Image courtesy of Tarsier Studios

How Little Nightmares II plumbs the depths of adolescent angst

Brian Crecente |
May 12, 2021

Founded in 2004, Tarsier Studios is an independent game studio located in the vibrant city of Malmö, Sweden. We are the developers of Statik and the award-winning Little Nightmares franchise. We are currently working with our own IPs and embarking on the creation of new world-class class games that we are truly passionate about and believe that the world needs to experience.
Released earlier this year, Little Nightmares II provides an eerie stage-setter for the horrors of the original 2017 Little Nightmares and its exploration of The Maw, a horrific sort of ocean liner. This prequel brings back the original game’s protagonist Six as a sort of sidekick to Mono: a boy wearing a paper bag over his head.

The title pushes the Little Nightmares’ universe beyond the horrors of The Maw’s iron ship to the expansive and unsettling realm of Pale City in a game that Game Informer called the first essential title of 2021.

We chatted with developer Tarsier Studios about the inspirations behind Little Nightmares’ aesthetic, why a melodic motif and the counterplay of light and darkness help to shape the game’s overwhelming sense of unease, and how a smart design choice streamlined the developer’s ability to quickly prototype.
 

Tarsier Studios created a number of titles for Sony Computer Entertainment in its formative years, but more recently has transitioned into a fully independent studio. The studio’s first two original titles were Little Nightmares and Statik, two wildly different sorts of games. How have the intervening years and the release of Little Nightmares II helped to solidify the studio’s identity?

Andreas Johnsson, CEO:
So we did get into a sort of identity crisis after we split with Sony. Little Nightmares was definitely a strong part of us, as it is a sort of spiritual cousin to City of Metronome, the game we founded the studio on back in 2005. But both The Stretchers (Nintendo) and Statik (PSVR) showed different ambitions for the studio, and it did really create these huge questions for us like “Who are we? What are we about?” Statik and Little Nightmares might look and play very differently, but they both have common attributes that are part of the studio’s DNA. They are about suspense and tension created in scenes where we purposefully leave out a lot so the players can use their imagination. In Statik, Dr. Ingen looks and acts like a normal doctor, but since his face is censored, it immediately creates tension and a narrative without actually saying anything. He looks like a doctor, but why is his face covered? Is he bad? What is he doing to me? Little Nightmares has a strong visual narrative, but we never actually tell the player what to feel or what is happening, we leave a lot up to the player to fill in the blanks. Imagination, visual narrative, strong tone, and atmosphere are a big part of our DNA.

The original Little Nightmares lead not just to a sequel this year, but a prequel for mobile, a comic book run, and a potential television series. What is it about the concept that you think has struck such a chord with people?

Johnsson:
From the very beginning, we did imagine Little Nightmares turning into a franchise, a world bigger than just a game. But at the end of the day, it is really up to the publisher to decide if such a venture is worth it, and of course, it depends on the success of the first game. Lucky enough, Bandai Namco was really invested in the world and took on that idea from the start. I think the reason why people like Little Nightmares is partly the contrast between a dark, grim nightmarish world and the cute iconic and playful kids. I also think the art style in itself is really tantalizing, you wanna dive into the world when you see a screenshot. And lastly, we designed the game to be filled with tension, not horror per se. We’ve tried to stay away from jump scares and gore and instead, we focused on the atmosphere, gameplay, scenes, and characters allowing the player to always be at the edge of their seat. I think that opens up for a larger audience more so than a traditional horror game.

Little Nightmares explored the wild extremes of childhood through the surrealistic setting of The Maw — a place where the worst things in the world are left to rot. The end result is an uncomfortably nightmarish landscape seen through the eyes of a child. How would you define the themes and symbolism found in Little Nightmares II and how were they shaped by all that came before it in the franchise?

Dave Mervik, Narrative Director:
While originally born in the claustrophobic setting of The Maw, this idea of the worst of humanity being left to rot informed our approach to the entire Little Nightmares universe. There’s something immensely gratifying in taking these things you see and experience in life, reducing them to their essence, and then twisting that into unfamiliar and grotesque shapes. For this game, we became hooked on the theme of escapism and the terrible things that come from living in a world with that at its core.
Image courtesy of Tarsier Studios
How do the story, setting, and characters play into that theme?

Mervik:
Our chosen themes inform everything we do, and this is no different here. We use the journey of Six and Mono to explore the many different forms of escapism, and hopefully give players a sense of how this theme extends beyond the confines of the omnipresent television sets into something deeper, darker, and more insidious.

What horror and non-horror properties inspired or influenced the design of Little Nightmares II?

Per Bergman, Art Director:
Mostly older horror movies and the anime, Akira.

How did the team come up with some of the nightmarish creations of the game? They appear both at times very personal to the creator and universal in the sort of dread and fear they tap into for the player.

Bergman:
The procedure of creating monsters in Little Nightmares is usually that we exaggerate some features or have an idea of how particular enemies should function. That always becomes a dominant part of the character design. It could be that the doctor should walk on the ceiling, the teacher should have a long neck and such. From that point, we find different references for what that character's personality and aesthetic should be. This is an iterative process that is done with the concept art team.

Are there particular creations that are your favorite (or least favorite as it were)? If so, what is it about the designs that set them apart?

Bergman:
My personal favorite is the Teacher. I think her neck is such a cool attribute and how it follows you.
Image courtesy of Tarsier Studios
How did Unreal Engine help empower those creations?

Domenico Favaro, AI Programmer:
Unreal is a powerful engine that allowed us to visualize our creation every step of the way. From exploiting the animation state machine to giving us great flexibility and ultimately allowing us to script all the animations of the monsters. The Blueprint visual scripting system gave us a great way to prototype and iterate all the different rooms and scenarios that we wanted to test with the enemies.

I like how the interplay of light and shadows is such an integral part of the aesthetic and gameplay of Little Nightmares II. How did you come up with that approach and how did Unreal Engine help your vision for its use in the game?

Bergman:
First off, I just want to say that Unreal Engine’s light tech is amazing. You can just plop something in there and it looks amazing. For Little Nightmares, we built up the atmosphere a bit differently due to the side view/dollhouse look. We wanted to create a rich simplicity in the light and atmosphere. It's a balance between static and dynamic lights, volumetric fog, and color grading and DOF. Then, we light the scenes based on what is important to see and try to create some atmosphere around that.

The game’s perspective is another powerful tool for underscoring the feeling of being trapped, on the run with just a tinge of claustrophobia, how did you use Unreal Engine and design choices to underscore that?

Johnsson:
So the game’s perspective is an interesting one. It is both a legacy for our studio (from LittleBigPlanet), something we knew we could do well, but it was also tightly coupled with the idea of being a kid and that everything is literally bigger than you. We called it the dollhouse perspective. But like you said, it also helps feed the feeling of being trapped, being worried, and wondering what is in the next room. Which nicely fit together with the ambition for the game being suspenseful and adventurous.

Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

Matthew Compher, Designer:
We put a ton of time and effort into enabling custom overrides that can come from pretty much anywhere else in the game, without the need for manipulating or customizing the playable character's code or animation graph. The result is that we can make new custom gameplay moments and add lovely flavor, without ever bothering the player team. 

I'll give an example. In the first area of the game, the player can fall into a chest-high swamp area, through which they can wade and walk around. I was able to make a volume to represent being in the swamp, and send two requests to the underlying code driving the playable character.
Image courtesy of Tarsier Studios
The first was to add what we call an Animation Override Slot. It's just a collection of animations tied to identifying slots; so in this case an idle and move animation. The second was to add an Ability Set. This is mostly just a collection of things the character is allowed, or not allowed, to do at the moment. For the swamp, this did things like disable jump and limit movement speed (there are many other subtle options, but those are most important). 

The beauty of all this is in how it interacts with the core animations and allows actions for the player. We knew that we wanted to do lots of custom solutions, so we set everything up to support these kinds of overrides. On the player's animation graph, you might have a simple state machine that transitions from idling to starting to move to moving and back again. Well, most of these "states" are actually just those slots hinted at earlier. The state machine, and by extension the animation graph, doesn't care or depend on what's inside the slots. By adding new animations into those slots, everything works the same and needs no additional setup. What's really neat is those slots can be updated in real-time even if the player is currently doing the animation associated with that slot - they internally blend from the old animation to the new. Similarly, the Ability Sets can be combined and mixed and matched with each other to create composite player abilities. Going back to the swamp example, it could define if the player is allowed to, say, hold hands. And when holding hands, this has its own associated Ability Set. So if you're holding hands while standing in a swamp, we combine both Ability Sets, rather than need to create some new "Holding Hands in Swamp" set. So now we've got a quick, relatively complete new gameplay moment that was able to be prototyped and implemented quickly.

The best part is that all of this was done without ever needing to poke a programmer or ask for new animation setups. Often we could even re-use similar animations. Continuing with the swamp example, we created a wading animation that was eventually re-used for walking in waist-high water and deep ash, modified slightly with different movement speeds and abilities.

Much like the first game, Little Nightmare II features a compelling soundtrack by Tobias Lilja that does a lot of the work to add an acute sense of trepidation and suspense to the game. How was the game’s soundscape crafted to empower the game’s themes and aesthetic?

Tobias Lilja, Audio Director:
During the early phases of development, we (the audio team) look at concept art and gameplay prototypes and try to figure what type of sounds and music that could gel with the core ideas. One of the most important aspects of Little Nightmares is to maintain the perspective of a child, and in the first game, we tried to find simple melodic motifs inspired by nursery rhymes and also instruments that had the aura of childhood nostalgia; for example: the music box. This is an important element since it becomes a well-needed contrast to all the other dark and sinister sounds coming from the environment and the monsters. In Little Nightmares II, we could build upon the sound and music style of the first game, but the environments were a lot more varied and we wanted to give each level of the game a unique sonic feel. Since the environment and the monsters that inhabit the place define so much of the art and design of the game, it was natural that those two factors also become the two major factors in shaping the audio. For example, the first level takes place in the woods, so here we could explore a more earthy and organic feel with key elements like wood and flies, while the second level takes place inside a school which instead inspired a completely different palette; children playing out-of-tune flutes or a teacher playing a staccato rhythm on a piano. The next step often involves finding techniques to take these familiar elements and twist them into more surreal or otherworldly territory.
Image courtesy of Tarsier Studios
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Johnsson:
Oh, this is always really tricky to answer. Our games usually don’t push on tech innovation, maximizing CPU power or memory usage. But, it is of course really nice to be able to make games where we can cram in as much detail as possible without having to spend too much time on managing CPU/memory usage. Real-time ray tracing is, of course, really cool. In LNII, we spent a lot of time on lighting our scenes to make them as atmospheric as possible. I don’t think RRT would ever pop/stand out in our games, it would probably be more subtle, but since we love detail, this does excite me. 

There are so many new things that we want to look at in UE5, both from a creative perspective but also a creator’s perspective, like how the tools have evolved/improved. So that will be a lot of fun. Now that I’ve experienced the PS5 Dualsense, that does excite me a lot! I like how you can use the Dualsense in cool ways. This might be a legacy habit from our Sony days, but it still excites me.

Thanks so much for your time. Where can people find out more about Tarsier Studios and Little Nightmares II?

Thank you! For the latest news about the studio and LNII, people can visit us on Twitter (TarsierStudios) and Instagram (tarsierstudios) and of course our website: Tarsier.se.

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