From Small Nightmares to Virtual Reality Puzzle Boxes: Our Interview With Indie Developer Tarsier Studios

Tarsier Studios came into being in the mid-aughts as Team Tarsier, a group that created excellent ports and adaptations of Sony games like Little Big Plane and Tearaway. Recently, however, they’ve rebranded and broken off, creating two of the most memorable games of last year.

Little Nightmares is a puzzle-platformer. Its style is reminiscent of some of the works of Tim Burton, a whimsical take on horror that is no less horrific for its whimsy. A young girl, named Six, is a prisoner on a vessel known as The Maw. She must escape, avoiding at all cost the attention of her captors, who are always very hungry.

Statik is the company’s first foray into virtual reality. The PlayStation VR exclusive sees players trapped in a strange testing facility, their hands trapped inside a puzzle box. While a blurry-faced scientist looks on, you have to use the buttons on the DualShock 4 controller to, sight unseen, turn knobs and push buttons in order to solve each riddle.

I had a chance to ask Dave Mervik, narrative designer on both titles, some questions about these new classic games, and about the future of Tarsier Studios.

You’ve worked closely with Sony in the past on adapting some of their titles to new platforms. How difficult was it to transition into developing your own original games?

When you look at something like LBP and Tearaway, Media Molecule established such a vivid and charming world, you can’t fail to understand what’s required of you as an artist, writer, designer, or whatever. So, while we still busted a gut to do justice to their creations, there was nonetheless a degree of comfort in having such a clear canvas to work upon. When we made the jump to making our own stuff, that all had to be created from scratch, so in that sense the pressure goes up somewhat, because we set the bar extremely high for ourselves, and putting a game out that was just “good enough” wasn’t really an option. All that said, this wasn’t an overnight decision, Tarsier was founded on the dream of making its own games, and that dream had bubbled away at the back of our minds ever since, so when the time was at last right, we weren’t short of material to delve into.

With Little Nightmares, you’ve created a terrifying yet somehow grotesquely charming world. What were your inspirations for the aesthetic?

That’s always such a tough question to answer! The style of Little Nightmares is the product of probably thousands of things – images, textures, moods, whatever struck the Creative Director as ‘fitting’ in some way – which have then been absorbed and processed and poured back out of our Artists again and again and again until they eventually became what you see now. That’s about as good an approximation as I can give you of how that sort of stuff happens. Of course, it’d be easier if we could just say something like Die Hard meets Das Boot meets Lord of the Flies but it just wouldn’t tell the full story. I do kinda wanna see that movie now though!

Now that the final DLC chapter of Secrets of the Maw is out and answers gamers’ questions (at least all of the important ones), do you think you’ll return to The Maw again? Or maybe a new location in the world of Little Nightmares?

We don’t even know if we’ll return to Little Nightmares again, but if we did get that chance, maybe it might be more fun to see what else is out there :)

I was personally very surprised by Statik. It was among the first VR games that, for me, really opened my eyes to what made VR special. What was the origin of the idea? Did you start with the idea of a puzzle box and develop from there? Were you thinking specifically about the PlayStation 4 in terms of what it offered?

It all started when Andreas (our CEO) was messing about with the Dualshock 4 – twisting it, turning it, pressing all the buttons, and wondering what we could do with it – and that’s where the seed of the idea was born. While he can (and does!) take pride in coming up with the original idea, it wasn’t until our amazing designers got their hands on it that we saw just how special Statik could be.

Since Statik is so clearly designed to take advantage of the PS4’s DualShock controller, I imagine porting the game to other VR platforms would be tricky. Is that in the cards, or will this remain a PSVR exclusive?

As you say, it would certainly be tricky, but Statik is something we’re immensely proud of and we’d dearly love for more people to try it out. So, while I wouldn’t say it’s exactly ‘in the cards’, it’s certainly something we discuss.

I hope you have plans for more VR titles, because you’ve knocked this first one out of the park. I’ll admit I gush to anyone who expresses a passing interest in VR that they need to try this game. Is there anything you can tell us about your future VR plans?

That’s so cool to hear! I think it’s fair to say that the Statik hype train is still very much chugging its way out of the station, so the more gushing we can get the better. I personally find VR incredibly exciting and having played Electronauts at GDC last week, I’m convinced it has a great deal more to give. While I can’t say that we have anything firm in mind for future VR projects, if the right idea came along, I’m sure we’d jump on it. As ever, though, the idea has to come first; it’s the only way to make sure you’re doing something for the right reasons.