As many a parent has wryly told their spouse above the caterwauling of their kid on a long haul flight: getting there is half the fun. So it goes with Hello Neighbor, a game about breaking into a stranger’s house to find out what they’re keeping so well guarded in the basement. The journey into that basement, through secret passageways and over roller coaster tracks in a three act structure, was bound to outshine the destination, because not knowing is more fun than knowing. And, more pragmatically, because navigating a surrealist environment and working your way through its puzzles is more fun than opening a door.
More surprisingly, the journey through Early Access and into this final release reflects the same platitude. Hello Neighbor’s numerous alpha and beta releases over the last year have taken on an almost episodic adventure-like quality, each new build deepening the mystery of the eponymous neighbour and a couple going so far as to completely redesign his abode. For the faithful who’ve braved its bugs and sifted through its detritus for clues all this time, this final release is a fitting reward. It’s stitched together from the component parts of those prior builds, but in a very real way, it’s a completely new experience.
I’ve seen it pitched as a horror game, but Hello Neighbor isn’t about jump-scares. There is a prevailing sense of unease, but it’s the kind of unease you get from inhabiting a world that flatly refuses to harbour anything made of straight lines and right angles; in which there are doors on the floor that lead to nowhere, and the same thirty seconds of an old noir movie playing on loop in your neighbour’s front room. It’s a nightmarish, irrational kind of horror borne of breaking into someone’s house without knowing why, and of trying to solve a world of opaque puzzles without a word of instruction from the game. Without a word of anything from anyone. It’s enough to make you wonder whether you didn’t, in fact, succumb to your diet of strong cheese and hallucinogens at the loading screen, and are now simply sitting slumped and open-mouthed, dreaming of a nonsensical home invasion game while in reality another gritty survival sim awaits your input.
A more traditional vein of horror comes from your interactions with the neighbour himself. He’s designed to learn from your behaviour and fortify his house accordingly, so if you make a habit of trying to break in via a certain window in his back garden, he might board up that window. He might install a security camera pointed towards it. He might – and this is getting well beyond rational home security measures – place a bear trap on the floor below it. Seeing these measures put in place isn’t inherently scary, but having a predetermined plan sprung by his extra provisions and hearing that ominous walking double bass line audio cue that lets you know he’s in pursuit of you – that is.
Early on in act one, this combative interaction between you and he forms the basis of Hello Neighbor’s narrative, and propels the whole endeavour forwards. As a curious child peeking in at his windows, you can see that this is a troubled man. A man with secrets. A man with a Rube Goldberg approach to keeping those secrets. The first time you actually cross the threshold into his house – and what a piece of architecture it is, shifting and expanding in nonsensical directions act by act – there’s a real buzz. The same goes for accessing areas of the house you didn’t know existed, and all right under your neighbour’s nose while he patrols the lower floors, grunting.
However, despite early appearances the neighbour himself isn’t actually that central to the action. it isn’t a prolonged cat-and-mouse between you and an AI like Alien: Isolation in Cartoon Network climes, and except for a few linear sequences and what you might call boss fights, if you were feeling that way inclined, the neighbour is relegated to the ranks of minor annoyance while the game’s true mechanical impetus takes hold: puzzles.
Its success in this domain is only partial, mind. Although Dynamic Pixels worked relative wonders to connect what were completely un-signposted and janky puzzles in Hello Neighbour’s beta build into a vaguely comprehensible experience for the full release, it still regularly conjures up the bad old days of adventure games, when you’d schlep around with a sack full of ‘zany’ items, dispiritedly trying all of them on every object in sight. The cold, hard truth is that the whole experience is poorly signposted, and ‘poorly’ turns into ‘like Gabriel Knight bad’ in the third act. Its design relies on the likelihood that players will have either stumbled on its obtuse solutions in pre-release versions, or given up and watched a chirpy YouTuber light the path for them.
Without those advantages, you’re simply placed in a house absolutely full of objects and left to determine which of them are crucial to your progression, and why, and to try not to lose them forever to a glitch. These cruel happenings are rarer than earlier betas, but these salty tear stains on my keyboard will tell you they still happen.
In its better moments there’s an overarching logic to what you’re doing, and it’s especially good at maintaining that logic in acts one and two. Sadly by act three, logic appears only in brief cameos, as if sense itself is merely visiting momentarily from a different, better, game. Cooling down a glowing hot crowbar by getting it to water without touching it – that I can understand. Arranging slices of birthday cake and mannequins in an arbitrary manner to unlock a new item whose purpose only prompts more questions – tiresome.
Where it finds much more stable ground is in its storytelling. Veterans who enjoyed piecing together a narrative from the tiniest of clues in pre-release builds might find that Hello Neighbor’s final form guides you by the hand through its plot a bit too much now. Anyone who isn’t into pinning pieces of concept art onto a corkboard, circling things manically, tying twine from pin to pin and writing ‘CONNECTION?’ in conspiracy theory scrawl will find it a welcome touch of refinement. For a game that usually moves at the player’s pace, it has ample capacity to surprise and unnerve by dramatically shifting gear and location in a heartbeat. A word on the subject matter though, while avoiding explicit spoilers: if we’re going to hold David Cage under scrutiny for exploring controversial topics, Dynamic Pixels probably shouldn’t get a free pass for the themes and imagery lurking within Hello Neighbor. It’s not a constant issue, but at times the irreverent presentation and incredibly dark subject matter feel completely and inappropriately at odds with each other.
I haven’t played another game in 2017 whose strengths and weaknesses were so distinct, and had such a chasm between them. For all the times I had to forcefully glitch a shoe through a locked box to push a lever or exploit a jumping bug to progress, there were the moments of grim narrative revelation and the great triumphs over baffling puzzles. In the end, it wasn’t about getting into the basement and uncovering the secret. Like the Pulp Fiction suitcase or the many wrinkles of Alien lore that Ridley Scott has emphatically ironed out in recent years, the central mystery in Hello Neighbor couldn’t possibly offer satisfaction with its reveal. What matters is that it created that sense of mystery in the first place, and fostered such curiosity in you that you were prepared to break into a neighbour’s home in order to find out. You beast. The atmosphere, then, and the curiosity, are unqualified successes. The rest never quite comes together as a coherent stealth/horror game, nor as a puzzler.