Little Nightmares Interview - Ola Holmdahl - Tarsier Studios
At EGX 2016, Little Nightmares drew in the crowds with its cutesy-yet-creepy visuals as well as some grotesque chefs with melted faces assailing passersby. Tarsier Studios have a stellar background, having worked previously for Sony on Tearaway Unfolded and the Little Big Planet series before parting ways to work on their own IP. The Digital Fix sat down with the CEO Ola Holmdahl to discuss fears, puzzles, and going it alone for the first time.
The Digital Fix: Give us a bit of background on how Little Nightmares came to exist?
Ola Holmdahl: Tarsier Studios was founded back in 2006 as a company to make our own unique games. Little Nightmares came out of a concept jam in January 2013 where our art director drew a design for a character which ended up being Six, the main character with the yellow raincoat who is slim and frail. One of our concept artists has a rather twisted imagination and came up with figures around her - large, hulking figures, very disturbing, and there was immediately an energy and a story there which was very exciting. So, over time we worked on putting gameplay around it, going back to earlier prototypes to see if there was anything there that connected from a visual concept. The game came around from both experimentation with new gameplay, and salvaging some old concepts that were interesting, but could never find a home.
TDF: What would you say the influences for Little Nightmares are?
OH: They're internal and external. The internal ones come from people on the team - their own experiences, fears, fantasies and ideas. Then there are external influences - everyone on the team is consuming media, and from childhood to yesterday that's a long, long list. Our narrative designer likes to quote Roald Dahl as one of his influences, while our lead designer likes to quote Clock Tower as an influence, and our art director has looked at Japanese mythology amongst other things.
TDF: This is Tarsier’s first original IP - you left behind Sony and moved to Bandai Namco. This gave you more freedom, but did it also present challenges – for instance, in terms of the support a huge development company can provide?
OH: We had a fantastic collaboration with Sony, and it eventually took the form of an exclusivity agreement. We would only provide content for the Playstation family, which was really good, but we couldn't find a venue to build our own IPs and create our own original games there. So we ended up parting ways - the studio is fully independent and founder-owned, so we're not exclusive with Bandai, but they connected very strongly with the concept and the prototype we built for them. We had a lot in common and a common vision on what to do with Little Nightmares, and how to get it out there in front of people. There were massive challenges. We are a very ambitious studio, especially when it comes to quality, and that can be crippling sometimes, with self-doubt on the hunt for perfection. And when you're on your own and the freedom is there, you have to mind yourself and set checks and achieve milestones and goals, especially when you don't have external partners forcing you into a framework. That's been a challenge for us, but we've been very aware of that challenge and have prepared for it. There's also a huge difference in working on someone else's IP; no matter how boldly you work on it or how much you add into it, it belongs to someone else, compared to creating and finding a new, unique game that has its own language and merit and core pillars. So that's been very exciting for us.
TDF: The game is beautiful, almost photo-realistic and exceptionally tactile, especially with the way you interact with the objects you come across. Was that a deliberate design decision from the beginning?
OH: Yes, it was designed in what we like to call a "dollhouse perspective", with an almost stop-motion quality to the animation which we enjoy, and which is congenial to what we want to express. Tactility is one of the pillars of the game, to feel connected to the game. Six is in there, and you're out here, so we want the world you interact with to feel very real. Because it is a cornerstone of the game to us, we feel free to spend a lot of energy in bringing it into the world.
TDF: Would you consider Little Nightmares a puzzle game? Can you complete the puzzles in different ways?
OH: Haha! I used to teach game design for a part of my life, and I was hardwired to think that a puzzle is something that only has one correct solution and only one set of parts that can be used to work that solution. There are puzzles in the game, but we think of Little Nightmares as a suspense adventure - it has puzzle elements, it has platforms, it has exploration and confrontation and action sequences. The atmosphere, tactility and suspense building is key to the experience. Puzzles are fun and work well with being trapped and trying to escape from a child-like perspective. In the game, there are definitely different decisions to make. We are working hard to make sure a player's playthrough is unique, and you make decisions unique to you.
TDF: The setting of the game - is it a submarine?
OH: The Maw is submerged, almost like an iceberg structure, but it can move under its own power. It has a tiny tip sticking out of the water. Legend has it that it shows up around the world unexpectedly and calls out for guests, and the people who arrive are drawn to it. That's about as much as I want to reveal right now!
TDF: What sort of age are you aiming Little Nightmares at? From the demo, it doesn't feel too adult, and rather more grotesque than scary.
OH: The preliminary PEGI rating is 16, but we'll see where it lands. Thematics can be powerful as well, not just visuals, and the simple decision we made to go with very human-like characters in a relatively realistic rendition puts a lot of limitations on the age limit.
TDF: In similar games which use child protagonists such as Papa and Yo, Brothers, Inside, and so on, there’s normally a theme or message that the developers are trying to get across. Is that the case with Little Nightmares?
OH: I never try to speak about other companies that make such great games, but for us we started out with the character first and then built the story we wanted to tell around her, and from there it's grown to be a game about childhood and childhood challenges. Sometimes if you listen to a child retell a story - "...and that happened, and it was scary and I didn't know where I was, and there was this door and it was a mile high and I couldn't reach..." it informs a lot of the gameplay challenges and the visual effects in the game, even though you're playing as an adult player. So childhood informs a lot of decisions in the game but in a different way to, for instance, Team ICO, Playdead, and so on.
TDF: It sounds like a fascinating concept - in terms of the game length, how long would it take to complete?
OH: I'd say less than ten hours. The exact average is still being worked on as we're still working on putting the best content in there, and getting the best layout and pacing. But it's not going to be just a couple of hours, and it's not going to be north of ten hours, so that's the best estimation I can give at this stage.
Little Nightmares is out on Xbox One, Playstation 4 and various PC formats in Spring 2017. Check back at The Digital Fix for our full review!