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What Happened To Hello Neighbor?

Elizabeth Technology February 25, 2022

The indie game made such a splash when it was announced, and the demos felt – and looked – great. What happened to it, that it came out and went from a solid A- to a C+?

The Trailer – and the Alpha Release

The trailer was great. You watch a short cinematic of a man (the neighbor) nailing a door shut and turning out lights, before the player breaks into their house. The goal is clear – your neighbor has committed a crime, and you’re a kid in over your head, trying to get out before he gets you. It’s clearly puzzle- and stealth- based, as the player has few items with which to confront him directly. The premise is genuinely interesting and exciting! The art style is unique and has a lot of depth. It made big waves, and the video now sits, 5 years later, with over 3 million views.

The first alpha release of the game was released in 2016, and presented fans with a lot of what they had seen in the trailers. It wasn’t all of it, but that was okay – game development takes time, and people were willing to wait, not yet fully jaded by the likes of games like Yandere Simulator, which has spent seven years in development now since that first alpha release.

The game, however, slowly got further and further away from the original vision until it was merely a shell of it’s former self.

The Studio

While some studios develop games entirely by themselves, others partner up with developers and act as more of a publisher, which is what TinybuildGAMES does. Tinybuild has put itself behind a number of well-received games, mostly horror/comedy themed, like Happy’s Humble Burger Farm or the three spinoffs of the original Hello Neighbor. Their general vibe is visible across almost everything they help make, even non-horror themed ones like Guts and Glory and Pigeon Simulator, both of which are three-dimensional.

Tinybuild gets around, and it’s released 40 games since it began working as a publisher in 2014.

The company behind Hello Neighbor specifically was more used to mobile games, but did a surprisingly good job on the alpha, something totally out of their wheelhouse and decidedly more mature than the pet simulator games they used to make (and still do make). Their stuff was cuddly, cute, and 2-D, so a 3-D horror game was a wild left turn to make.

The Environment of the Time

Hello Neighbor came out officially in 2017, about four years into Tinybuild’s publishing career, with an alpha released in 2016. However, production began much, much earlier – in 2014. Right before a major indie resurgence spawned by Five Nights at Freddy’s overnight success. As Sagan Hawkes points out in his video on Hello Neighbor (cited below), FNaF had really opened the door for kid horror fans in a way that wouldn’t traumatize them.

The first Five Nights at Freddy’s game wasn’t aimed at kids at all, but the naturally child-friendly lack of blood and the only scares being jumpscares meant no graphic content to earn it an aggressive age warning. It also wasn’t afraid to use color, something many horror games either deliberately wash out or highlight sparingly. Distinct, recognizable, easy-to-draw characters as well as an easy plot helped too – you’re in a Chuck-E-Cheese style restaurant after closing. It may not have been made for kids, but it sure was incidentally kid-friendly.

Kids also tend not to care so much about cringe, and put their entire heart into consuming something as popular as FNaF was. Adults created the content demanded of them, creating a large lets-play video community around the game, spreading it’s reach even further. All of this combined into very heavy audience participation. Fan songs. Suitsonas. Other animatronics games, and sequels. Plush toys. Art. Most importantly, a new kind of attention for lore, which encouraged theory-crafting online, sparking a generation of lore-heavy games that favored story over gameplay.

The Game Before

As said before, development for Hello Neighbor started before FNaF came out, and the art style certainly shows it. The game was always stylized, but it didn’t fear using weaker, darker colors in with the bright primaries also scattered around. The house had wood floors. It felt like a real house, not a Dr. Seuss fantasy blur. If you watch LetsPlayers play the first and second generation ‘alphas’ (alphas usually refer to an incomplete demo of the game), you’ll see the original vision for the game’s artstyle.

Gameplay-wise, many say these were the best versions of Hello Neighbor. The game was genuinely claustrophobic, and scary because the AI was very good at finding you and cutting you off, and even if the stakes were low (you just get kicked out of the house) it was still uncomfortable to be caught. The AI also learned from you – if you broke a window to get in, the neighbor would board over the window. If you got in through the back door, he’d lock it next time you tried to get in. He was smart. The game was good. You had to be stealthy, because once he knew you were in his house he’d start actively looking for you.

The Game After

And then alphas three and four came out, after FNaF had some time to marinate on the open web. Suddenly, the colors were brighter. The floor inside the house was blue, and the hallways and rooms  were gigantic, not like anything you’d see in a real house. The AI of the neighbor was worse, and he became significantly worse at catching you – making the game much easier. He was also prone to glitching. The gamemakers had increased the size of the house in past alphas, but alpha four nearly tripled the height of it, including a number of bizarre, nonsensical rooms you’d never see IRL. Said house, in a moment of unintentional metaphor, looks slapped together, with rooms built out on rooms on top of rooms with plain wooden planks and rails for carts (?) poking out of the top.

(Image via GameSpot)

Gameplay-wise, a number of confusing choices include having the player model’s hand hovering near the center of the screen, and using platforming (which was bad in alpha 1 but awful in alpha 4) to solve more of the puzzles. This made the game longer, yes, but by frustrating the players, not by increasing the playable content. Speaking of playable content, there was now so much stuff in the game that the games engine was struggling to maintain framerate and proper lighting. Adding all these brightly colored, textured, and physics-based items meant the game chugged as it struggled to load them all for the player. Lag in a platform game is worse than orange juice and toothpaste.

Choices

Speaking of content, and to go back to Sagan Hawkes again, the game wanted ‘lore’ about itself so, so badly. FNaF’s legacy is dozens upon dozens of hours of content creators’ theories about what happened to the kids, how the suits got possessed, who the purple man was, what the puppet was, etc. etc. and FNaF didn’t have to beg for this to happen. It just happened. Lore was unnecessary to the game, but not obstructive, either – sometimes it even improved the experience.

In FNaF 2, when you die, sometimes you get a minigame where you play as an animatronic, and you get a little bit of game history that way. But it doesn’t happen every time you die, so the game is still snappy and quick to get back into. Lore and more game. You could seek out better explanations for the minigames online, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

Unfortunately, lore is good for content engagement, and Hello Neighbor could not help but try to transform meaningless little tidbits from inside the neighbor’s house from red herrings into solid, meaningful hints for theory crafting when the full game came out. Note – while lore encourages engagement, it is not a magic shortcut to engagement.

Backstories have to be interesting in and of themselves to create lore engagement. FNaF’s was spooky. Resident Evil’s was within the game, built into letters and notes. Overwatch’s lore is short and sweet, easy to watch and read without serious investment, or involvement in the game itself. Hello Neighbor released a book and a show pilot after the full game and managed to straddle the uninteresting parts of all of these strategies. The neighbor’s kids went missing before the events of the game, that’s about the deepest and most interesting it gets. We already knew he had someone in the basement, that’s not a question of lore, it’s a question of plot.

 When Hello Neighbor came out in full, the Twitter account for the game was tweeting at MatPat, a popular gaming channel that also does theories and strategy guides, asking (repeatedly) for him to do a deep-dive on that show pilot. As Sagan Hawkes notes, the video has both a five minute version and a twenty minute version, so being able to cut 15 minutes of video and still have a plot does not point to deep mystery or lore. As far as I know, MatPat did not make a video.

Upon full release, all of the problems now cost 30$ to own. The game has suffered for trying to be FNaF. The game has suffered for not listening to alpha testers who disliked the platforming and who pointed out serious bugs that could softlock the game or toss the player hundreds of feet into the air with a misstep. The game suffered for increasing the time spent in the game by increasing the size of the game, not the complexity or number of puzzles in the game. The game suffered for each new alpha, struggling to tap further into the kiddie market at the cost of its vision, its aesthetic, and its gameplay. The game as it is now is a bizarre caricature of a better game, a game we saw for free in alpha one.

Legacy

The game has a good rating on both Google and Steam. People find it fun to play, and after a number of updates patching bugs and expanding the house the neighbor lives in, it became a fun sort of popcorn game, the kind of brightly colored, not too-intensely-mechanic-driven game common for the time after FNaF. It’s very obviously still aimed at kids, though, far from the all-ages game it used to be. The book is weird. The show is… kind of ugly. But, the fact that they exist at all is a sign of determination to expand upon the story, so I can’t fault the studio/developers for trying new stuff in an attempt to build hype.

A couple of other games made by the same developer/studio combo show promise, though – a couple of people have high hopes for Hello Neighbor 2, which looks like it wants to return to the original vision set by the trailer and alpha versions of Hello Neighbor 1. Hello Guest, set in a theme park, managed to attract attention without being obnoxious about lore. Simultaneously, the promise of a better Hello Neighbor is one that comes with some skepticism. Hello Neighbor got uglier and worse every alpha, eventually turning into a low-stakes platforming game over the medium-stakes stealth game it had been. Only time will tell how Hello Neighbor 2 goes – I hope it goes well.

Sources:

Sagan Hawkes’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HkY7qUqYjI

https://www.dynamicpixels.com/

A History of Gaming as Told by the Elder Scrolls Series

Elizabeth Uncategorized October 27, 2021

Elder Scrolls: Arena

The first Elder Scrolls game set the stage: magic, the continent of Tamriel, and combat systems in line with other games of the time. Believe it or not, this first game was supposed to be a combat game first and an RPG second, but programmers discovered that the game was much more fun when the player was in side-quests. Gradually, the “Arena” in the original script of the game shrank away, and the new game, a game about dungeons and sidequests and overthrowing a king, came to be, reaching completion in early 1994.

The graphics are fairly interesting! It looks a lot like Doom – three-dimensional first-person games were heavily stylized with interesting pixel art and all of the colors a 1990’s screen could produce. Doom may be red and dull orange on the cover, but the insides have levels that are entirely midnight blue, acid green, etc. Elder Scrolls: Arena is no different, they had their colors and by golly they were going to use them.

It also set up things like day and night cycles, shops that closed at night, and flavor text from NPCs, all things that weren’t unique to Arena, but certainly added to the RPG feel of the game and led to a longer-lasting playable experience.  If you got out of the first dungeon. Like many games of the time, it was… somewhat unforgiving. It was also kind of demanding, computer-wise: Doom was a gimme on nearly any computer, but Arena’s size and complexity meant low-end computers would sometimes struggle to keep up.

Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall

Daggerfall looked a lot like Arena, at first. Most sequels at the time aimed to provide more of the same good stuff that sold the original game with less of the flaws and pain-points, and the story was less important than the playing of the game itself. However, the two year gap also made Daggerfall much bigger than the original, changing the character of the game into something even better. While all of the Elder Scrolls games allow you to free roam basically indefinitely, Daggerfall was noticeably freer than Arena. Now that the series knew what it wanted to be, it could use its resources better towards its goals – boasting an explorable area equivalent to Great Britain, the game moved away from the 2.5-D system Doom and Elder Scrolls: Arena used, and upgraded to one that was truly three dimensional. This meant it was still quite a heavy burden for computers, especially the older ones.

Games were moving beyond the limited confines of arcade-style shoot-em-ups, the Pac-Mans, the Centipedes. Where some like Doom had (and have) been stand-out exceptions, games that were like Arena’s first-planned incarnation were a dime a dozen. Daggerfall set out deliberately to create something that users could play indefinitely, something that offered a totally unique experience, something completely separate from the other games available at the time. Other games had no choice but to follow suit. While shoot-em-ups remained popular, RPGs and other more complex games gained market share.

Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

The jump in quality between Daggerfall and Morrowind was enormous. Polygonal art was becoming mainstream, and every game circa the early 2000s was using it – Morrowind was no exception. Game art looks dated, but not necessarily ancient, like Daggerfall’s art can to younger gamers. The game’s open world system made it an instant classic, as just like Daggerfall, you never have to do the main quest. You have plenty of alternatives in-game, and you can actively change the world you’re playing in. Other games at the time were beginning to dabble in sandbox games too: contemporaries included SimCity 4 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Still, open world games weren’t everywhere. Open-worlders made up a very small percentage of the games released that year, although there were more than before. Coding an entire game to always be accessible for the player can be kind of intense, and short, plot-driven games were less effort and time for developers. WarioWare, which has nearly no plot, and Silent Hill 3, which is almost all plot, are other notable standouts from this time.

Alongside Morrowind came a bunch of new developments. Game consoles were more common than ever, and screen technology was improving. Morrowind specifically was available on the Xbox, and ports were available to play on Mac and Linux – gamers who wouldn’t have had access otherwise could now get in on the series, and game designers made sure that players could jump right into the fantasy setting with minimal prior knowledge of the series. Dark elves? Tamriel? Magic that uses a mana bar? Cool. Monsters, gods, and steampunk elements made Morrowind one of the most distinct among the Elder Scrolls games by itself.

While Morrowind also earned it’s reputation as an unforgiving and sometimes cruel game (cliff racers), it also captured the hearts and souls of an entire generation of gamers, prepping them for the next step: Oblivion.

Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion

Elder Scrolls 4 for the Xbox 360 has aged just as well as many of its predecessors. The gameplay is certainly as fun as it used to be, but the art can be a little lacking in areas because of the awkward transitional period polygonal art went through to get to the smooth faces and realistic hair we have today. The NPCs are still full of life, but the scripting and voice-acting of some of the characters is awkward enough to be memed on over a decade after its release, because the voice actors were given their lines alphabetically and without context. Oblivion captures the essence of this time period – games can have artful moments, but they could also have goofy slicing and dicing. They could have serious combat and dramatic storylines mixed in with missions that were little more than ‘bring me stuff’. The AI of other characters and enemies made the game, and you could be buddies with NPCs instead of killing them.

And, most importantly, the game was slightly easier to get around in than Morrowind, making it more friendly to a younger audience. You could, in most cases, outrun enemies. That wasn’t always the case in Morrowind – Cliff Racers are absurdly fast and forced you to fight as you ran.

Other games from this time include Call of Duty 3 and Gears of War, a Hitman game and Bully. Classics from this era still scatter critics’ favorite game lists – the philosophy surrounding games had changed.

Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

Skyrim came out in 2011, ten years ago now. The game itself is pretty good, it has all of the same features of the games before it plus a near-infinite amount of dungeons. It’s also surprisingly easy to mod in the modern era – everything from tropical weather to new enemies to new character skins can be found in the modding community. One mod turns trees into hands. People with enough expertise to code on top of a base no longer need to learn how to make a game from scratch to see their ideas for preexisting games realized.

Other parts of the game, such as it’s incredibly muted color palette, are common threads among games of this time. Call of Duty’s muted color pattern, Dark Souls’s distinct color palette of blacks, browns, and every shade of gray, the plainly bleached out sky and buildings in Grand Theft Auto 4, the list goes on. Computers and screens had evolved to the point where games could wash everything in gray and still be legible, and Skyrim was victim to this design choice. Only the spells and the occasional butterfly break the pattern.

Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim again

DLCs have existed for other games too, and in an increasingly online world, gamers can buy and download those DLCs directly to their console, which makes them much less of a hassle to get on said consoles than they used to be. Skyrim has a number of DLCs, most notably Hearthfire, which allows players to marry NPCs and adopt children (who will all still use the same lines they always have before they were married or adopted by you) and Dawnguard, which allowed werewolves and vampires in the game.

Their third DLC, Dragonborn, expands even further and allows players a glimpse of what happened after the events of Morrowind. It’s a symptom of a larger trend – it’s easier to build out levels on top of preexisting games than it is to make new ones, and when players aren’t quite done with the old world even though they’ve completed all of the interesting missions and completed the mainline quests, this can breathe new life into the game.

Oblivion had DLC. Borderlands had DLC. DLC was the hot new thing to show off that you could download stuff online, and when it wasn’t prohibitively priced, many gamers were cool with it.

And Again

The issue seems to be when DLC and other projects for a preexisting game stop the development of new ones. The big difference between Oblivion’s DLC and Skyrim’s DLC is that Oblivion eventually stopped getting DLCs – because Skyrim came out. The same goes for Borderlands and Borderlands 2, the DLC stopped because competing with the next game in the series was going to split the player base and funding.

In 2013, Bethesda released a compilation of the DLC plus a patch that made the game work better. That’s cool, it’s a way to still give the players good value for triple A price.

In 2014, Greymoor, an online version of the Elder Scrolls that was really still very Skyrim-flavored, launched. Cool – two games so close together kind of glazed over the lore issues of so much content being Skyrim.

In 2016, Bethesda released a remaster of Skyrim. That’s cool, whatever – if Oblivion got a nice makeover, it would probably sell better to new players too. However, the game is now five years old, and this is the biggest gap between games since Oblivion and Skyrim. Fans are beginning to wonder whether or not they’re going to get a new Elder Scrolls anytime soon.

This is where Skyrim breaks from the path of most games.

Ten Years of Skyrim, Skyrim Forever, Only Skyrim Now

The answer was no. Starfield, Bethesda’s next big game, is set to release on 11/11/22. There is no chance of an Elder Scrolls game getting released before or right after that date, because Elder Scrolls games are huge and consume a lot of the company’s resources to make. This means Skyrim is going to be all we see until the mid 2020’s if we get another Elder Scrolls game at all. Games have evolved. They’re bigger, now.

Skyrim continues to update only to add more things to itself. Instead of seeing more from swamps or other worlds, Skyrim’s base engine allows for essentially infinite dungeons to spawn. Other games, too, follow the pattern of riffing off the best rather than making something new, but usually, it’s not all stuffed into the last great release unless it’s a perpetually online game like Overwatch, Fall Guys, or Fortnite.

Every update to Skyrim is a disappointment to fans who want more lore about the rest of the world, or even improvements to flaws within the game that the engine couldn’t handle at the time. There’s supposed to be a civil war going on in one of the cities, and yet Skyrim can’t spawn enough NPCs to make it feel like one – wouldn’t it be super cool for a game to be able to really nail that? Skyrim did many things Oblivion did, but better – we may never get a game that does many things that Skyrim did, but better, because of how long Skyrim has spent on the buffet table. Why fix perfection if people still play the game?

The ten year anniversary of Skyrim came with a special anniversary edition pack you could buy, and that would be super cool if there were other games in the same universe that could have distracted long-term players from Skyrim in the meantime.

Sources: https://elderscrolls.bethesda.net/skyrim

https://elderscrolls.bethesda.net/en/arena

https://www.imperial-library.info/content/elder-scrolls-arena-storyline

https://elderscrolls.fandom.com/wiki/The_Elder_Scrolls_II:_Daggerfall

https://www.ign.com/wikis/elder-scrolls-online/Elder_Scrolls_Timeline

https://steamcommunity.com/app/22320/discussions/0/41973820864472523/