Video games provide an almost perfect opportunity for voyeurism. The urban settings so prevalent within games allow players to look into and rifle through homes and offices without fear of reprisal, but this process is often an incidental feature to the pursuit of grander narrative goals. Dynamic Pixels’s Hello Neighbor is different. The title has no qualms about appealing to the desire to snoop into places where one does not belong thanks to its premise of a child trying to break into their creepy neighbour’s elaborately-constructed home. Far from being another of the domestic narrative adventures that have risen to prominence in recent years, Hello Neighbor mixes in stealth and horror elements, but the end result is a cluttered, obscure mess with few redeeming features.
The main draw of Hello Neighbor is named within the title. With his spindly legs and barrel chest, the neighbour bears a passing resemblance to Coraline’s Sergei Alexander Bobinsky, were the latter stripped of his weirdness. Nevertheless, in other games and scenarios, the character would easily blend into the background, his normalcy giving him a chameleon-like talent for being overlooked. Hello Neighbor puts him at the fore, tasking the player with breaking into his house and observing his behavioural patterns in minute detail. The process begins when the protagonist hears a scream while playing in the street and witnesses one of the suburb’s residents locking something—or someone—in his basement. Curiosity is immediately piqued. From this opening, the neighbour’s activities become even more noteworthy; although he watches TV, listens to the radio, and takes naps, he also periodically patrols his house and yard, stalking about with unsettlingly stiff movements. During these patrols, the brilliance of the developer’s decision to invest in the AI shines. The slightest item out of place will send the neighbour into a frenzy, requiring the player to run, hide, or risk capture, Being caught, thankfully, does not reset progress, but it does inspire the AI to institute a series of increasingly deranged security measures, from CCTV cameras to bear traps. While these obstacles reveal the extent to which an unhealthy mind will go to protects its secrets, they are also symbolic of a deeply-flawed logic that permeates the entirety of the game.
Reconnaissance and stealth are vital elements of the experience, but progression only comes through environmental puzzles. Many games are (perhaps rightly) criticised for being too easy and making solutions too obvious, but Hello Neighbor errs on the side of caution. The game offers only the barest of hints, and, while this trait would not be too much of an impediment in other titles, it makes Hello Neighbor into an exercise in frustration. Puzzles range from simple challenges to multi-layered, house-spanning conundrums involving switches, tools, mannequins, and more. Disappointingly, as one progresses further through the game, the house becomes more labyrinthine, and the problems less logical until solutions seem to come about more through trial-and-error and dumb luck than ingenuity. That such an integral element of the adventure is so fundamentally flawed is damning, and the issues extend to other core mechanics.
Puzzles may drive the narrative, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is more focused on sneaking about and evading capture. The stealth mechanics are familiar, requiring the player to evade the watchful gaze of the neighbour and hide in cupboards if escape seems impossible when he draws near. As a whole, the systems are competent, though the rising crescendo of music at the neighbour’s approach could be better implemented, as it tends to swell even when he is on a different floor of the house and the player is, therefore, well out of immediate danger. As if to emphasise the shoddy workmanship in gameplay design, even the central interaction mechanics are problematic, with floaty jumping, imprecise movement, and questionable physics all being hallmarks of the adventure. A further issue is that the game has an unfortunate tendency to crash on closure, erasing recent progress. With such ropiness evident in almost every point of execution, the off-kilter visual design is remarkably fitting.
While many studios tend to chase either ultra-realism or pixel-art simplicity, Hello Neighbor treads the middle ground most common to 3D platformers. Bright colours and bold lines dominate the presentation, lending the ambience a Pixar-like quality of dreaminess. However, rather than the clean recreation of reality from Disney’s animations, Hello Neighbor’s world is eccentric—almost alien—in that it is almost void of straight lines and neat angles. The entire visual environment is ever so slightly off, which heightens the simmering sense of fear that lurks just beneath the surface. Horror may not count among the most prominent atmospheres within the game, but in those moments when it bursts forth—in the basements and nightmares—this visual incongruence is incredibly effective. Unfortunately, Hello Neighbor squanders its remarkable presentation at almost every turn.
Dynamic Pixels seems to have begun with a simple, brilliant concept, but struggled to make a cohesive game out of it. The AI neighbour and skewed environment are both wonderfully executed pieces of game design, but every other aspect of the project is flawed, making for a fundamentally unenjoyable experience. In some languages, “hello” also means “goodbye”, and the latter is more apt here; no matter what horrors lay within the basement, they are not worth persevering through the horror of playing this game.