Puppets—and I don’t mean the wooden, ventriloquist dummy kind, but the fun, soft-bodied muppety types—aren't natural beings of horror. More timeless toy than perfect hunting organism. But consider those vacant eyes, gawping mouths, and the unpleasant image of stuffing your hand up a butt to manipulate the puppet's face into talking, and you might rethink your relationship with these childhood favourites.
That's exactly the kind of slapstick discomfort that upcoming survival horror shooter My Friendly Neighbourhood looks to be leaning into, with a cast of murderous puppets that are at once funny and quietly disconcerting. "They naturally have the tendency to feel a bit uncanny valley, particularly if they're humanoid," lead developer John Szymanski says. "Puppets are also by nature ridiculous and gregarious, which gives so much room for being able to pull off silly and stupid things you can't do with more serious characters."
Originally cooked up by Szymanski and his brother, Evan, as a mixing bowl of horror and humor, My Friendly Neighbourhood sees you return to the decommissioned studio of a beloved fictional Saturday morning children's TV show, only to find its stars aren’t as quiet (or unanimated) as previously thought. Think Sesame Street, but if Cookie Monster dropped the first half of his name and Big Bird decided Elmo looked like a snack. And not in a sexy way.
Hints of the classics of the genre aren’t hard to detect. Silent Hill immediately shows in My Friendly Neighborhood's resource management and non-linearity, and you can detect echoes of the recent first-person Resident Evil titles in its sparse combat and light-touch puzzle segments. Weapons tend to be just as silly as the targets you aim at, such as the Rolodexer—a makeshift office gun that fires index cards at lethal velocity—while puzzles are more grounded in the environment. Szymanski says the team wants to challenge the player to independently draw connections between the various items they pick up and the objects around them instead of "just confining puzzles into a game-y little set of switches".
Much of your time, though, will be spent alternately gunning down and running away from the sentient props stalking you. They come in several varieties: regular 'neighbors', each with deceptively amicable names like Norman and Liliana, and 'main stage' puppets that accompany each new area. The rotund Goblette, for instance, charges forward, arms outstretched, threatening to scoop you up in its gigantic mouth. They can be defeated in combat, although scarce ammo and other resources often encourage you to find alternative, safer paths forward.
Szymanski thinks the best survival horror experiences are those that "ask the player to learn their environment to survive”. In this case, that will change between the plush corridors of executive lobbies, underground sewers, and the more unusual sets of the titular TV show. Hardly the Spencer Mansion; most areas may look light and breezy, but they contain "compact, detailed environments that require back and forth to get through," and the team has hidden many secrets to discover.
If you're thinking My Friendly Neighbourhood is hewing too closely to beloved video game horror stalwarts, Szymanski suggests its puppets are more than mere novelties. "I like to think the game has a kind heart to it," he says, "which is something that's maybe more inspired from the side of mascot horror." As a puppet flies backward and collapses in a contorted ragdoll heap after being shot from weaponized office stationery, it's not hard to spot the "humorous undertones" the team is aiming for. Though how this combination of comedy and terror play out without sacrificing one to elevate the other is still something of a puzzle in itself. It's a balancing act, certainly, that Szymanski thinks is stabilized by the puppets themselves.
"Although there would be a charm to this sort of thing happening to more serious antagonists, it would pull you right out of the horror experience and turn it into something to laugh at," Szymanski says. "But with a puppet, you can have these silly, off-the-wall moments as much as you want and keep the player engaged in the horror atmosphere because it fits who they are as characters."
All this is a noticeably different approach to the other takes on mascot horror from recent years, both in gaming and beyond. Five Nights at Freddy’s animatronic characters, serial killer doll Chucky, the more recent porcelain Anabelle, and last year's Choo Choo Charles have tended more toward the grotesque than the funny.
My Friendly Neighbourhood is now in the last stretch of development, so it won’t be long to see how its blend of scares and laughter lands. Just don’t expect to also learn your ABCs.