Having done this before, I’m going to forgo a long introduction. Also to this, I’m going flash up the obligatory spoiler warning as this is a deep dive into the story of “Little Nightmares”. I did a review of the game which you can read here if you want to avoid the spoilers and have my thoughts on the game. Here is the place where I’ll go over some of the more symbolic details of the story as well as poster my own theory on the games overall plot, pre and post game. And so, one last chance;
The game does the interesting video art idea of having no dialogue. This makes the visual design the core aspect of the storytelling. In the review I called the style ‘Miyazaki-ien’ after the animated film director Hayao Miyazaki who worked (or ‘works’ with his current stage of retirement being a pretty fluid question) inside the Studio Ghibli animation company. Part of the reason why I considered the comparison was because of “Sprited Away”, one of the films Miyazaki wrote and directed as part of Studio Ghibli in 2001.
There’s a moment in that film that compares nicely to the game and that is the scene where the sudo-monster No-Face engorges themselves on the spa’s patrons and becomes a giant grotesque, it’s fluid like flesh pulsating as it moves with the entrapped bodies it feasts on. Then, as a way to defeat the monster, the films protagonist (a little girl called Chihiro) feeds it a vomiting herb making No-Face vomit patrons and chase her through the spa complex. If that scene sounds familiar, there is a section of the game where the Guests, who are engorged humans, chase Six (the games little girl protagonist) through the Japanese styled spa/holiday building.
Before people start, no I’m not saying anything in the realms that they copied the film. There are hints and elements of inspirations from the film to Tarsier Studios, the developers of the game. This is why they’re good to compare but also as a story guideline to use a blueprint to getting to understand the story of “Little Nightmares”.
The big comparative note that separates them is their respective leading characters, Chihiro and Six. For “Sprited Away”, the ending is based on Chihiro’s desire to pay her parents debt and re-ignite the heart of goodness in the spirits around her, namely Haku (her protector/wise sage) and Yubaba (the spa manager and spurned twin). The film ends as you would expect for a company that Disney would want to make ties with. (It’s a happy ending for all.) The game on the other hand while playing off a similar crib sheet plays more ambiguous and, to use a word, more monstrous.
The character struggle that both Six and Chihiro face is not becoming what’s around them. For Chihiro it’s forgetting her parents and becoming one of the spirits of the spa. For Six it is to not become a monster of the Maw, to which she ultimately fails. So then the question to be poised to the story is; how did she end up failing? And this is where my character theory comes in;
She was already a monster. Everyone on the ship is a monster. The Lady, the Guests, its staff and you as Six. This partly comes down to one of the subtexts of the game being that the ship itself is a monster as well. Maw is a term for the ‘mouth of a viscous animal’ so to enter the Maw is to be eaten by a ‘viscous animal’. You are all but food to be devoured by the Maw and sent to the belly of beast, making The Maw as the environment a character itself. It also means that from the start, your already eaten. Six has already failed because she already in the Maw. From the start, she’s doomed to become a monster.
The idea of food and the food chain is one of the big metaphors of the game. When your in the belly of the beast, the person who is master of the Maw is the one who is the top of the food chain. From the games start, it becomes clear that the children, so including you as Six, are the lowest link. The Janitor catches the children (it explains the long armed, “Slender-man” styled appearance), the Cooks cook them, and the Guests eat them. Out of that chain, there is someone missing. The Lady. As the last antagonist of the game it would make sense that she is top of the food chain. But it would also mean that she eats the Guests. But also out of the chain is the Nomes, the small bandaged creatures that wonder, hide and help Six. So here are my thoughts on who and partly what they are.
As the game begins, you see the petrified remains of other escaped children, made by the sudo-security cameras the ‘Watchful Eyes’ that petrify you if they see you. This shows that your not the only one that escaped. So how does the escaped become a Nome? This is when we can turn to folklore and can make some theories.
First the easy one, the Nomes can be Gnomes. Think of the tacky thing you find in people gardens. That’s the modern image of a gnome that been about the same for around 100 or so years. Gnomes (in a western perspective) are derived from earth spirits. Depending on time in history, they’re impish creatures (think goblin) or as guardians (think dwarf). But there is another image that more connects with the Asian décor and shows there is some overlap with national lores which can make for some interesting interpretations.
In Shintoism (and this is going to more then a massive over-simplification/condensing on my part for the sake of time and simplicity) when a child dies, they become an ujigami. It means a family spirit as their name (regardless of if they are a member of the religion or not) can be on the temple list/register of children. Would almost be the time for a joke around the church having the names of all the children but if you want to look into your family history, church child/baptism records are really useful. From the child’s birth they are put down as a ‘family child’ and when they die they are written as a ‘family spirit’, a spirit/old religion style god that your pray to for protection and success. If you saw “Mulan” (1998) you’ll know what it all means because it mostly comes down to about to what the family spirits where in that film.
With the Asian décor, the children as food, their secluded nature, the reason you hug and console them, the fact they set you free and watch you leave even after you eat one of them could lead to this idea being true. But what it also means is that the Nomes are already dead. In saying that there is one big plot-hole in that idea, Six eats one of them as conformation of her monstrous transformation. How can she eat something that’s dead?
Here comes the part of the theory I’m on much more sure footing as, even if the ‘Nomes are dead’ idea is wrong, this can still be true. It would just mean that the Nomes are just mostly dead children who’s skin is cut away and or eaten by the Guests.
The main theory is Six and the Lady are Jiangshi. A jiangshi is a monster from Chinese folklore that can be summed up as a vampire that lives of peoples life force instead of solely their blood. From a western perspective it’s is a combination of a vampire and a zombie (perhaps the Guests) but what is does is more vampire-ish. To summarize the folklore, Jiangshi absorb their victims qi (their life force) to sustain themselves but look like a literal standing corpse. Jiangshi even means ‘stiff corpse’ in Chinese (Mandarin). This is supported by some of the thematics of the game as well as well as the ending.
Light is an important part of the game. The thematic idea has a footing in is the idea of ‘chiaroscuro’, the use of light and shadows. The filmic use of this idea is most known in the horror films of the black and white era, with one of biggest footnotes being “Nosferatu” (1922), a film that follows the nosferatu Count Orlok. Replace words to get ‘follows the vampire Count Dracula’ and you will see why the Stoker family sued.
The film follows the idea of having characters in or moving between shadows to the point where Six’s face is in permanent shadow, creating a disconnect between herself and the player. This use of light continues on to much more of the game like the aforementioned Eye security cameras. But more subtle elements are things like that the backgrounds that have no windows to the outside. You make it to the outer shell of the ship but the only monster to get close to the outside is the Lady and even then it is always indoors and away from the setting daylight. But, in both the folklore and the Dracula book, light isn’t the weakness of vampires. The start of the idea was, as you would guess, “Nosferatu”. But the game does follow one of the weakness and a way to defeat a Jiangshi. According to folklore taken from the 1500’s text the “Compendium of Materia Medica”, letting it see it’s reflection was seen as a way to defeat or deter a Jiangshi as it was ‘bright on the inside’. That combined with the idea that a Jiangshi is afraid of it’s reflection means that it can be killed by mirrors. So the final battle with the Lady can be seen as a battle with a Jiangshi.
And what is one of the ways that a person can become a Jiangshi? When the soul doesn’t leave the body after an ‘improper death’ or you are bitten by one and you slowly turn. Considering the number of dead bodies at the start of he game, both are possible. I couldn’t shake the idea that the hanging man at the start of the game is Six’s father would make Six’s suicide more a solid idea. At the moment, both could be possible.
So to combine all of this together to one clear theory:
Six is the spawn of the Lady, that being some sort of relation or some kind of vampire spread spawn. She travels through the ship to get off the ship but as she progresses she slowly turns into a vampire. Leading her to feast of a tapped rat (perhaps a metaphor for her own predicament) and a Nome. So by the time she gets to the Lady she gone full ‘fanged’ and in a lust for more power she take the life force of the Lady and fully becomes a Jiangshi, able to absorb the life force of others with just a look. The flies buzz around her dead form as she escapes the Maw of the monster. Now unleashed, the jaws of her prison opens as it unleashes it’s “Little Nightmares”.
The cycle back to the start with the comparison to “Spirited Away”, the game ends the same way as the film but as a failure scenario. Six and Chihiro enter their own stories as the centre, playing both the heroine and what’s at stake. Chihiro in the end succeeds and has her parents returned to her and returning to the daylight of civilisation keeping with the knowledge of the spirit realm. Six starts with that perspective but with her every success leads to her failure because she has already failed.
But as this article was written, a new question is to be asked from a new trailer that as released.
Who is that boy?
In a moment of guessing I’m going to have a crack at working out what significance he has through yet another film reference but I will leave the actual theories as just a guess until the sequel comes out. And to make it a little harder I’ll say it in the tongue of Tarsier Studios (and ironically boss-man Chris) that being Swedish. I think the boy takes the role of Oskar in “Låt Den Rätte Komma In”. If you know what that means, I prefear the origional film.
The ships are here to take you away. So come in and go on, you little nightmare.