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