Some video games garner attention because they do everything really well. Others get their reputation for being flat-out terrible. And some games generate buzz because they’re so hard to pin down: Sometimes they’re compelling. Sometimes they’re ridiculously frustrating. Sometimes they’re glitchy. And sometimes their true meaning seems to tap-dance just outside your grasp.
Hello Neighbor is a much-talked-about indie game that falls into that last category. And, boy, is it a doozy.
This colorfully animated E10+ title is categorized as a “stealth horror” game. And even that label seems counter-intuitive. I mean, how do you have a horror game without any nasty content, one that’s supposedly aimed at kids to boot? Well, let’s dig in and find out.
The truth is, there are scares of a sort here, but not exactly the types of things that this title’s “stealth horror” label might suggest. The action begins when you, a soccer ball-kicking local kid, hear a screech emanating from your heavily mustachioed neighbor’s house across the way. Upon sneaking up to peek in his window, you see him slamming home a big lock on an ominous-looking, heavy-duty basement door.
Was that a child you heard wailing? A woman? Is that person being held captive? Has he or she been kidnapped? Tortured? Is there anything you, a young skull-full-of-mush tween, can do to help the screamer and thwart the guy with the Snidely Whiplash facial hair?
That quest becomes your first order of business: Find a way to break in, get to the basement and (presumably) lend a helping hand.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, ’cause this neighbor guy is always on the watch. If he even spots you hanging around in his front yard, he’ll come after you with a creepy musical underscore marching right behind him. He’ll only chase you to the edge of his property line, but his nasty gaze lets you know that he’s got his eye on you. And he’ll start building in safety features to make sure you don’t get any closer to disturbing his secrets.
For example, if he spotted you lurking near his kitchen window, the next time you slip near that area you might find a security camera pointed at that spot. Or the window might be boarded up. Or, hey, you could even stumble into a bear trap left there to snag you. Each stealthy failure leaves you with more obstacles to circumvent on your next attempt to get into the house.
Once you start fine-tuning your approach, though, you soon realize that the sneaky side of things isn’t what this game is really about anyway. Sure, at any moment you might suddenly hear that menacing bass line and know the bad guy has spotted you and is racing to grab you by the scruff of the neck. But once you actually get into the house and start poking around, you realize that this is a surreal, nonsensical, Rube Goldberg-like domain of spiraling tunnels and bizarre puzzles.
There are keys and objects to gather everywhere, as well as conundrums to solve that are so randomly logic-free that unlocking their grinding solution feels completely tiresome. Oh, and that’s not the last layer of challenge.
As you progress, you encounter nightmare-like hallucinations that suck you in and start weaving together another story: It depicts a car accident, one that hints at accidental deaths and emotional anguish. Those nightmares also reveal a shadowy, tormenting creature and other attacking entities. They eventually suggest that perhaps everything you thought you knew is all terribly wrong.
In a way then, this game is a game of horrors. Not a torturous and bloody, knife-in-your-back type of horror, but a child’s night-fever dream type. That colorful sneak-through-a-window fun at the beginning of it all is long gone by game’s end. There’s something warped and unsettling in the mix of things, even if you’re not completely sure what you’ll need to do to overcome the traumas tumbling into your path.
Add in this title’s frequent technical glitches, and Hello Neighbor definitely takes on a what’s-this-all-about, hard-to-pin-down, not-quite-finished feel. Almost as if that disturbed neighbor guy at the game’s core—the fellow with a propensity for building sprawling add-ons to his house and installing strange traps—may have been the very person who actually built this bizarrely sprawling stealth-horror puzzler.
And let’s face it: You probably wouldn’t want to see any kids wandering into this neighbor’s mysteriously menacing manse.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.