Why is a video game frightening? What is it about the mix of active ingredients that actually cools us, that actually sneaks inside and tinkers our subconscious? I do not believe it’s the jump-scares. I do not believe it’s the gore. I believe it’s something much deeper, something more upsetting, something perilous. And there are couple of video games that sell this sort of worry much better than the Little Nightmares series by Swedish studio Tarsier.
The long-awaited follow up is a little under 2 weeks away now (it launches on 11th February). I had an opportunity to play Little Nightmares 2 just recently, and discussed it. A demonstration was likewise launched previously this month for you to attempt. Did you? What did you believe? Were you as terrified of The Teacher as I was?
I’ve been considering her, and about the video game, considering that. I’ve been considering what it implies for something to be frightening, and how Tarsier manifests horror and scares us. I’ve been considering worry. And I could not consider a much better individual to inquire about it than Dave Mervik, senior narrative designer on the video game, and the individual who dreamt a great deal of the world up.
What follows is our long and winding chat about the origins of the task, worry, solutions, and expectations.
Let’s rewind the clock a bit, back to the start. Little Nightmares starts as a concept called Hunger, I believe, back in 2015. Is that right?
Dave Mervik: [Exhales loudly] It sounds right! I’ll choose you on that one. I believe it was, yeah.
And Tarsier at this moment – is that how you pronounce it, tar-see-uh?
Dave Mervik: We hear several variations on that. [Tar-see-uh] is what I state, so that’s ideal [smiles].
And Tarsier is dealing with Tearaway Unfolded for Media Molecule at the time. But in the background, something is bubbling away. Something dark, something a bit odd. Where does it originate from, this Hunger concept? What was the initial concept?
Dave Mervik: That sort of things had actually been bubbling away a lot longer than Tearaway. I would not like to put the blame at Tearaway’s door [laughs]! Since the development of the business, that things’s been bubbling away.
And Tarsier is formed in – hold on, I read this on your site – 2004?
Dave Mervik: Yeah. I needed to compose that on the site so we didn’t forget! I’ve been here over 10 years now so all of these things sort of blow into one. But yeah, it was simply a group of trainees in the past, and you can see in the City of Metronome model that that state of mind existed: taking a look at the world through manipulated eyes.
I do not wish to take excessive of the interview with where everything originated from, however it was the lifeline of the business from the very start. An entire lot of various elements simply coalesced and came together, and 10 years later on, we got the opportunity to make the Hunger model.
You pointed out seeing the world through various eyes. I’ve seen you point out that in the past. Is that a founding concept of Little Nightmares?
Dave Mervik: I think so. It’s simply something that we naturally do. I do not wish to sound pompous-
You do not!
Dave Mervik: Damnit, I’ll attempt more difficult [laughs]!
But it’s simply the method we work. […] We’re discussing concepts that we appreciate, and this is all infiltrated the style of the video game. In the very first video game was greed and usage, and cravings certainly, and this [game] is escapism.
One of the primary pillars of Little Nightmares is how does a kid see the world? It’s among the starting concepts of this IP. How the kids experience the world in this extremely overstated style.
So when you all very first got together on Little Nightmares, then called Hunger, what was the initial concept you had for it?
Dave Mervik: It was a lot of various initial concepts. It was a video camera system that the tech group had actually done some months in the past, which was called the doll house cam. And it was simply demonstrating how enjoyable it was to turn a structure and after that zoom into it and see something going on therein. And that simply remained there. And then a lot people were discussing the sort of video games that we utilized to like, like Heart of Darkness and Flashback and Another World, which didn’t hold your hand however simply dropped you into another world… actually [laughs]. […] Then the idea group began drawing things that actually stuck to them. It was all these things. And all of a sudden, the chance turned up for us to begin dealing with a principle due to the fact that we discovered there were funds to be had. And, hold on, we might really do something here due to the fact that we were pertaining to the natural end of our time with Sony and [Media Molecule]. It was all of these things coming together.
We were simply actually, actually taken with this concept of a monstrous world and a kid put in the middle of it, due to the fact that [that] was something that actually resounded with us, something you can comprehend from our world. Of course it’s overstated and enhanced and twisted by everybody that deals with it however, still, the core of it is a kid’s experience, entering into the world and discovering all these things that you need to abide by, and these individuals who supervise of you. And the world is not produced you. I state that all the time however it’s so essential, that this isn’t your world.
Do you believe Little Nightmares 1 satisfied what you set out to do with Hunger?
Dave Mervik: Yeah. I suggest, we could not even think we have actually got the opportunity to make our own video game! It sounds a bit ridiculous to state now, looking where we are, ready to launch a 2nd one. But at that time it was a pipeline dream, nearly like ‘this is what we would do if we got the opportunity’. And so the opportunity to make something that lunatic?
[This makes me laugh]
Dave Mervik: But it was! We feel so lucky that Bandai saw in it what we believed individuals would desire, what individuals would have an interest in. We constantly hoped; we certainly didn’t understand. Because it is, it’s lunatic that world, isn’t it? But individuals get it. People get what we’re making with it, that it’s not simply there for shock worth. It’s not simply there to feel edgy or whatever. It’s about seeing the world and seeing individuals that reside in it, and revealing that in some method through these characters and these locations you discover yourself in.
So naturally it did. But you’re never ever delighted, are you? You can constantly return and do things in a different way, or much better. And particularly, for us, it’s a headache – no branding planned – stating, ‘Okay take it from us,’ due to the fact that we can’t let things go. You constantly wish to return and do it once again, you can constantly do much better.
I wish to speak about worry, about being terrified. And this is rather an unclear concern however I’m interested to hear your response. What’s your understanding of worry? Because I envision you have actually considered this rather a lot.
Dave Mervik: Ever considering that I heard that’s what you wished to speak about, I have not had the ability to stop considering it, due to the fact that it’s a hard concern, and I most likely respond to in a different way each time. But let’s begin, a minimum of, with: it’s the things you attempt and forget, or neglect, tossed right in your face as inevitable.
This is my take on it. This isn’t the business viewpoint by the method. You ask every individual in the business, they’ll provide you something various. But for me, the important things that I am horrified by are those things that you simply can’t consider. I do not care about zombies or vampires, or bleeding, due to the fact that there’s a lot of that, isn’t there, blood and flesh? And individuals go ‘what do you believe?’ And I’m like that [shrugs]. I do not care about what you’re doing there. I like David Lynch and discover his take on what he does actually fascinating, due to the fact that it’s how the subconscious attempts to understand this things that your mindful self can’t manage.
Just death alone is something you… At least, we in the West are taught to simply neglect, or manage through religious beliefs or hedonism, or whatever. You simply put your own death to the side as finest you can. And when you’re confronted with it, individuals can’t cope, due to the fact that you have actually invested your life attempting to escape from it.
But more essential to Little Nightmares: something I checked out – and it frightens me to state this was over twenty years earlier! – [was] the concept of Carnivalesque. And what it did was savor the monstrous, savor the physical interior of individuals, the smells and the noises and the important things that go on within your body, which no one wishes to see however everybody understands exists. Carnivalesque delighted in that. Some of the very first clowns, that’s what they did. The common funny fart is everybody’s sort of pressure relief valve. Like ‘Oh yeah there’s things going on within, however wasn’t that an amusing noise!’ But when you see that through an endoscope, it’d resemble, ‘Oh Jesus Christ. That’s not what’s going on inside me, is it? [But] take a look at me, I’ve got a cool hairstyle, and take a look at my fashionable tee shirt.’ It’s like whatever is developed to make you forget what you actually are. And I believe the style of the Little Nightmares characters brings a bit of that back.
In this case, it’s your monstrous inner-self, the personality, that specifies these various citizens you see. It’s part of their outside look. There’s something about that that gets in that primal worry of this is a genuine, real ugliness. The Teacher, [which] everybody has actually actually gotten into: this is how young kids experience what an instructor does, however it’s made physical. So there’s all these sort of concepts, the important things you attempt and battle with and understand. And that is a really extremely one-dimensional response. There’s a million things to speak about.
[We go on to talk about how far through the preview build I got. Mervik wants to know if I saw the Teacher playing the piano, and I did.]
Dave Mervik: That, strangely, is among my preferred scenes.
I’ve found out about this. I’ve been considering it. I’ve been questioning it.
Dave Mervik: [laughs]
I like how it reveals The Teacher as more than simply a dumb beast who is put there to scare.
Dave Mervik: I concur.
And I questioned why you were doing that?
Dave Mervik: It’s part of the balance of it that works there. One of the other things that works so well for the ratcheting up of worry in this video game, is that it’s not simply at 10 or eleven all the time. It’s not like ‘peaceful, peaceful, peaceful, jumpscare’, and after that, ‘violence, violence, violence’. There’s by doing this it’s carried out, and it’s so essential to how Little Nightmares works [that] you get these minutes of peaceful. That’s what I like about that scene. I do not understand if you would call it the mundanity of evil […] however it resembles this actually peaceful minute for this frightening animal, simply playing this piece [of music] that matters to her. I discover that a truly tense scene; I can’t take my eyes off it. And not simply that I’m questioning if I’m going to get captured or anything. There’s simply something about the lull that really works for, like, ‘What’s next though?’ You know what I mean? I really love that scene.
Interesting you should mention the mundanity of evil. I was simply watching a true crime documentary called The Night Stalker on Netflix-
Dave Mervik: Oh about Ramirez? Really?
Yeah, it isn’t an easy watch. But monsters are fascinating – well, this idea of monsters is fascinating. Because when, like you say, they’re put in front of you, there’s suddenly that mundanity about them. They’re not literal monsters, they don’t have fur and nails.They are, and they can only ever be, people, like us. And I think that’s perhaps more chilling.
Did your approach to scaring people change in the sequel? Because it’s hard to scare people twice.
Dave Mervik: [laughs] No it’s not.
No, no, I don’t think so. We just had to take the scope into account actually, because this is a bigger game. And also, it’s outside. You only saw outside twice, didn’t you, in the first game? At the end and when you saw the guests arrive. But that was all indoors, and so that feeling of claustrophobia and impending danger: you almost got it for free, in the subconscious at least. Whereas here, the very first thing you are is outside, so how do you make that still feel like you’re powerless and you’re not free? So we had to think about things in a different way.
Little thing: I don’t understand if they meant this but there’s so much imagery in the wilderness of being ensnared, trapped. The rope and the snare – literally, the snares: all these things that remind you about being prey, which I think is really cool. That kind of stuff that just seeps into your subconscious is really important.
Is there a formula you use for scaring people? Something I noticed, and I really liked, comes from what you were just talking about: that attention to surroundings. Both the Teacher and the Hunter sections follow a similar kind of pattern, a kind of slow build up to the encounters with the characters themselves. You don’t see them for a while but the sense of them is all around, in visual clues and themes. Everything reinforces their presence, and it slowly builds to the eventual confrontation. Is it similar in every chapter – is that a formula you have? And are there ingredients you know you need in order to scare?
Dave Mervik: There are certainly ingredients that we have. It’s not as clinical as a formula, though. We go off feel, and there’s a feel for what works that we’re happy with and we want to put out there. There’s a lot of love for things like Alien, the beginning of Alien. How long is that before anything remotely scary happens?
It’s a bit like… Have you seen Hereditary?
Dave Mervik: Yup. Yeah, that discomfort. I was literally just listening to Colin Stetson [who did the soundtrack] before we started talking, because I think anything that has his music on is a hundred per cent better and scarier [laughs].
Talking of music, you give a lot of space in Little Nightmares 2, don’t you? The music is quite-
Dave Mervik: Tobias [Lilja] is crazy talented. We can’t tell him that to his face, though, or he might go somewhere else! So we keep his self esteem as low as possible [laughs].
Obviously, the Little Nightmares games: nobody talks in them, so there’s a lot of work done, storytelling-wise, particularly on the audio and the art side. When you’re playing through the Hunter’s shack, there’s so much prep-work done there to get you ready for what you know is coming. You know the kind of game you’re playing. The taxidermy hobby going on, the meat that he’s tearing, and the traps everywhere: everything [says] ‘this is what we do to pray’. And guess what you are? All that is just there for you to get used to the idea. And even then, when it kicks in, you’re not ready.
You say you go by feel with these things, but how do you know when something is scary? How do you know when you’ve got it?
Dave Mervik: Ah! We play and replay and iterate all the time, with all of our stuff. So when you’re playing as a team, someone will say, ‘That’s not right is it?’ So you get little task forces [appearing]. ‘I know, if we do this, we can rejig this a little bit.’ And then, the week after, we play it again. [And] we play it again. And then the team knows. Ultimately it’s up to the directors to say ‘this is how I want it to be’, but the team knows.
I remember in the first game, I recorded… They didn’t know I was doing this, but they were playing a scene very early on in the development, and they were playing it together, and I heard people shouting and then laughing. I’m like, ‘Ohhh it’s going well,’ so I just recorded the audio of it and uploaded it to SoundCloud, as an ‘I think it’s going well’ [the track no longer appears to be there – I checked].
That’s how you know. […] We know what we’re trying to do, and we know when we’re there. […] You can’t do that going from a design document, to create fear from an equation. You have to go by feel.
We’re talking a lot about fear and scaring people, and you’ve thought a lot about it because you’ve lived with it for the last five years. What’s it like working on a scary game like this, day in day out, a kind of unsettling game? Does it affect you in any way?
Dave Mervik: Yeah I suggest it does, doesn’t it? But you mustn’t forget you’re working through technical means, you work through Unreal, so it’s not like you’re sitting in a diorama for five years of your life. It’s not like acting in the way where you are in it as a person and it actually affects you. But yeah, I am loremaster-general, so when I’m deep in it and all I’m doing all day is writing really, really dark stuff, or ugly behaviours, I come home bothered by that. But I think it will be different for the different disciplines.
But you’re so focused on the job and achieving what you’re doing it’s, like I say, not so immersive. We’re simply trying to do our job as best we can. It’s once you play at the end, you’re like, ‘Oh shit all that stuff came together really well, that’s cool.’
With release fast approaching, and best of luck with it, what do hope people will take away from the game? What are you really hoping people will see in it?
Dave Mervik: We really want people to feel that this is a worthy sequel, that […] it’s not just a cash-in or whatever. It’s blown our mind how people have bought into this world. You always hope [for] it but you do not expect it, that you put this thing out there and think, ‘Oh I wonder if individuals will engage with us because we’re taking a chance,’ you know, not talking and not telling individuals everything. People have bought into it in such a big method […] and they have all these theories and whatever. I desire them to feel that we’re appreciating that and providing something more to ponder, which we appreciate it as much as they do.
Thank you Dave Mervik, and thank you Bandai Namco for making it take place.