For the last month or so, I have been frequently checking Youtube in the hopes of discovering more updates for the intriguing indie game, Hello Neighbor. If you’re not familiar with this game, allow me to summarize. Simply put, your goal is to sneak into your neighbor’s house and discover what he’s hiding in his basement. Throughout the game, you will be avoiding the neighbor and solving puzzles in order to obtain the items necessary to open the basement door. The game has been shaping up to be rather fascinating indeed as we all wait for the neighbor’s secret to be revealed. Over the course of Alpha 1-3, the game has undergone major changes as it heads ever closer to completion, and I must admit, it’s been pretty exciting.
To my immense delight, demo version Alpha 4 was recently released. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike previous installments, the changes made in this version of the game are not quite so drastic. The neighbor’s house is largely the same as the one we saw in Alpha 3, with some adjustments and additions, and the main gameplay mechanics have largely remained untouched, as well. And yet, the farther I watched the player get into the game (I first watched the game on GTLive, then I turned to 8-BitRyan for the secrets the former channel had missed), I realized something. While this version of the game seems superficially the same, something major has changed just beneath the surface. And I’m not sure I like it.
At first, my issues with the game might seem a bit contradictory. If you recall a past post I wrote on the subject, then you will know that I enjoyed the more whimsical elements seen in Alpha 1. In that version of the game, there was a shark swimming around in an upstairs room. There was a random classroom where mysterious paper airplanes would get thrown at you if you turned your back. And strangest of all, a mannequin buried in a coffin in one of the middle rooms of the house. What I really liked about this early version of the game was how weird and unexpected it could be and how these bizarre elements seemed to have no clear explanation.
Just as I had been hoping for, Alpha 4 seems to have adopted some of the stranger elements of Alpha 1. And you’d think that would make me happy. But it doesn’t. Because there is something fundamentally different about Alpha 4 that doesn’t fit the initial impression those earlier demos gave me.
You see, while Hello Neighbor is technically categorized as a “horror” game, it does not rely on typical horror tropes. I mean, you unearth a mannequin in a coffin, not a dead body. And that, frankly, is creepier because it’s so unexpected. Furthermore, Hello Neighbor manages to scare players due to the suspense of sneaking around your neighbor’s house and hoping you won’t be spotted. And there are multiple ways you can try to avoid being caught. You can hide in cabinets. You can distract him by calling his phone or turning on the TV. You can even put sleeping pills in his milk in Alpha 2. And you run for your life if he sees you. It was a unique and refreshing take on the genre, and it was suspenseful without being outright creepy.
And then, Alpha 4 comes along, and the game has started to make the mistakes I hoped it would avoid. In order to explain where I feel the game has started to go astray, allow me to cite two bizarre challenges I watched during 8-BitRyan’s playthrough of the game. In one of them, you are suddenly tiny, and you must climb this massive room. Not only does such a surreal challenge not fit the game’s earlier, more “realistic”, feel, but you will often encounter strange glowing eyes watching you from shadowy corners of the room. Stranger still is another challenge that involves a long, poorly lit room reminiscent of a school. I don’t totally understand what is required here, but it seems you must hide from these…living mannequins. At the sound of a school bell, the mannequins seem to switch between whispering incoherently to zipping about the room. How one navigates this place without being caught is beyond me, but both of these challenges seemed completely out of place and…really creepy.
Video from Youtube User: 8-BitRyan
Furthermore, over the course of 8-BitRyan’s videos, we encountered several times a strange shadowy figure. During a terribly glitchy scene he eventually unlocks late into his playthrough, this shadowy figure is seen standing menacingly outside a doorway.
Insert a very audible and very prolonged sigh here…
Whatever your preferences are when it comes to horror, this direction for the story does not fit into the game we had been presented in the earlier demos. I can accept silly things like the ability to throw a jar of glue at the neighbor in order to slow him down. But when sinister shadows and sentient mannequins start making their way into the game, not to mention the newly-added ability to double jump, we have a problem. It’s immensely disappointing to watch a game that had the potential to be truly unique just stumble over itself like this.
Nevertheless, the completed version of the game has yet to be released, and I want to give Hello Neighbor the benefit of the doubt for as long as I can. In order to do this, I’d like to briefly get into my own interpretations of the game’s more mysterious elements. Maybe I’ll find out in the future that I was totally wrong and naïve, but until we find out once and for all the mustached neighbor’s deepest and darkest secret, we might as well speculate while we still can, no?
I believe that the two strange rooms and the shadowy figure are all metaphorical. And I have the evidence to back it up. More or less. Furthermore, I believe that the neighbor is not an evil person. I suspect he must have some tragic backstory. It may indeed involve something egregious he did, it may not. But I think a big part of the story might revolve around something he sorely regrets.
First of all, let’s elaborate on those surreal, nightmare-rooms. After completing the challenge in the giant room, the lights come on, and the room appears normal again, even if it is indeed recognizable as the room you just scaled. Building upon 8-BitRyan’s own comments during the video, it seems this room is supposed to represent how the world appears to someone who feels frightened and hopeless. Using an actual dark room as a more literal example, a child who is afraid of the dark will perceive otherwise normal things differently, their own fears amplifying something into much more than it really is. The silhouette of a chair appears to a frightened child as a hunched monster. The murmur of the parents’ TV downstairs might sound like the whispers of a ghost. In the video, 8-BitRyan commented on “feeling small”. Fear can indeed make a person feel small and helpless, and perhaps this room took such emotions literally by making the player tiny.
The room with the mannequins is similar. It seems to represent a frightened child’s perceptions of school. For children who are bullied, or just particularly shy, school can be a scary place. The school bell continues to ring at short intervals, and the mannequins talk in threatening whispers, like the cruel taunts one might hear, or imagine they are hearing, spoken about them behind their back. The player’s goal is to avoid these mannequins, almost like a child might want to avoid the other kids at school. If you return to this room after the challenge has been completed, all you find is an empty room, once again implying the challenge to have merely been one’s imagination.
From there, you might assume that these challenges represent the player’s fears. I, on the other hand, think that these rooms represent the neighbor himself. My reasoning behind this revolves around a brief scene at the end of Alpha 3 and the glitchy ending of Alpha 4. The former shows the neighbor with his face buried in his hands, the classic sign of grief. The latter is viewed in first-person, but this time, it’s from the neighbor’s perspective as he looks down at his hands in the sort of gesture that almost always signifies that “what have I done?” moment one might have after committing a particularly terrible act and feeling a resulting spark of remorse.
Did the neighbor do something terrible in the past? Or did he perhaps lose someone important to him? In Alpha 2, the basement seems to contain children’s beds, including a crib. In Alpha 4, you can also find at least three beds in the house of a man who clearly lives alone. Are we to surmise that the neighbor lost a child at some point in the past? And this “demon”, as some call it, does it, in fact, represent something else entirely? The neighbor’s inner demons, perhaps, or a person he is at odds with? Is this shadowy figure representative of someone he specifically doesn’t like, or even fears? Or is it someone who knows the neighbor’s secret and has the ability to reveal it?
Is the player character, in fact, the true villain here? (The player does repeatedly break into this poor man’s house, after all.) Are YOU the shadowy figure!
I’m probably completely wrong about the true secrets behind Hello Neighbor, but it doesn’t hurt to theorize. Maybe the game is going to redeem itself, and these stranger elements will indeed make sense in the grand scheme of things. I certainly hope so. I want this game to be special; I sorely hope it doesn’t become like any other horror game out there. No matter how you look at it, though, there is far more to this game than meets the eye, which is the very reason I will continue to follow it with utmost interest.
Now it’s your turn, dear readers. For those of you familiar with the game, are you happy or disappointed with the changes made in Alpha 4? Do you want more supernatural elements to be added, or would you prefer the game to remain more grounded in reality? And please feel free to share your own theories, as well. I’d love to hear them!
Thank You, Hello Neighbor, For Increasing the Duck’s Fear of Mannequins
Image from Flickr User: AustriaGaming