This month my editors asked me to play a game about stalking an innocent man by breaking into a home he has clearly dedicated much love and care into renovating after my coworker Perry Ruhland testified it was too terrifying for him to continue. AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I told Perry about this opener, he corrected me by saying “In all fairness, it’s only because I’m a big coward”.
Hello Neighbor is another YouTube phenomenon that to star in more than one game Game Theory video and a multitude of exaggerated Let’s Plays. The fervor has calmed down since its initial Alpha release, but the indie game still has a dedicated following. Hello Neighbor is self described as a game about “sneaking into your neighbor’s house” which is incredibly accurate. That is exactly all that you do. You waltz through the front (or sometimes back) door of a strangely built house, discovering more oddities as you explore. Your end goal is to find out what is in the elusive basement which is the only door your neighbor bothers to properly lock. Beyond that though, there is not much in terms of story or even context behind your actions as the protagonist. To be fair, the game is still fairly early in development. To be unfair, it’s unlikely they’ll add anything to clear up the more pressing questions.
The unique mechanic in Hello Neighbor is the “advanced AI” which learns from the actions of the player. Your neighbor will adjust the security around his house and his own pathing as you explore to thwart your efforts. For instance, if you consistently go in through the front door, he will eventually put a bear trap there. In concept, this is an interesting idea. The current build this isn’t perfectly implemented, but that is what the Alpha is for. Bugs are to be expected, and except for the occasional moment where your neighbor gets stuck in a wall or bottles of glue seem to fall from the sky, everything seems relatively stable. The bigger issue with this mechanic is that it is ironically too repetitive.
There are two ways a new game in Hello Neighbor can go down. Either you fail too early and are essentially stuck because the AI has quickly latched on to your many failures and left you with few ways to get around him, or you get past him far enough to unlock the next few doors and stages and then even if he catches you, you can just return through a side door you opened and keep going. This makes the gameplay formulaic. While it’s impressive that the AI will alter its behavior as you go, players will be able to keep up with it. In addition, a player is likely to be a lot more efficient at learning and figure out how to exploit that AI. Maybe this is only a problem because the game is still being polished, but the gameplay very quickly turned into a far too basic routine. Go to the house, find a thing or unlock a few doors, then run back home when the neighbor gets too close. Once you’ve run the length of the house a few times, escaping from him becomes far too easy. There are weapons and other tools to use, but the thing is, even if you couldn’t very easily just run away and then run back, there isn’t a lot of punishment for getting caught in the first place.
The way Hello Neighbor currently plays out almost makes the protagonist seem like the villain. You break into this poor guys house, mocking his desperate attempts to try to keep you out. Clearly he is too poor to afford a decent security system since he has to rely on pushing chairs under knobs and bear traps under doorframes. And when he catches you, he doesn’t hurt you or even call the police. He just drops you off back in front of your house. He doesn’t even reset everything you messed up as you trampled through his home uninvited. When you go back there like the weirdo you are, everything you unlocked is still in place. All the items you stole are still in your inventory. Mechanically, this is the only fair way to do it. If you had to redo everything after being caught once, that would make the game too difficult. From a story perspective, it begs the question: who’s actually the bad guy? Yeah, your neighbor has weird things in his house, but he won’t even cross the street to reprimand you after you trespass on his property. At least he will respect your boundaries, guy who just moved in across the street and immediately decided to harass his neighbor.
Conceptually, Hello Neighbor is interesting, and currently it is more a showcase of the mechanics and the AI. Most people who are playing it are eagerly awaiting the story but to be honest, I am afraid that the story is actually going to hold the game back.
Hello Neighbor has set up an interesting mechanism with the learning AI who tries to stop your attempts to navigate an intriguing environment around an unfortunately subpar mystery story. And that is disappointing, because the mechanism is interesting. The environment and the art style of the house is interesting. The gameplay is reasonably challenging. Yet it will always be limited to this one house and this one neighbor and focused entirely on this one question of “what’s in the basement”, a question which almost definitely will not offer a fulfilling answer (unless my personal theory is correct and there is nothing in the basement, and you’ve been haranguing a poor widower who has no secrets and nothing to hide but just wants to be left alone with his roller coaster he built through his house). The concept of Hello Neighbor could’ve made an excellent puzzle horror game, with more varying environments and either little story or a less restrictive and distracting story.
That said, while the potential is definitely there, right now it is just that: potential. Presently, the game has less content than the We Happy Few in Early Access. Both are growing and it is fun to watch them grow, and if you look up old Hello Neighbor Alpha’s you’ll see just how drastically some of the visuals in the game have evolved already. It is so hard to predict how it will turn out based solely on this presentation just because of how much work still needs to be done. After polish and adding in the rest of the features, the mechanics could end up being more varied or interesting enough to keep drawing people in. But it could just as easily be that the mechanics stay stagnant in order to make room for a much less interesting story.More About This Game