No jump scares!
When I arrived at TinyBuild’s PAX South booth for my Hello Neighbor appointment, hoping to either get a hold of somebody or hop on a station myself, I noticed something that both piqued my interest and got me a little worried: a lot of kids were playing the game. And I’m only 21 years old, so you know that when I say “kids,” I mean “actual children.”
To me, that meant that either Hello Neighbor was a kid-friendly game or a popular YouTuber had gotten their hands on it. Or both! (See also: Minecraft.) Turns out I was right — the “stealth horror” title is fairly popular on YouTube, as you’d expect from a video game that feels like it owes more than a little to the Slender craze. According to TinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik, that is absolutely intentional. “Our target demographic is the ‘Minecraft Generation’,” Nichiporchik said to me at PAX South.
If my reconnaissance told me anything, the team was absolutely successful in targeting young players. The kids I saw playing Hello Neighbor seemed like they were having a blast. It’s not hard to see why — the game has all the mechanical trappings of a YouTube-friendly survival horror game, but it’s been designed to avoid potentially frightening jump scares and has been endowed with a cartoony aesthetic that feels more Toontown than Resident Evil 7.
Oh, what’s that he said? No jump scares in a horror game?! Yes, Hello Neighbor is a game that wants you to float on the surface tension of its atmosphere, rather than drown in it. In a game like Resident Evil 7, the unkillable monstrosities stalking you look like they’ve been taking late-night ugly classes down at the community college. When they inevitably catch you, these horrid fiends relocate your guts from the warzone that is your tum-tum. Good stuff! But in Hello Neighbor, your adversary looks like one of the snobs from an ’80s skiing movie grew up and inflated his skull with a basketball pump. He’s a silly cartoon man, and that’s absolutely the intended tone. “The original alpha builds were more violent and curse-y. We toned it down so kids would be able to play it,” Nichiporchik said.
Here’s the pitch: you’re breaking into your neighbor’s house in the hopes of getting into his mysterious basement. Along the way, you’ll solve minor environmental puzzles, all while avoiding the titular Neighbor. You have no method of defending yourself, which feels odd when you’re at eye level with this character and you’ve got a wrench ready to go in your right hand. So, if you’ve ever played a horror game where you’re being stalked by a monster you can only run from, you know the score. Open a door you shouldn’t, there he is, run away, find a closet, hope he leaves. Supposedly, the AI will learn from your behavior and set traps, but I never saw anything quite that sophisticated.
When the Neighbor catches you, you just respawn across the street, all set for another run. There’s no horrifying death, no screams, no awful in-your-face moment. He just runs up to you and that’s it. Since the game allows you to keep some items after you die, at points it almost feels like you’re speedrunning, rather than being stealthy. “We give you all the information to avoid jump scares,” Nichiporchik told us. “We want tension and anxiety, not jumps.” He wasn’t kidding; the game makes it painfully clear when the neighbor is onto you, with both excessive sound and visual cues. I found myself laughing when I was caught, rather than shrieking in terror or (in the case of my Until Dawn PAX demo, all those years ago) instinctively raising my arms to defend myself, slapping myself in the face, and knocking my headphones off. Hello Neighbor is, uh, an improvement.
My only concern is longevity. The game will probably be a tremendous hit with kids looking to follow in their favorite personalities’ steps, but for the rest of us, it still costs $30 USD. I caught a glimpse of a menu option in the build I was shown that appeared to show different break-in scenarios (the one I played involved some bad sounds coming from the Neighbor’s basement), which could do a lot to make the game feel replayable. Maybe there could be a scenario where you have to break into a house occupied by a whole family, and only the parents will make you respawn but the kids will just go run and alert the parents?
The full game will ostensibly be much larger than the one-story house I was shown, containing about “ten hours of gameplay” in total, but I assume that’s if you’re trying to sneak around the way the designers intended. Since there was no apparent penalty for failure, I can see myself constantly bum-rushing the house and grabbing the items I need, potentially shaving hours off my playtime. The four Alpha builds released to the public cannot be “combined into one thing,” according to Nichiporchik, so the full game is still an unknown quantity to the public. “Nobody knows what the full game is, but we have an idea,” Nichiporchik said.
Hello Neighbor is a bright, approachable horror game, and I know that sounds ludicrous. It’s a Slender-like the whole family can enjoy! People who like horror from a clinical perspective but can’t handle the jump scares in practice are an unserved niche. That kind of genre fan deserves a game made just for them — bonus points if it ends up being good. Hello Neighbor may not be at the top of my “most anticipated list,” but it looks sturdy in the Alpha stage, even if it doesn’t yet boast a $30 hook.