Let me take you behind the curtain to the man that lies beyond.
Sometimes we want to high-five a game, give it some delicious thick journalism, but we simply don’t know how to present it. One such personal example in the past involved me writing a review, the game going through some major updates and then being asked to write about the updates. The developer even personally asked about it, and asking is free so it’s fair enough.
I might have done it. At 3am with a frayed mind made more fizzled by caffeine, sure, but done it. However, roughly around this time said game was getting a port. A port that was to be reviewed by someone else. So it seemed to me my five-sentence coverage would be heavily over-shadowed by the port review, and in the end I walked away. A good idea, but with no good way to add enough bulk to warrant its own madcap creation alongside a port review by another person. Yes, my editor was and still is disappointed with me.
So we arrive at Hello Neighbor that has reached Alpha 1.0. If a game is a glorious house, a preview would be like walking around the concrete/brick walls prior to decoration. Alpha 1.0 in this metaphor is where they start building the walls with the groundwork in place. Therefore, to quote the vague voice that is the editor: “Remember, it’s a very early build, so I wouldn’t even do a preview. More of an impressions/thought piece.” This is where we are now. Describing my thoughts of how the walls look as they’re being built.
Hello Neighbor is a stealth title by Dynamic Pixels about sneaking into your neighbor’s house after moving in. Mostly because there’s just something off about him. Those big rubber gloves especially. So rather than calling the police like a sane individual, you decide to break in, trying all you can to get into the cellar. Just, best not to be caught though, because if he grabs you it is all over.
You must then try again, the enemy cluing in on your tendencies and reacting accordingly. He’ll put bear-traps and cameras on the front door if you keep going in that way. Maybe instead start boarding up windows if you keep smashing and entering through there. Although this comes with the concerning problem of: you’re punishing failure, by making the game harder. Maybe some wouldn’t have any problems with this. For others though, it seems failure is only going to happen over and over again with this mindset. With a difficult task for some being made impossible.
If there is another main thought to this, it is that making a good stealth game with clever AI is harder than making a good stealth game with stupid AI. Naturally comes the slaps of palms to foreheads. Follow me on this journey though, as I mean it more beyond programming AI.
To outwit a smart AI, you’ll need every tool you can muster. Even then you will lose, a lot. A lifelike AI could chase you to the ends of the world in their quest to turn your windpipe into a fashionable bow-tie. Unless if you’re particularly good at stealth games, chances are you’re just going to lose.
To outwit a stupid AI, you just need to avoid the vision cones and pay attention to the route pattern. Even when caught, there will be a fail-safe of how to lose them that will show stupidity. Depending how dim the AI is, this will leave at least stealth-hobbists yawning or even casual players thrashing the game.
However, and this is the main driving point: I think it is incredibly difficult to make a smart AI easy but relatively easy to make a stupid AI hard. After all, AI is only part of a scene. It is an aspect of the puzzle you must ponder over. Level layout, for instance, would not fall under AI but would definitely alter difficulty. Making a difficult AI accessible to weaker players (e.g. me) would involve handicapping them somehow. Making a stupid AI challenging for harder players would mean handicapping the player via methods like quantity of guards, level design or even traps (e.g. cameras, bear-traps or sound-emitting traps).
I think if you want an example of what I’m nudging at, I would use Metal Gear Solid as a case study. The AI was always thick, but difficulty came via modifiers. Game over if you got caught being on the extreme end, but you also had things like damage/health modifiers to punish you harder if you got spotted. So it was easier to tweak how hard it was to a level that made creeping past guards satisfying but achievable.
So, as you may have grasped, I kind of got my head handed to me in Hello Neighbor. I then had more security put against me, which made it even more apparent how bad I was. Very quickly, as soon as I got onto the property the neighbor would walk outside to give me a throat-cuddle until I passed out. Even inside, I was faced with traversing obstacles like a shark pit in a room with a low ceiling that made jumping awkward. So I got caught a few times by a shark, like how the surfer did in Jaws.
Besides that, there is an unexpected level of depth in what was going on. Cutscenes would appear, hinting at the neighbor’s darker side. Even when I screwed up enough times, they gave me a stealth tutorial of how to hide. I’d be frustrated at being talked down to if the scene didn’t feel so…psychological? As though to peel back a layer of what makes the psychopathic neighbor tick.
If you want to play Hello Neighbor now, you can actually. On their website, they’re selling Early Alpha Access packs which give you access to Alpha 1.0 onwards to the full release. With the promise that if the full release doesn’t work, you’re guaranteed a refund. Anything before then is fair game, due to the chaotic nature of game development. If you like the idea of an adapting AI then this could be something that tickles your pickle. As someone who is clumsy at stealth, I’ll probably wait to see how it develops more.