Hello Neighbor is a stealth horror game with a winning premise and perhaps the worst execution of any game I’ve played this year.
In the game, released last week for PC, Mac and Xbox One, the player sneaks into his insidious neighbor’s house. Developer Dynamic Pixels allegedly designed that neighbor as an advanced AI who learns from the player’s roguish strategies. So, throughout the three-part act, players creep around a very disturbed homeowners’ lair, solving puzzles and unveiling his story bit by bit—but if he catches you, the scene resets, and each time, he gets smarter. Presumably, the player is invested in beguiling the old man because of his sketchy behavior in his local suburban utopia.
Cartoonish and whimsical in appearance, Hello Neighbor’s unpolished mechanics and joyless puzzles drained out any modicum of fun I would have garnered from playing it.
Take the game’s first act’s mission: Find a key, open a door. Simple, right? To get to the key, the player must get to the second floor of the house. There are no stairs on the inside. So the player must find a way to get to the second floor from the outside. Hello Neighbor does not give players many hints on how to answer the questions it asks, which, after playing several hours, feels more like a design problem than a difficulty setting. So, to get anywhere, I came up with the solution of box-stacking.
Here’s the rub. Hello Neighbor’s physics are not good. The player is very floaty. The controls are imprecise. The camera appears to be located in your belly-button (even though the protagonist is a child). It’s simply impossible to know where the thing you’re throwing will end up. Even selecting items to pick up often took two or three too many clicks to add them to my inventory. And yet, the game kept throwing platforming puzzles at me. Even after several attempts to stack boxes, this kept happening, over and over:
Finding apparent exploits, occasionally, was my only way to get from point A to point B. Here, I gave up on stacking boxes to reach this lever, so instead, I stood on a banister and hit “e” twenty times:
In other instances, it took me several times to get my gravity-challenged character up a ladder without falling.
It’s possible that the developer had not intended for me to do things the way I did them—I had no way of knowing, because the game explains basically nothing and offers virtually no environmental puzzle clues. It’s possible that my decisions were not optimal. And yet, after looking at a dozen YouTube playthroughs, it looks like lots of others played Hello Neighbor the same way as me, with variations.
A few times, I’d accidentally throw a key in the process of doing something else and lose it forever. Then, I’d have to restart the act. If my PC had learned English exclusively from my experience playing Hello Neighbor on it, it would only know grunts and swears.
Now for the question of Hello Neighbor’s promise: a stealth horror game where the AI learns from your every move. In practice, only one-third of that came through for me, and that’s the stealth bit. I was indeed a sneaky, stealthy little kid. But the game’s not very scary. It’s a little creepy. There aren’t jumpscares so much as a swelling, insidious bassline that precipitates your neighbor, perhaps, putting a hood on you, plus a few unnerving cut scenes.
It was also hard for me to tell whether the AI was actively altering its strategy because, frankly, I was concentrating on figuring out what the game wanted me to do and how I could get the damn thing done. I rarely did the same exact thing twice because although the game resets when you’re caught, the player’s accomplishments persist. So, if I’d found a key and then got caught, I’d still have the key and could move onto the next thing. I did notice that my neighbor hung around rooms where he’d last caught me.
Perhaps the depth of the AI, and many, many other things about Hello Neighbor, didn’t come across because I felt like I was going about the game blindfolded and with mittens.