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Ambitious Dreams and Little Nightmares, an Interview with Tarsier Studios

If you’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing the fantastic LittleBigPlanet series on either PS3, PS4 or PS Vita then the chances are quite high that you’ve heard of or are familiar with Tarsier Studios, a small development team based out of Malmö – Sweden’s third largest City. Formally Team Tarsier, Tarsier Studios were founded in 2004 and would eventually go on to sign an exclusive first-party deal to develop games for SCEE in 2010.

For nearly a decade, the studio, currently consisting of around 40 employees, developed solely for Sony. With work on downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet and its 2011 follow-up title, the studio shared development of LittleBigPlanet PS Vita with Prison Architect dev Double Eleven before assisting on LittleBigPlanet 3.

In 2015 Tarsier teamed up again with British developer Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet 3) for the release of platforming adventure game Tearaway Unfolded on PS4, but that was to mark the end of the studio’s exclusive development deal with Sony, and in August 2016 the studio signed a worldwide publishing deal with Japanese giant Bandai Namco for the release of Little Nightmares.

With the studio’s entire body of work until this point focused solely on PlayStation’s family of consoles along comes Little Nightmares – a whimsical Tim Burton-esque adventure that represents the studio’s first original title, and a step away from PlayStation exclusivity.

For our first studio interview of the year, I spoke with Senior Narrative Designer at Tarsier Studios – Dave Mervik to pick the developers brain about the studio’s first original game – Little Nightmares, a twisted adventure game set in the mysterious underwater world we know as the “The Maw”, but Little Nightmares wasn’t always known by that name.

Daniel: You first announced Hunger (now known as Little Nightmares) in 2014 before releasing a short trailer at the start of 2015. Following that trailer, things went quiet until the game resurfaced last August under a new name. Other than the name. What has changed if anything since you first announced the game back in 2014? 

Dave Mervik: The game has been evolving since day one, so I’d say that since the Hunger teaser was released, this process has continued. So what you will experience in Little Nightmares is an evolution of the themes we were exploring in Hunger. Where the game is now is not just concerned with food and parasitism and greed, but has also evolved to encompass themes of childhood and the primal fears that are born out of this time of your life.

Little Nightmares has a real eye-catching aesthetic with a cutesy but eerie tone and a soundtrack that fits the game perfectly. It strikes me as a gorgeous blend of Playdead’s Limbo, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a touch of the madness that makes Alice in Wonderland so intriguing with all the darkness of a Tim Burton movie. When did the studio first decide “we want to create this kind of game”? and what was your inspiration behind the conception of Little Nightmares?

We’ve always wanted to make this kind of game. The studio was founded around the same time that we took the City of Metronome prototype to E3 in 2005, a game that shares a lot of DNA with Little Nightmares. This type of game is just something that interests us; it’s the product of a lot of different talents and imaginations, rather than any particular set of inspirations.

Little Nightmares submerged setting is the “The Maw”, what can you tell us about this bizarre nightmarish world that poor Six, the game’s heroine finds herself trapped inside? What rules govern it? In what way is it different from our own world? In what ways is it similar? How are the two related, if at all?

For me, the creepy thrill of The Maw is that it isn’t totally alien, there’s something about it that resonates within you that bears some resemblance to your own world. Like those dreams you have that seem so real, almost mundanely real, yet still so odd that they stick in your throat and won’t let you relax. A lot of things you see in The Maw, and many of the characters themselves, will have begun life as something ‘real world’, maybe it’s an essence or some sort of trademark visual, but they don’t stay that way. These elements are taken by our Art team and twisted and distorted out of all recognition, until they become foreign until they feel other, but still somehow recognizable.

Smart, tough and resilient is some of the words you choose to describe Six. I find your portrayal of Little Nightmares’ young female lead to be a refreshing one. Were you in any way influenced by the growing trend of female protagonists in video games over the last few years or was it just happenstance?

No, we’ve not tried to ride some wave or make a political statement by having a female protagonist. It just felt like a good fit. Of course, it’s important to try and move away from this paradigm of impossibly cool tough guys getting to have all the fun, but if anything it felt more important to reflect some degree of normality in our main character, to have her feel relatable, and to convey that feeling that we’ve probably all had at some time or other; of being vulnerable, lost and alone in a world that doesn’t really like you very much. Which, thinking about it, does sound a little bit political!

In order to survive The Maw, Six must have her wits about her at all times, drawing on many aspects to navigate the treacherous world she finds herself in. One such tactic is hiding, using the shadows as her friend in order to avoid becoming prey to the monsters that would have her become the meat in a fish sandwich. Would you say the use of stealth is the most prominent way of traversing Little Nightmares, are players doomed to fail without it?

With so much in The Maw that’s bigger and stronger than you, I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t tread carefully, you’re not going to last very long. But we’ve always tried to shy away from the term ‘stealth’, as it implies a character that is empowered, so we’ve opted for the phrase ‘hide & sneak’, which we feel conveys the feeling better.

From what we’ve seen in trailers and gameplay demos, Little Nightmares appears to rely solely on nonverbal communication to tell its story rather than vocal narration. With that in mind, what efforts did you make to ensure that the game was conveyed in a way that players will understand? and what advantages are there to telling a story with little in the way of verbal communication?

Yes, there’s no dialogue in the game at all, which is a choice we made very early on because we felt it added to the feeling of being completely alone and unwelcome in this strange, scary place. Because of this, the narrative has been conveyed through visuals and sound design instead. It can be more challenging, for sure, but it also offers a lot more in the way it allows for a greater degree of player interpretation. One of the coolest things with games, movies, music, books, and such, is talking about it with others, discussing what your reading of it was. We’ve heard some really interesting interpretations of the Gamescom demo already, and we can’t wait to hear what people make of the full game.

Away from the horrors that await Six on her quest to escape The Maw, Little Nightmares is of course partially a puzzle platformer. How would you describe the puzzles players encounter? are they intricate puzzles, designed to frustrate players? do they range in difficulty? 

No, we’re not trying to frustrate people. The puzzles and obstacles that stand in your way will grow in difficulty, but so will the player’s connection to Six and her abilities, so the curve should be quite a comfortable one.

I absolutely love the level design in Little Nightmares, it has a certain charm to it that is inevitably going to draw players in when the game releases this Spring. Did your experiences working on the LittleBigPlanet series and Tearaway Unfolded play any part in your decision-making when it came to designing the various rooms or levels throughout the game? How does the environment alter as Six makes her way through the story?

I think it’s the same with any Level Designer, in that your past experience informs your work, but I don’t think anyone’s approached this with the same mindset as they did for LittleBigPlanet, because they’re very different in terms of both pace and tone. Still, one of the things we’ve been aiming for with Little Nightmares is a physicality and tactility in the world around you, which is obviously something that LittleBigPlanet did very well, so we are lucky to have people here with experience in that field from the off!

Let’s talk enemies for a second. Little Nightmares features 3, that we know of so far with The Janitor and The Twin Chefs. From what we’ve seen of the latter, they appear to not follow predetermined routes but more interestingly appear to have a mind of their own, reacting to Six’s movements and the noises that she creates to track the character down. To what degree are the enemies scripted and to what degree are they autonomous? Will different enemies behave differently?

The residents you encounter will behave differently from one another, and while we’ve kept the antagonist AI relatively simple, we have made a number of choices that make them feel alive and unpredictable. For example, instead of detection radius, we use a more realistic detection of the player, where we employ a peripheral vision angle calculation to determine whether the player can be seen from the eyes of the AI. They will also react to player sounds by calculating the physical distance to the sound and if they ‘hear’ it, they will react accordingly. Having ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ the player, the AI will use things like ‘last known position’, ‘last heard sounds’ and ‘predicted sound location’ to search for the player. All of which helps to make the residents seem autonomous, and certainly something that you want to give a wide berth!

The Maw is full of weird and wonderful characters. One such NPC are the Nome’s. On the game’s official website you describe these small in stature characters as “skittish” but attempt to befriend strangers. What part, if any, do Nome’s play in Six’s quest to escape her nightmarish world? and are we likely to meet other friendly NPC’s along the adventure?

The Nomes are hard things to get a handle on, and that’s how we’d like it to stay. Sometimes they can be fun, sometimes they’re helpful, and sometimes they just seem to watch you struggle. Unfortunately for Six, they’re as friendly a character as she’s likely to meet!

Other than The Janitor and the Twins, can we expect further enemies when the game officially launches in April? Could we know how many we’ll encounter?

I’m going to keep that one under The Janitor’s hat if you don’t mind.

Is there any chance of Little Nightmares including any sort of co-op play or any other sort of multiplayer like Little Big Planet had? If not at release, at least in the future? Is it something that was considered during development?

I can’t remember if we ever considered a multiplayer component to be honest since we always conceived of Little Nightmares as a solo experience. One of the feelings we wanted to conjure was one of loneliness and vulnerability, and once you have a friend along for the ride, this feeling would subside too much.

What kind of time-frame are we looking at with Little Nightmares, approximately how many hours would it take to complete the game?

On average we’d say somewhere in the region of 5-8 hours playtime.

With your game coming out on multiple platforms, we were wondering if there was any chance of it coming to Nintendo’s newly-uncovered console: The Switch? Was it an option during development? Should we expect to see it ported over in the future?

Right now we’re just concentrating on the announced platforms, and then we’ll see… 

What are you looking for players to ultimately take away from their experience, or time spent with your game?

I’d like people to feel that they’ve played something with personality and that they have a better idea of the kind of games we like to make. We don’t see ourselves as needing to make just one kind of game for the rest of our lives, but rather make games that we find interesting and exciting and creatively rewarding. With both Little Nightmares and our forthcoming VR game Statik, we’ve tried to stay true to ourselves, trust in our instincts, and trust that there is an audience out there for what we do. Hopefully, there is!

Do you have any last words for readers who are eagerly awaiting the release of Little Nightmares?

Thanks for eagerly awaiting the release of Little Nightmares! You’ve no idea how much it means to us, and we hope you’re as happy playing it as we are proud to have made it.

I’d like to thank Dave Mervik of Tarsier Studios for taking time out to chat with me.

Little Nightmares releases April 28th for Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

Dan has been gaming for nearly 30 years and has survived everything from Nuclear Fallouts to Zombie Outbreaks but his main love is Survival Horror and don’t we all know it. Favourite games include Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto, he can be regularly found cruising the streets of Vice City listening to the classics.

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