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Home Invasion Inverted: Hello Neighbor

What's he building in there?

You can play Hello Neighbor [official site] right now, for free, and I strongly suggest that you do. Not because of any great qualities in the design, but rather because some of my favourite things about it might get 'fixed'. I'm thinking of the time the chase music began while I was in my own home and the neighbour's face pressed against the window suddenly as he tried to run through it to murderise me. Or the time when I hid in a wardrobe and tried to lean so that I could peek through a crack in the door only to find myself leaking slowly through that crack and directly into the neighbour's line of sight.

Good times.

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Hello Neighbor is a first-person stealth horror game in which you play as a concerned citizen. Or an intrusive offspring of the surveillance state. It's not clear. The pre-alpha build, which is available to download as of yesterday, doesn't provide a great deal of context as to why you decide to go snooping around in the house of the chap who lives across the street, but that is precisely what you must do.

There's no backstory yet, nor even any objectives or instructions. You're in your house, which looks full-sized but is apparently just a tiny bedroom and even tinier hallway. That in itself is a little bit creepy. I think it's because the map is unfinished but in my head canon, the whole building is a fake, hastily constructed so that the burly fellow across the street can be monitored by oppressive government agencies.

He looks like a retired circus strongman, the neighbour. Mostly chin and muscle, he's first seen in what I'd loosely describe as a jumpscare, appearing behind you the first time you enter the house. That first entry marks the only narrative context in this very early build – from your own home, you can see a red glow coming from the basement of the house across the street, and the front door has been left open. And so, you pop in, not to borrow a cup of sugar or offer a helping hand, but to snoop and pry. As soon as you approach the basement, there's a jarring musical sting and the neighbour is there, reaching for you. His hands around your throat...

And then you wake up in bed, in your fake plastic home. I'm not sure if an explanation is needed as to what happens in between capture and awakening, but none is given at the moment. There's some continuity between one 'life' and the next so I don't think it's a case of starting fresh as if the capture never happened. Maybe the glimpse of the basement was all a dream.

The continuity is important because it's where the seeds of the game's possible appeal are planted. That first intrusion always ends in capture – its purpose is to tease the basement that is your ultimate objective in this build – but once it's finished, you're breaking and entering for real. The key to the game's appeal, the creepiness of the setting aside, is the neighbour's intelligence. At the moment, it's easy to see how it might affect the game, but there's not a great deal of evidence that the cogs are turning effectively just yet.

You're essentially playing against two versions of the neighbour. There's the actual man, who moves around the house, getting caught up in activities that lock him in place so that you can sneak around undetected, and then there are the traps that the man has prepared. The claim from the developers is that he'll learn from your behaviour and their explanations as to how that might work are actually believable.

Essentially, if you use a certain entry point or hiding place regularly, you're likely to find a beartrap concealed in the shadows thereabouts. That's where my distinction between the neighbour as a character on the map and the neighbour as an entity that sets up traps and cameras comes in – you don't actually see the latter happening, you just deal with the consequences of it. There's an AI that seeks you when you enter the house and a completely separate set of routines that prepare the house in between your visits.

I can see how the interplay of those two systems could create some neat moments of emergent drama, tension and horror. Knowing that it's important to change up the routes you take and the hidey-holes you utilise could prevent rote behaviour, which is common in stealth games. Drop me in Lord Bafford's Manor, the first level of Thief: The Dark Project, and I fall into autopilot, an unthinking routine of blackjacking and sneaking. The unpredictability of Hello Neighbour could be the key to its thrills, but there's little of that on show in the demo.

As a proof of concept, it's half-successful. It shows that the setting is just about absurd enough to walk that fine line between laughable and terrifying that I hoped for when I saw the announcement. There are hints of discoveries that may actually crush some of the absurdity, bringing something genuinely bleak and harrowing to light. I'm not at all sure if that's the case yet – the tone might stay sinister but silly - but my curiosity is piqued.

What I'm not quite sold on is the house itself. It's incomplete in this build, yes, but I'm not convinced that it will have enough alternate routes and hiding places to be an effective stealth playground. It's cramped, relative to usual stealth spaces, and the neighbour is an efficient hunter – when he spots you, he's almost instantly upon you. What's needed are more tools to distract him – at the moment you can pick items up and throw them – and the ability to lead him into a chain reaction of catastrophic injuries and stumbles as he clatters through his own traps.

It's hard to get a sense of how he reacts to things because the primary thing he reacts to is seeing or hearing the player, and the result is close enough to insta-death that there's no space for observation, never mind reaction. Watching him from afar is more satisfying, but he falls static quite quickly, finding a set activity that places him in one part of the house so that you can plan entry. The relationship between the player and the neighbour needs time to grow, through surveillance and chases that are more Tom and Jerry than actual cat cornering and killing mouse.

The concept and setting are as intriguing as ever but this little slice of what Hello Neighbour might eventually be has, more than anything, made me even more aware of the scope of the design challenge. How does a single, small space support not only credible sneaking and hiding, but also contain an AI character that isn't too efficient a hunter? I look forward to finding out.

Watch on YouTube

The Hello Neighbor pre-alpha demo is available now.

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