“Hello Neighbor” Sucks

There are literally dozens of Switch games that I’m eager to play–physical and digital, across a variety of genres, some exclusive to the console, some universally available, and even some older titles getting remakes and re-releases on Nintendo’s joyous little console. Yet I’ve been trying to take it slow, attempting to get through the bulk of a game before moving on to the next; with single-player titles, I’m making more of an effort to complete the main campaign. With my limited time spent on video games, this significantly slows down my interactions with newer titles.

All that said, Hello Neighbor was not on the top of my list, but my wife has been interested in this game for a while. There are some games she likes to watch me play, even if she doesn’t want to play herself, and this was toward the top of her list. So, that’s what I picked up.

I’ve regretted that more or less since the first day. I’ve tried telling myself that I hadn’t given it a fair enough shake. Then I tried telling myself that I just wasn’t much of a puzzle enthusiast, that I was the wrong audience. Eventually I was telling myself that glitches happen in games, even game-breaking glitches. Now, I think I’m done. I’ve only played for maybe a dozen or so hours, most of that time spent struggling to counteract poor controls, puzzles spread out over a wide space with little intuitive connection, and bugs that failed to trigger events. Despite all that bullshit, I’m still squarely in the middle of Act 3 (with a Finale level to follow, apparently). So it’s a short, poorly constructed game.

71034795_10157839520951518_8303996431304228864_o.jpg

Hello Neighbor is marketed as a colorful survival horror/stealth puzzler game with bold visuals, in which you compete against your antagonistic Neighbor, to probe a dark secret stored in his basement. Selling points of the game are the sandbox interactions with the house and the neighbor’s adaptive AI.

I’ll allow that the game, at the least, does offer an AI (however rudimentary it actually seems to be in execution) that attempts to counter your actions, and it appears (from the walk-throughs I’ve scoured in frustration) that there are actually multiple ways to get through each level of the game (even if they’re almost all equally convoluted). I found, however, that the sandbox elements feel dampened severely when your goal is to end up in the same few spaces, and when environmental manipulation is so limited.

Controls are twitchy and imprecise. Your targeting is indicated by a minuscule dot. Even when you lock onto something, clicking the controls does not consistently deliver the desired response. There are only a few controls that do anything, and yet it’s not always clear which control is appropriate for a given outcome. Mostly, you can turn things on or off, pick things up, and throw things. A lot of the game requires some combination of stacking objects and jumping. This is as imprecise as everything else, made worse by the fact that “dropping” objects is more like lightly tossing them. Dropping an object in front of you can be affected by slight changes in viewing angle or even apparently random chance, making it difficult to consistently replicate an outcome. It’s just as variable as to which items you might be able to pick up; some are scene dressing, but it’s not clear why, say, an end table is off limits but a large dining chair can be tucked into your inventory like anything else. “Using” special items to perform a particular action is also limited; the magnet, for instance, only attracts metal objects that the game wants you to be able to grab via this method. Not to mention that, when you’re running from a child abductor, it’s frustrating that hurling a metal object at best slows him down, and there’s no option to strike said abductor with your handy wrench or crowbar (that last complaint, I recognize, is more a personal objection to the limiting confines of this particular style of YouTube-era tween-scream “horror” game–although at the least, these games usually try to be horrific, or at least jump-scare worthy, and this game is mostly just annoying).

71763115_10157839520971518_4426020182858661888_o.jpg
Hurtling through the air. A+ physics.

While I might have seemed a little more forgiving of the AI than the limited sandbox, I still wasn’t fond of it. Sometimes it worked well. Sometimes (like with Alien: Isolation), the neighbor seemed to become attached to me on a tether, racing back and forth between the same couple of rooms, maybe never bothering to check out my obvious hiding place (e.g., tucked into a partially cracked dresser or behind a pile of boxes) but nonetheless unreasonably convinced that I must be inhabiting a room with no sign of my presence. Sometimes the neighbor would set a truly hindering trap or knock away a prop I’d relied on, and sometimes he’d stare dumbly at the same window I’d jumped through half a dozen times or simply fail to reset the same trap I’d triggered just as many times before. Sometimes the neighbor would pursue me unshakably, even in the dim of night; sometimes I could run circles around him or run up on him from behind without detection; sometimes he’d be able to “catch” me by touching my feet while I was on a higher platform; sometimes I’d be able to dash past him less than an arm’s length away.

72045303_10157839521001518_8815035803668316160_o.jpg

The sometimes-this, sometimes-that nature of things made it difficult to get a feel for the game’s rules, such as they were. It made it difficult to figure out how exactly to approach problems. It made it difficult to understand if the game was being intentionally challenging, or if something was poorly thought through, or if something had broken again. Whenever you’re caught, you’re returned to your starting point at your house (or, in the middle act, in the neighbor’s basement), but you (normally) keep any of the four items you had in your inventory, while any environmental changes are completely up in the air. Will boxes be where you left them? Windows still broken or not? You won’t know until you get there!

I would have given up a lot sooner if not for the scant guides available online. I’d hop between them, looking for the least-tedious option to progress through a level. With virtually no clearly articulated goals (other than to ultimately get in or out of a locked basement), and with random objects hidden away throughout the house that will trigger inscrutable outcomes in other sections of the house, typically only discovered in turn with further searching, it’s amazing to me that anyone ever put in enough time to figure it all out. Literally one section of the game required breaking into an attic from the roof and going down a ladder into another room, then discovering and using a key to open a doll house, then selecting the small profiles of doors in the dollhouse to unlock rooms in the actual house. All without any explanation or any obvious input/output from your actions. Adding to the “fun,” the Neighbor suddenly decided to start scanning the rooftop for my presence, then raced to apprehend me and set a camera trap, making my future completion of any objectives up there incredibly tedious.

When things are so disconnected as is, it’s infuriating when the game just breaks. Walk-throughs taught me how I should have been able to acquire a wheel, by activating a series of pipe junctions, but when I did so, nothing happened. I had to load an older save and repeat the actions to get the wheel valve to burst from its mooring appropriately. In the third act, there’s a tram looping around on a roller coaster circuit (the third act is rather fantastical), and this tram can be boarded, and this tram will also consistently kill you when going down a slope–I guess the game thinks you’re free-falling. The tram death will reset you in the tram again at a different time of day, which says to me that the designers knew about the error but, rather than fixing it, just made it so that resetting didn’t disrupt your progress too badly. Except that I’ve noticed that if you let yourself die on the tram enough circuits in a row, it will reset you back in your house, only now without the ability to move forward(??), only to the sides, requiring a reset to fix. The tram is also the easiest way to get on the roof of a particular section to get to a wrench to open another area, but you’d have to be able to stop the tram just right. I’ve seen YouTube videos in which people freely control the tram. But I’ve tried every combination of buttons I could think of (including of course the usual use button), but nothing happens with the tram control lever. The tram continues on its own preset route, inevitably killing me in “free-fall.” There are places where I could jump on the tram, but the game chooses to treat me as immobile, standing in midair atop it as the tram continues to glide forward, leaving me to eventually fall. It’s this bloody tram, in fact, that finally killed my will to soldier on.

I don’t feel like I’m missing much. The story’s not interesting. First act: your boy protagonist sees evidence of the Neighbor committing some horrible act, so he goes to investigate, infiltrating the basement only to discover that it’s a dungeon apparently set for him. Second act: after capture, the boy must escape the dungeon and the grounds of the house, which has been expanded and is now ringed by a colossal fence. Third act: the boy, now a young man, returns to his abandoned home, observing the dilapidated Neighbor’s house; he begins to hallucinate, and after apparently being woken from a nap, he sees the most elaborate version of the house yet. He decides to infiltrate it again–presumably working through a dreamscape to cope with the traumas of his past. The dabbling in the surreal would be more interesting if it didn’t feel so narratively predictable, or if it didn’t result in ever-more-opaque game mechanics.

To add to the surrealism, whenever you are caught by the Neighbor, there is a chance of playing through one of several dark dream sequences that present an abstract glimpse of the Neighbor apparently losing his wife and daughter. The implication that the Neighbor was driven generically “mad” by his grief and now abducts children to attempt to fill the void in his life is offensively disconnected from any real psychological examination and did nothing to make me regard the Neighbor as more sympathetic. (Not that the boy’s coping with his childhood trauma in the third act feels any more realistic or profound.)

The novelty of the game and its colorful aesthetics don’t make up for its many, many structural flaws. This isn’t anything new to say; there are plenty of professional critic and consumer reviews that all reflect similar concerns. Metacritic reports an aggregated score of 39 for the Switch and 38 for the PC. It’s been out for about a year on the Switch, almost two years for PCs. I should have known better. But it can be hard to tell when a game is mediocre but still offering an interesting mechanic or story to make it worthwhile, and when a game is just outright bad. And of course, it’s more than a little bit of a subjective measure anyway. But I would add to the chorus of voices saying that Hello Neighbor is a plain old bad game.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t ignore the overwhelming critical consensus here. There are plenty of games on the Switch. Choose something better. Choose anything else.

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

Gaming in another language?

Basically just for fun, I’ve been learning Spanish. I took classes in college, but I forgot a lot of that. At this point, I think I’ve learned more than I had learned by the end of my college education, though I know my speaking’s atrocious.

I thought it would be fun to attempt to play a game in Spanish. It’s a back-burner idea right now, as I don’t have a lot of time for another video game in addition to Arena (yeah, Alien: Isolation predictably sputtered out for me), but it’s something I’m considering. Right now I’ve been tossing around either Beyond Good & Evil or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I’ve played them both at least a few times, I’m familiar with the stories, and they both should allow time to stop and look up words or take an extra moment to translate dialogue if I get stuck on something.

However, I’d love to hear any suggestions. There are just a few things I’m looking for.

I’d like it to be a game where I can have both Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles. I’d prefer a game that requires prompts to progress dialogue and where there is no metagame urgency to the dialogue (so I can take my time reading it if I don’t understand what I’m hearing). The games I’ve suggested are games that I have familiarity with, so I’m hoping it will be easier to pick up on things, but it doesn’t have to be a game I’ve played before. The game could have Spanish dubbing, or it could be a game natively recorded in Spanish.

Again, I’d really appreciate any suggestions!

Another A:I book–about AI

I played more of Alien: Isolation! I want to be proud of that, but honestly I don’t know why I’m doing this to myself. I thought it would be worse playing through some of these levels the first time, not knowing when the alien was set to appear. In many ways, it’s worse knowing. I dread every moment leading up to those sequences.

But I have another book to showcase, as well as my favorite poster on the station that I’ve seen so far.

The book is The Android Brain by Albert Magnus, next to a computer user manual and what appears to be a magazine entitled Thrust. The legs in the corner belong to someone who will soon be dead. Apparently this book is a reference to something in the real world. Albertus Magnus, a German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop who lived in the thirteenth century, was later said to have made a mechanical automaton; perhaps the earliest use of the word “android” was in the context of describing this alleged invention, according to Wikipedia.

As for the poster, I just love the fact that it’s being retrofuturist in a setting that is already retrofuturist. Layers, man, layers.

This is almost certainly (maybe, probably) the last time I’m going to post about Alien: Isolation here, because any further ineffectual attempts to play through this game will almost surely be so brief and sporadic that it won’t be worth it to chronicle the effort. But, that said, on the off chance that I keep playing and come across any other cute books, and I have time to take a screenshot without peeing myself in fright, I’ll probably post those pictures here.

I can’t handle Alien: Isolation

My wife and I are fans of the Alien movies, even though she’s never cared to watch beyond Aliens, and I sort of wish I hadn’t. The movies have only gotten dumber and gorier. But we both looked forward to Alien: Isolation; all advance details really indicated a game that faithfully recreated the look and feel of the original film, that accurately captured the sheer frightfulness of the lethal killer alien. After many games that revolved around mowing down dozens of aliens, and many disappointing films, this game looked promising.

The reviews seemed positive but mixed when the game released; we held off on a purchase until it went on sale. And we were impressed. It looked and felt like a direct sequel and spiritual successor to Alien. Small details were perfect: the dank, dim, narrow corridors aboard the ships; the sheen of sweat on the brows of the overworked characters; the working-class space trucker vibe imbued in both the characters and set pieces; the tiny props and magazines. We were engaged with the story, and the alien was terrifyingly unpredictable, unstoppable, and seemingly omnipresent.

I played the game while my wife watched. Playing the game could be unnerving and discomforting for us, as neither of us favors survival horror titles (and, outside of a select few films and books, we largely dislike the horror genre). But we loved the palpable sense of tension, the build-up to the reveal of the xenomorph, and the use of music and lighting and ambient sound and intense stealth-based gameplay to really amp up the tension and terror.

Then we got to the medbay level. The medbay level, I have since learned, is a common place for players to burn out on the game; it is apparently a trial by fire, a drastic upswing in difficulty, and notably more challenging and frustrating than other sections around it. The alien drops down from an overhead shaft, uncoiling in a truly chilling moment, and begins to hunt the halls for prey. You see it before it has seen you, so you have the chance to hide. You can creep through the halls and dip through a central observation room, hoping to evade the creature, but things are made considerably more difficult because you need to be able to get into some back offices through a password-locked door.

I died again and again and again at this point, whereas before I had a few close calls but got through more or less unharmed. And once I got through the naked and exposed corridors and successfully entered the code to get past the locked door, the alien would be drawn to those back offices. Suddenly, where it may have made a cursory inspection before, it would hover near my hiding places. It would investigate a room, leave, and then almost immediately retrace its steps. I couldn’t keep it away long enough to make sufficient progress at all once I got to those back offices. I have since read one frustrated player describing the encounter as feeling like the alien was almost physically tethered to you, and I couldn’t agree more.

Our emotions arced from thrilled terror to mild anxiety to general frustration to delirious amusement to simple boredom and back to frustration. I can’t recall at this point in time what difficulty I had been playing at–I think normal–but I grew so frustrated with the game that I kept lowering difficulty, without notable improvement. Maybe my competence was eroding with the increased frustration, outstripping the benefits of the lower difficulty settings.

On one run, I got so close to my objective, but the alien was approaching. I ducked into a hiding place before it detected me, but it crept closer and closer. Then it was glaring right outside my hidey hole, and suddenly, without any prior exposure to the concept or to the necessity of the feature, the game prompted me to hold my breath! I missed the quick action prompt, the alien ripped the door to my hiding spot off the hinges, and I was dead.

So that was the end of our efforts with the game.

Months passed.

With the ramp-up to Alien: Covenant, the release of the new Prey game, and an incidental reference to the intensity of the A:I experience in a podcast, I found myself holding renewed interest in the game.

I opened Steam and navigated to the game in my library. But I couldn’t quite pull the trigger and click “Play.” As if warming up to the task, I turned to my wife to tell her that I was going to give the game a try again. She seemed excited, at first, but not particularly eager to start at that moment–or at any other specific time in the near future. So I would have to go it alone. I still couldn’t quite get myself to start playing, either. After a few minutes, I realized I’d started pacing. It dawned on me that the idea of playing the game was actually causing some anxiety. I went to social media, vented about my situation, and expected to give up on the whole attempt.

Maybe I just needed a push in the “right” direction. Regardless, a friend of mine replied to my post, suggesting I should just play for a little bit, just for a quick taste of the setting and tone. That did it.

I logged back in–choosing to start a new game rather than continue, because fuck the goddamn med bay, and choosing to play on novice difficulty, because I don’t have the time or energy to struggle with an overly tough game anymore–, plugged in my headphones, and settled in for the attempt.

I played about half an hour that night, and I played half an hour the following night. Maybe less. I’ve been dragging out the experience of the game’s early moments, savoring the environmental storytelling and attention to detail (though as usual, the repetition of graffiti messages is a little immersion-breaking, when I’m not too tensed up so that I can actually reflect on them).

I don’t know how long I’ll keep coming back to the game. But boy, it just nails the environment so well. The world feels so lived-in, so real and tactile and plausible. The retro-futuristic tech looks fabulous and connects so well with the original film. And most impressive of all, even knowing when the alien first appears in the game, even knowing that I am basically “safe” for a good portion of the early part of the game, I am still on edge, easily dipping into fright, jumping at the THUMP of an activated bank of lighting or the distant creaking and groaning of the space station’s innards.

One thing I’ve found interesting to chart in my quiet moments are some of the books that I’ve come across during my brief, quiet explorations. There are lots of posters and magazines, but so far relatively few books.

Here are a couple:

20170505223841_1
War in Totality, by Frank Herman.
20170506191447_1
This Man, This God, with an undetermined author (perhaps “Alicia Ewald”).

The titles alone reinforce the game’s mood and themes. The space station on which much of the game is set has degenerated into “total war” between human factions and the rogue Working Joe androids. Man’s attempt to create facsimiles of life, in the form of androids and advanced AI, is often a secondary theme in many Alien films and, to my understanding, often serves as an important theme in this game (i.e., man plays god and fails at it). So maybe the book titles are a little on the nose, but they’re clever echoes of the larger themes in the game, even though you can’t interact with the books any further as you can in games like Deus ExDragon Age, or The Elder Scrolls.

Unfortunately, neither of the books or their authors appear to reference anything in the real world. While hardly necessary, simply flagging real-world books that would illustrate similar themes would have been a clever nod, and it is something that has been done in other games (I’d again cite Deus Ex here as an example).

As you can see, I really do admire the attention to detail presented in this game. It’s just such a shame that it becomes too frustrating for me to proceed at some point. Who knows? Maybe I’ll keep playing, at least intermittently, eventually reach the medbay, and clear it this time around with flying colors. More than likely, I’ll give it up yet again, though.

Either way, it’s fascinating that a game that can frustrate me as much as Alien: Isolation can have such a powerful hold over me.

Now, will I see Alien: Covenant? No idea. The reviews are all over the place (Polygon versus io9, for instance). But given that my aversion to gore is only increasing with age, and given that this is supposed to be the goriest movie in the franchise yet, it’s a fair bet that if I do watch the movie, it’ll be at home, during the day, with my remote in hand, ready to mute and look away at any moment.