Hello Neighbor review
Hello Neighbor is a better question than a game.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine game, but the inherent idea of “Why is this happening?” is so thinly explained and yet opens up so many sprawling questions. There is more fun to be had in trying to describe what transpires here than there is in the experience of the game.
In short: I have a lot of thoughts.
Hello Neighbor is an indie first-person puzzle game that opens with your decision to pack up and leave a big city apartment. The music underneath (which I initially mistook for a track from Firewatch) implies that you may not be leaving under the happiest of circumstances. After familiarizing yourself with the controls and a very limited inventory system, you hop in a car and wind up in a small town, facing what is implied to be your childhood home. The building is boarded up and you use a crowbar to break in. Is this your property at all? Probably. We hope.
That night, you awaken to the sound a child’s screams coming from across the street. The house which occupies the lot facing you is… significantly different now. A sprawling five level addition has been placed atop the original suburban home, and inside you can spot a mustachioed man frantically trapping something in the basement. The game allows you to regain control, and you are in your own doorway facing the Neighbor’s house, with a crowbar in hand. The next action you choose is yours, but from knee jerk programming we will all make the same choice: sprint across the street and breaking into this stranger’s home and begin trying to access the basement.
It took me nearly an hour of game-time to start questioning myself. Why am I doing this? What gives me the right to break into this person’s home? What did I even see that should entitle me to embark on this journey? Truly, there is no set of instructions, nor narration informing you that this is even the point of the game. I do not know, even now, if it is. There is a man who looks different from me and he is doing something and me not knowing what that something is entitles me to physically attack him and destroy everything he owns. This is a very American game made by a very Russian studio and the implications of this are staggering to consider.
In what plays out as a reverse-Home Alone, you repeatedly enter the Neighbor’s home and engage with a series of puzzles that at best border on the Adventure Game Logic of old, and at worst embody a Twin Peaks level dream logic. There are keys and switches and color-coded locks and bizarre devices. These all make inherent sense to a player. We have the coded language to process what comes next. What do you do, however, with an umbrella? After thirty minutes of struggling to find the umbrella’s purpose, I realized I could jump from platforms and glide like Mary Goshdarn Poppins using updrafts of air. It is the kind of puzzle logic where I literally had to leap to my death out of frustration to crack the code of what I should be attempting next.
There is an entire open world within this house, with no narrative structure or clear progression except for the one that you make. A few things are obvious, and everything else is an allegory for a metaphor for a symbol of a puzzle. In the world of Myst, perhaps you would feel comfortable standing around and scratching your chin while trying to decide what comes next. But in Hello Neighbor chin-scratchery gets you straight up kill-murdered.
See, the Neighbor who you are giving the most unwelcome Hello towards, he isn’t thrilled that you’re mucking about in his impossibly expansive home. He is hunting you and he is very clever. Brutally clever. Just, an annoyingly good artificial intelligence that learns from your every move. Each time I developed a sure-fire approach to the house, he caught on within three attempts, and NEVER LET ME DO IT AGAIN. In addition to being outright creepy, and hunting you with more precision and bloodlust than the xenomorph from Alien: Isolation, the Neighbor forces you to change how you play a game.
Let that sink in. This game doesn’t just make you uncomfortable, it never allows you to find comfort. That is true horror.
Like the concept of the game itself, the individual elements seem built specially for our modern internet gaming age, where video and content producers learned there was vastly more fun in unraveling the tangled metaphors of the lore behind the Five Nights at Freddy’s series than in actually playing the game. Each major hub of the house, and the contents, manage to tell a twisted story that has innumerable distillations. I’m in awe of this, especially because of the randomization in game of certain layouts. Additionally, there are layers of puzzles related to other puzzles, which in certain situations transport your character into a realm of actual nightmare: gravity, size, and other universal rules constants are suddenly upended, and the hallucinogenic nature of these sequences made me once believe they were additional traps created by the Neighbor. Now, I believe these sequences happen inside of the Neighbor.
That’s the level of nonsense we are on here and I am Here. For. It.
Hello Neighbor is a perfect game for right now, because it challenges every concept based in the origin of the word “neighbor” and what is means, in 2017, to be one. Privacy is removed but defense of privacy is an attack. Everyone around you could be the Literal Devil and maybe we all need to go full Watchmen and just start brutally attacking those around us who the law should protect from us. But there is an equal probability of stumbling upon and defeating actual, genuine evil, and are we not required to interject in such manner if we are human? Vigilante justice feels strange when applied to such a personal scale.
But hilariously, this is nowhere near the end of meta-questioning applicable to the Hello Neighbor quandary. No one has played the final version of the game yet. We’re still nearly a month out from official release, thanks to a series of multiple delays. But that hasn’t stopped the team behind Hello Neighbor from using the Early Access format to its inevitable conclusion: there have been a half-dozen different endings to this game revealed thus far. None of them are the “real” ending but they point towards the inevitable conclusion. And it’s not just the endings; entire buildings and puzzles are simply traps for those who want to crack the mystery before it’s time. The studio recently revealed that we’ve only seen a fraction of the total game, which is mind-boggling, because the house itself functions in impossible spaces on the scale of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel or any fraction of the town of Silent Hill.
This all plays into the delight of expanding the meaning behind extremely subtle hints, many of which have since been written out of the game now exist only in YouTube videos. Some critics, like the folks at Game Theory, have put together updating compilation videos like this one.
Is this actually a story of redemption for the Neighbor as part of a Faustian deal with the Devil to bring back a dead wife? Is your character the son of the man who keeps causing you to live out a Groundhog Day version of a home-invasion The Purge? Are the Devil and God raging inside both the protagonist and a different protagonist?
Again, this is a game where you use umbrellas to float like Mary Poppins and the man who is your clearest enemy has a DIY rollercoaster in his house.
I don’t know if I even like Hello Neighbor, but I respect the hell out of it. The experience of playing it at this stage (again, still with a month until release) is of being plagued by the machine-sounds of a hunter’s trap run creakily yet horribly amok. The rare music cues need some improvement because they forced me to play large chunks on mute. The gameplay itself is engaging but perplexing on a scale that the game would not be remiss to offer just a little more guidance. But the mystery behind all of this is so perfectly measured right now, in a no-man’s-land of two men and possible an evil shadow god between them, that I know this will be the game I sink the most replays into over the next year of my life. I’m not even sure I want to, but I think I owe it. Maybe not to myself, but perhaps to my father, or God, or some dead children, or Russia, or the concept of community.
There’s a lot.
Hello Neighbor exists in the place you wish upon any indie level game. There’s already a Funko Pop figure on the docket for release by Christmas, and everyone wants to write about each small trailer they release. There’s a dedicated online community adjusting color filter levels on promotional screenshots to find hidden details about the story. The game itself is…. functional. It’s rare to recommend a game where the game itself is the least important part, but the game itself has also already evolved in ways that play into exactly what 2017 is best at celebrating. The team smart enough to do that is smart enough to overcome anything else I might find wanting.
Maybe if we're lucky, it'll never technically be finished.