Designing a domestic hunter-killer thriller the Hello Neighbor way

Dynamic Pixels lead designer Nikita Kolesnikov tells Gamasutra a tale of how the small mobile studio scaled up to build a stealth horror game with a terrifying AI -- and what went awry along the way.

Dynamic Pixels’ Hello Neighbor is a bizarre breed of game.

Having spent serious time with a few different builds, I feel confident in saying I don’t know what it is at all -- and that is probably what it intends to stir in me.

The game is ostensibly about invading your neighbor’s home and trying to undo a series of Adventure Game Logic puzzles in an effort to discover a terrible secret. Along the way there is… well, just so many terrible secrets. But also a gigantic world of impossible spaces that antagonizes the player into attempting a mix of terrible yet obvious challenges or thinking outside every box to come up with a solution that can just as easily be their undoing.

All the while, your Neighbor hunts you. You’re in their house for some reason (there is no direct prompting for why, other than a bizarrely disconnected inciting incident) and when they hunt you down you are forced to respawn back in your home across the street.

There’s a constant forward progression but, in the process, the AI this team developed learns from your every choice. And I mean it when I say it: this game is too clever. It learns too fast and it forces you to change your style of play almost immediately.

To get a sense of how it works, we sat down to discuss the game’s development with Dynamic Pixels lead designer Nikita Kolesnikov. Hello Neighbor is the biggest project to date for the team, and along the way are a few growing pains, surprise design decisions, and so on. There’s also an unholy AI that I think was summoned from Hell itself.

We’ll get to that.

How a small team faced big growing pains

Kolesnikov was thrilled to start working on such a big and exciting project, but the team very quickly found something of this scale was exceptionally difficult. Two people began development in 2014, and they've since expanded to the current (small yet mighty) team of seven full-time employees.

“We [were] greatly inspired by Nintendo as a company,” Kolesnikov says. “They are not afraid to experiment and are open to the new things, both in their games and platforms.”

Similarly, the team that began in mobile games hoped to experiment in the direction of something bigger and more demanding that a casual game. With that kind of experimentation comes a necessity to edit; occasionally brutally.

“There were so many times we scrapped all of our work-in-progress, and started all over again,” says Kolesnikov. “You can easily see this in the game's art style: it started as a more realistic art style, and it became more cartoony over time.”

"There were so many times we scrapped all of our work-in-progress, and started all over again. You can easily see this in the game's art style: it started as a more realistic art style, and it became more cartoony over time."

It took a number of iterations to come up with the game’s style, which the team almost frustratingly acknowledges is somewhere between Tim Burton and Pixar. This was never the intention, but as animators and artists blended their work with the programming and design, this is what synthesized.

The larger influence was most complicated: the Canadian sci-fi TV series Orphan Black. In an early version of the game, the Neighbor was a spy (akin to "monitors" in Orphan Black) and that set up the idea of suspensefully trying to determine what was happening in the house next door -- even though some of those clues might be total red herrings. Since then, the narrative around the gameplay was changed four times in total over the course of development before settling on the final arrangement.

Designing and tuning the perfect hunter neighbor

So what did that mean for the house itself, a self-contained world that exists with its own set of rules and even its own inter-dimensional forces, like gravity or light? The starting point, according to Kolesnikov, was to set physics that ruled the house and then determine how to use those physics to build puzzles.

“The Neighbor’s AI is calculating approximate player location based on sounds that the player makes in the house,” Kolesnikov says, “and changes around the house made by the player (opened or closed doors, broken windows, misplaced objects inside the house); the AI then places traps that allow him to track and/or slow down the player.”

The logic of said puzzles and traps were designed by working backwards. For example, if the player’s goal is to get to the basement, the team would start with the basement, and think through the logical process. “What did I need to do in order to get here? I needed to open the basement door. And in order to open the basement door, I needed the basement key and to remove the wood planks that block the door - and so on, and so on.” The house was designed so that players have several different ways to solve the game puzzles, but the sandbox physics allow for some solutions that even surprise the Dynamic Pixels team.'

But what does that mean for the more complex puzzles? The team is aware that they’ve built a world that, like their original intention, is far from casual, and they intentionally avoided building much into Hello Neighbor in terms of hints of guides. “Any puzzle in the game,” Kolesnikov says, “requires you to investigate. And requires you to experiment.” And that’s the end of the helping hands.

Hello Neighbor is a tense experience that borders on the terrifying, especially when the strings clamor and the cellos scream murder as the Neighbor gets within arm’s reach. For a game positioned to have broad appeal (it already has a Funko Pop character being released) was there ever any concern that it was too frightening?

“We never intended to make a horror game to begin with; more of a suspenseful thriller,” Kolesnikov says. “But during development there were moments when the game became just way too creepy, especially for sensitive people with big imaginations. One of our artist refuses to play the game by herself; she says it’s way too scary. However, it seems to be less scary to the younger audience - perhaps thanks to the bright, cartoony visuals.”

This is an excellent point for devs to consider: I’m too scared to play Five Nights At Freddy’s, but apparently children love it. Who am I to say what's scary?

The heart of Hello Neighbor's scary parts is the AI behind the Neighbor, which I can attest operates with fearsome dedication and learns from player choices on a curve that I found to be nearly unfair. As far as the technology of the game goes, this seems the most impressive element.

“In the very beginning, the Neighbor just scanned the environment to figure out where the player would likely be, and then he would go and put traps in those locations,” Kolesnikov says.

“Now, the Neighbor is analyzing the way the player is interacting with the game: where he could be at this moment, why he was able to run away from a certain location, what trap will work better to catch the player if he repeats his actions. After an unsuccessful chase of the player, the Neighbor will think through what he can do better next time in order to catch the player.”

"When the Neighbor got closer, we saw the player’s radio in his hands! He walked up and threw the radio at the player. That was creepy. Later we understood that we didn’t program the Neighbor to distinguish between 'his' or 'player' objects, so all he was trying to do is to place objects back where they belong."

The hunter learning from the prey is on display throughout the game. Remember how scary Alien: Isolation was despite being entirely random? That’s Hello Neighbor -- except for realsies now.

This AI collects the data from the player’s actions, analyzes it and tries to counteract based on the things it learned. However, Kolesnikov mentions that they did have to turn down the dial on the Neighbor’s smarts.

“We noticed that it was acting 'too smart' in the beginning of the game, so it was nearly impossible for the beginner players to progress," he says. "So we had to use different AI in the beginning to let people learn how to play against the Neighbor.”

In fact, Kolesnikov has a story about the playtesting and what they learned from this process, and what others might learn from the decision to include a super intelligence in your house-raiding title.

“The Neighbor is programmed to fix the things around the house: if you misplace an object, he will find it and will put it back in place," explains Kolesnikov. 

"A player took the radio from his own house (which you return to after each death), turned it on, and placed it in the Neighbor’s house to distract the Neighbor. The next gameplay session started with the Neighbor walking to the player’s house, without any chase music. When the Neighbor got closer, we saw the player’s radio in his hands! He walked up and threw the radio at the player. That was creepy. Later we understood that we didn’t program the Neighbor to distinguish between 'his' or 'player' objects, so all he was trying to do is to place objects back where they belong.”

Ah. Nothing like an OCD sequence killer artificial intelligence. Now we know what the final season of Mindhunter will be about.

With similar precision, the fandom of the game has been picking apart every detail (including abandoned elements of the numerous patches) to build conspiracy videos. When asked how Pixels chose to engage with this, Kolesnikov admitted to a bit of deliberate baiting.

Hello Neighbor was intended to be a community-driven game, that people share, discuss and play together. We really love how community became involved with the game story," he says. "Our entire team watched nearly all of the conspiracy videos, and we discuss them and share them with each other. Some people got really close to the original story, and some people have very original takes.”

Did any of the internet’s meddling sleuths upend the planned arc here? Yes, apparently. The Golden Apple, an element that was almost accidentally included in early builds, wound up taking a prominent (if still obscured) role on the newer releases. “During the alpha testing the players connected dots around it, which we appreciated because it gave a new meaning to the story,” Kolesnikov says.

But this isn’t where the story ends, by any stretch of imagination. And the team has leaned into that fandom-powered generator of potential. Kolesnikov says: “We have added game modding so players can create their own Hello Neighbor worlds, experiment and share with each other.”

Honestly, that sounds horrific, because given my own ability to take the darkness in my head and combine it with the tools of Hello Neighbor, some unsuspecting folk are about to get Silent Hill’d in a terrible way.

I try to ask Kolesnikov about potential DLC or whether the story will keep adapting and growing within the main game world. For for efforts to cut through the mystery at the heart of Hello Neighbor, the answer I am given is simply the release date of the game.

I deserved that.

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