When you think of horror, I wouldn’t blame you if the first thing you think of is clowns, spiders, or zombies (shudder). Sneaking into your neighbour’s house during a bright summer day doesn’t exactly spring to mind, does it? But Hello, Neighbor! is breaking new ground for the stealth horror genre by playing into our suburban paranoia about not quite knowing what’s going on in the house across the road (admit it, you’ve had your suspicions).
With a demo that only came out at Twitchcon on the 2nd of October 2016, Hello Neighbor! stands out amongst a first-person horror genre that’s becoming all too predictable, especially when you chuck the word ‘stealth’ into that play style. Whether it’s Outlast, with its quickly repetitive hiding-in-lockers mechanic, hiding in lockers and under desks in Alien: Isolation, or hiding in wardrobes and behind barrels in Amnesia (see a pattern here?), most stealth-horror games use a similar formula. But Hello, Neighbor! improves on Alien: Isolation’s unnervingly real, xenomorph AI to not only recognise these hackneyed hiding mechanics, but also develop an opponent which changes its behaviour based on your tactics, altering its environment to make breaking into the Neighbor’s house as difficult and terrifyingly tense as possible.
In Outlast you might hide from a machete-wielding nude fellow, knowing that he’ll bugger off after maybe ten seconds. Not so with the Neighbor. At the centre of the game is an AI which will adapt and plan strategies to catch you off guard. Because the Neighbor thinks rather than following set patterns of behaviour, and will come up with his own strategy to catch you. The Neighbor doesn’t always creep around after you though. He has his own life. He’ll take a bath, do some exercise, nap for a while, cook, even go for a wee whilst you sneak through his house like a paranoid weirdo.
I don’t think I’m alone in having always found the idea of sneaking around a neighbour’s house thrilling, partly because we all wonder how vulnerable our own homes are. Whether it’s the Stepford Wives, Twin Peaks, Don’t Breathe, or The ‘Burbs, I’m fascinated by the idea of lurking in someone’s apparently normal home, unseen and unwelcome. Home invasion themes are horrifying because your house is the one place where you’re supposed to feel safe, which you know inside out and could walk around with your eyes closed. Being in someone else’s house, however, flips the tables on you: they know it like the back of their hand but you certainly don’t. They could easily trap you using the same in-depth knowledge you have about your home.
To make things worse, the Neighbor’s residence is pretty similar to your own which lies just across the street (very much like the suburbs most of us live in), giving a nasty feeling of déjà vû when you’re sneaking through the eerily familiar house. But the uneasiness only starts there.
You’re given just a tad more motive for hiding in, say, the home of the gruesome Baker family in Resident Evil 7, because you’re trying not to be the next course on their dinner table. But it’s easy to make wandering around someone’s house scary by turning its owners into cannibals, zombies or mutants, because with all that to deal with you’re perfectly entitled to sneak around. Hello, Neighbor! is set in a normal house (apart from the bolted-down basement door) with a guy who is simply going about his day until you barge in. That person minding their own business could just as easily be you, and you can bet that if I thought there was some stranger in my house I’d also be trying to find them, to get them the hell out.
That’s the really interesting thing. In Hello, Neighbor!, you might be the crackpot. Usually in horror games you’ll play the part of the lone survivor or brave explorer, almost always innocent versus the terrifying, sometimes mutated enemies who prowl around the asylum, hospital, school, abandoned house, mineshaft, whatever. But this is the new genre of suburban horror, and there are many more shades of grey.
Initially it’s hard to imagine how the colourful, Pixar-ish environment could be unnerving, but the sheer cheeriness of the level design does a damn good job at undermining any fond childhood memories when the Neighbor notices you and a Jaws-like theme starts playing, the edges of the screen flooding into darkness. There are no mutants or monsters here, just that unsettling feeling that you don’t quite know enough about your next door chum which, admit it, we’ve all felt at one point or another.
In Hello, Neighbor! you’re the odd one, maybe even the villain, who has broken into a house on a summer afternoon, because you think there’s something iffy going on. The tension is high enough as it is when you’re innocent, but when you’re not quite certain if you’re interloping you become not only scared of being discovered, but scared of what happens if you don’t get found - after all, if someone was hiding in your house, you’d want to find them as quickly as possible, right?
So how far do the stealth mechanics go? You can pick up almost anything to use to your advantage, whether that be to break windows, break open doors, peek through keyholes, or distract the Neighbor by chucking things around. To hide you can switch off the power to the house, hide behind corners and (surprise surprise) in cupboards, turn lights on and off to give yourself better cover and, if you get caught, use some items to stun the Neighbor when he’s chasing you. Loads of reassuring options, right? Well, no.
The Neighbor has just as many ways to hunt you down and capitalise on any mistakes you make. He realises when doors that weren’t open before have suddenly become ajar, he notices when lights are turned off or on, and he’ll investigate noises from different rooms. Learning is also a big part of his strategy: if he finds you in a cupboard once, expect him to start checking them all. He’ll block corridors he knows you’ll have to use if you break into certain rooms, he’ll put bear traps on the floor near the doors you always go through... Hell, he’ll even set up security cameras next to the entrance you use most frequently.
Each time you get caught it will get harder to snatch his key and sneak into the basement, as he’ll have learnt a bit more about your strategy, which routes you use, and the tools you’re aiming to grab. To best him you’ll have to change your playing style regularly to catch him off-guard, which could be a bit of a problem for people like me who have dyed-in-the-wool tactics for stealth.
If - or when - you get caught, you’ll find yourself back on his front step, dusting yourself off from being chucked out of his house. But a restart doesn’t wipe the slate clean, as the neighbor will still remember everything you did, though you’ll be able to keep your items as a way of loosely saving progress.
At the moment it’s scheduled for release in Summer 2017, so we could see more alterations made to the AI (as if it didn’t look difficult enough to deal with already). We’re keeping our fingers crossed to see whether Hello, Neighbor! will be released on PS4 and Xbox One, as well as the currently confirmed PC.