because their own lives are far too empty. Let us get into the evidence.
Part of this theory revolves around the society presented. Nearly all civilians, those shown without a specialized purpose like the teacher and the doctor have, appear nonfunctional. They are merely observers. They fall from great heights just to get a little closer to the tower’s broadcast, mirroring the suicides of hopeless office drones, performed atop their workplace, all together as if it’s their lunchbreak.
This means there must be suitable replacements for them, if the world is to keep turning. I believe these replacements are what the doctor is constructing in his hospital. He ships out the porcelain children, to fill the school and never mature enough to actually graduate, the demand sustained only by the violence directed toward them by the teacher and each other.
His larger creations go out to people like the hunter. In the hunter’s home we see three figures, equal parts organic and artificial, sat around a dinner table. They are his family, one he was forced to order since the rest of the beings around him have gone urban and become addicted to television programming. (This loneliness may also be why he has trapped Six.)
Next, look at the inside of the television world and Mono’s transformation. The space is filled with eyes, which I believe to be the eyes taken from the now-blank faces of the civilians on the other side of the screen. They are always watching Mono because he is the star, the hero, the one who is obligated to give them hope.
These eyes exert a pressure, a requirement that he behave as the story demands, represented by him aging in the chair. This restricts his maturation, but not his growth. Mono becomes taller, but not wider. Notably his compressed body never becomes wider than the chair he is made to sit on. He stays within the boundaries, of their expectations and the screen.
Remember that old televisions were more square, not widescreen. Being trapped there, as a character, meant he couldn’t mature in all directions. Note also that his name is Mono, which may be a reference to monoaural sound, the predecessor to stereo sound.
Mono sound comes from one speaker, one direction. It embodies the narrow tube between the viewer and screen, the world of two points. Televisions used mono sound exclusively until the eighties, and the game’s aesthetic borrows much more from the 1950s. As the tall man he even resembles, to my eye, an old Hollywood executive, or perhaps a talent agent ready to go out and seek more sacrificial child actors.
Child acting has a long history of producing mental illness in adults. The tall man is Mono’s ruination. Being chased by a thing he has yet to become doesn’t just feed into the dream logic of the whole affair, it mimes the cycle of television. Rural children see adventures on their sets, long to go to the big city, but get chewed up and spat out instead.
We’re witnessing an episode, with a villain of the week, and the formula doesn’t change. Even when it’s not a rerun it feels like one. Think of a broadcast signal as like the light of a star. That star might be gone, but its light takes so long to travel that we’re still seeing its old home movies. It’s gone, but the episodes still air, and our sun is probably in its own first act.
Mono resents the structure he can’t escape. When we meet him he is wearing a paper bag over his head, a universal sign of not wanting to be seen. The last thing he wants is attention, is to be recognized. Yet as his adventure goes on he finds collectible hats, many of them like costume pieces, and is encouraged by the game to put them on. He’s a teddy bear. A postal worker. Any character he wants, as long as he keeps going.
The hunter, the only character defined by the rural area, also wears a bag over his head, perhaps recognizing the power of hiding his face. He knows it could be relentlessly sought by the faceless hordes of the city, the nobodies, who gave their eyes to gawking and thus can no longer see themselves.
Mono’s struggle to escape is the struggle to exist in stereo, as two things at once, as something more nuanced than the flat weekly image of the precocious child who should really stop aging, since he’s ruining the show’s family dynamic. Whenever Mono and the tall man come into conflict one destroys the other: a circle of blame.
Perhaps Six senses that she might get trapped in that circle too, given that she is to go on and much more definitively best the powers that be, and that is why she lets go. She’s seen this one, and she’s not in it. In addition to hats Mono can find hidden ‘glitching remains’ throughout the game, TV static flickers of other children that he absorbs…
For every successful child actor there are hundreds of failures, and Mono laps up their possibilities of ignominious obscure endings the same way the citizens feast on his potential, being that nobody seems to have any of their own. Don’t do, just seek, just watch, just look. That alone will allow you to take.
(Thanks for reading to the end! I occasionally write about video games, but this blog is primarily for the publication of my original fiction. I write lots of science fiction, fantasy, and some horror. My works are available for free. Please peruse my short stories, novellas, and novels if you are bored.)