My Friendly Neighborhood came out on July 18. It is a horror game that released its demo a year ago and opened crowdfunding for releasing the full version. Players have compared the gameplay to that of Resident Evil and have become invested in the story. You can choose to fight most of the puppets, or reason with a few of the bosses.
I Googled the creators to make sure they weren't involved with any scandals. So far nothing, and I hope it stays that way. Quite a few horror game creators have the not-fun skeletons in their closets, so I'm trying to do Google checks ahead of time before getting attached.
As for the game itself? My Friendly Neighborhood does catch the eye as a new addition to the corrupted nostalgia video game genre. You can't turn your eyes away from the screen while exploring different areas and discovering secrets. I do feel that for all the effort into the story and world-building, however, logical holes start popping up like the holes into which the player character can fall. What's more, you can see the bits of artistic license that the studio took.
Life-Sized Violent Muppets
A repairman named Gordon is instructed to go to an old puppet show and shut off its broadcast. Apparently, it's interrupting the news, and upper management doesn't like that. They tell Gordon that he has to go to the studio roof and shut off the antenna, or he's fired. Gordon is so bad-tempered that he has many written warnings, and a few verbal ones as well. You can't blame him in this case, however; he has to work after hours, without a union. Does Gordon even have dental insurance through his maintenance job? I doubt it.
When Gordon enters the studio, however, he finds out a few things: the puppets are alive. They have put the show back on the air for their comeback. When Gordon expresses his intentions to turn off the show, the sock puppet Ricky tells him that's not happening. Ricky can't hurt Gordon, but he says the show is here to stay.
The other puppets, which are life-sized, tackle him and can kill him. Gordon has to shoot them with a gun that fires letters on paper instead of bullets or whack them with a wrench. He also has to solve puzzles to unlock different areas, receive healing items and tokens for saving, and find out what happened to the studio.
I feel like the game is visually appealing and arresting. There are some fascinating character designs and stellar voice acting. Nevertheless, as someone who is a huge nerd for Muppets and puppets with a Jim Henson hyper-fixation, I think that it is lacking in how it describes the different scenarios. It could do so much more with the premise.
Harel Cohen spelled out why the game didn't work for me: if you take out the puppets and make it exploring an abandoned film or TV studio, then a Muppet nerd like me would lose interest. The game relies on the gimmick rather than the nostalgia.
Sesame Street Was Not Filmed in a Corporate Lot
We don't know exactly where My Friendly Neighborhood takes place, only that they have a huge studio lot with at least five sound stages. A letter reveals that their previous corporate sponsor was the City Network Broadcasting Group. The city has since gone under, with a bunch of shuttered lots. Ricky references these cancelled shows and lost hope in the climax.
No one has entered the area in ages. It does look like corporate sound stages, and the setting outside resembles Los Angeles at sunset. You can also use vintage film reels to solve puzzles.
If you know Sesame Street history, the show wasn't filmed in any part of Hollywood, but in New York State. Before HBO acquired the show, PBS funding and viewer sponsorship kept the Muppets on the air. As a result, Ricky's motivations seem to fall flat.
Sesame Street also acknowledged the hard parts of life: racism, illness, and broken political systems. Jim Henson worked with experts to create an educational show for inner-city kids. We didn’t get the softer incarnations until the 1990s, when Sesame Street had to compete with other PBS shows like Barney and Lamb Chop’s Play Along.
Plausibly, My Friendly Neighborhood could be the corporate answer to Sesame Street. After all, the theme of capitalism influencing children's media colored the web series Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, which also features creepy puppets and disturbing imagery. Hence why it's in alternate-history Hollywood and in a crowded studio lot, with an abandoned budget and lots of things that clash with the networking.
I do feel the game would have more color by not setting this abandoned lot in a presumably urban area, given that Gordon has a lot of jobs and works for a corporation. If the show was interrupting local news, it would probably be a minor annoyance, given which media conglomerates are taking over such channels and stations.
Muppets Are Tiny and Need People
If you have seen the behind-the-scenes for Jim Henson Studios, most of their Muppets are tiny. They can comfortably fit in a person's lap. About three or four Muppets are life-sized, including Sweetums. As a result, they are very intimidating when you see them dancing with a guest star or harassing them.
Not all of them, however, would likely throw around a person. Why? Because an actual person has to go inside and wear the suit while managing all the controls. It doesn't make sense at all that they would become a threat.
Why are these puppets independently moving, and how? How are these puppets jumping up and moving on their own? Wouldn't they need a human operator? And if not, why wasn't this fact revealed to the stage crew, or to the people that were uncovering the show? It doesn't make sense to me.
They are also made of soft felt and wires. Getting punched by a Muppet would feel like getting punched by a hand covered in fabric, and often the puppeteer would ensure it's just acting. Even if Miss Piggy could kick you in the face, she is felt and wires. Not everyone will go flying.
How would these not-Muppets have the power to knock Gordon to the ground and beat him up? Why does it take duct tape in limited quantities to take care of them? Duct tape works best in limited amounts, so why does Gordon go all out in tying them up?
Do these details matter? Yes, for me to believe that these puppets are all a threat. Suspension of disbelief matters in a story so that the player can scream in their seat and feel the adrenaline rush. You need me to believe that they are capable of these things.
In Poppy Playtime, to use another horror game as an example, we have backstory and exposition that makes the player scared. Huggy Wuggy has a moving statue on display, with a theme song boasting about how he will never stop hugging his targets. He also looms larger than most people, and moves. The sharp teeth and the screaming in his jump scare certainly don't help. You can believe that Huggy is a threat and you will need to resort to drastic means to get rid of him. With the puppets, I can't quite believe that terror.
What Were the Good Parts of My Friendly Neighborhood?
You can see the storytelling shine at certain points during the game. For all the lack of research about how puppeteering would work, the narrative is compelling. We also get an entire story, rather than chapters released in installments. That way, the player doesn't have to keep purchasing installments or waiting for the ending.
Gordon is a great character. We learn that he suffers no fools, and is a war veteran to boot. Mention those tribulations, and he will fire first, ask questions later. The exposition implies that Gordon's PTSD affects his job performance, hence why he has a lot of trouble keeping his temper when working at other positions and thus alienates his clients. Being a repairman should offer job security, but it doesn't.
We see that Gordon is not as crusty as he looks. He also is highly empathetic, feeling bad for the puppets despite learning that they are rather violent. There's a reason that he opts to tape them up rather than cut them to pieces or set them on fire. The more you interact with Gordon and choose to help solve the puzzles, the more he reveals hidden depths.
The soundtrack also offers quite a few bangers; the music for the game is amazing. That track that plays in the trailer is quite enthralling, especially when we hear it in full context. When a sad theme enters the vicinity, it draws a person into the pathos. You can tell that the creators put effort into the midis as well as some in-universe pieces.
I also admit that the theme for My Friendly Neighborhood is super-catchy, what we can hear of it. (As of writing this article, I haven't found a video that shows the theme by itself or ripped from the game.) It reminds me of the Avenue Q soundtrack. You want to sing it over and over again, the way that Sesame Street stays with you. That song has earworm power.
My Friendly Neighborhood would just need one more rewrite to work out the kinks in its plausibility. That way, it can reflect the love and effort that the creators put into its designs, music, and storytelling. It can also hammer home the themes of finding your joy and light in a cruel world. Our neighborhoods are not friendly, and some games aren’t either, but they can be.
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