My Friendly Neighborhood - Resident Sesamevil
My Friendly Neighborhood
Released: July 18th, 2023
Developer: John Szymanski, Evan Szymanski
Publisher: Dread XP
Once upon a time, a videogame about murderous Sesame Street puppets would have instantly gotten my attention. That was before the era of Five Nights at Freddy’s, Poppy’s Playtime, and a heaving bandwagon packed with similar horror games about killer kiddy mascots. These days, any such concept barely registers on my radar.
Your girl will confess she didn’t anticipate much when she started My Friendly Neighborhood.
I expected a tiresomely pedestrian product. I expected to be hiding from a plush monster simultaneously designed to be “creepy” and sell cuddly toys at GameStop. I expected predictable jump scares. I expected the kind of thing that inspires dozens of insipid “lore” videos aimed primarily at children. I expected the kind of thing I’ve seen dozens of times.
What I didn’t expect was a slickly designed blend of BioShock and Resident Evil… with murderous Sesame Street puppets.
A first-person survival horror game that features FPS combat, puzzles, and inventory management, My Friendly Neighborhood challenges players to stop a long-canceled TV show being broadcast from its seemingly abandoned studio. Of course, the show’s cast of Muppet-like characters are alive and unwell, prowling their old production facility and fixing to batter anybody they see.
My Friendly Neighborhood’s BioShock inspirations are clear from the get-go, to the point where the first weapon you get is a wrench. The emphatic animation with which players attack and reload, the general environmental aesthetic, the combat mechanics, even the way the camera moves when walking, all these elements strongly evoke the work of Irrational Games, and it’s not trying to hide that fact.
Meanwhile, a ton of ideas are liberally borrowed from the original Resident Evil series - map layouts, item-based puzzles, distinctly shaped keys, safe rooms with save points that require consumable items. You even go through doors in a style identical to the room transitions in Capcom’s PSX classics. The in-game maps takes cues from more modern Resident Evils, marking rooms red or green depending on whether or not you’ve cleared them of resources and objectives.
Both of MFN’s key inspirations equal a case of two great tastes going quite good together. Our protagonistic Gordon is handy enough in a fight, but ammo is a limited resource and the trusty wrench is a major risk factor thanks to the puppets initiating an unblockable grab attack the second they’re in close range. The harsh limitation of a mere four hit points only adds to the peril.
The studio is split into distinct areas with their own themes and puzzles to solve. Puzzles aren’t particularly complicated, much of them based around simple memorization or fetch quests. As noted earlier, a large aspect of player progress involves finding keys of certain colors and shapes to unlock corresponding doors. Managing one’s inventory is also crucial - Gordon can only carry a limited number of items, and even the storage chest in the safe room has a strict amount of space. It echoes the “item Tetris” of Resident Evil 4, though it’s perhaps more aggravating - Gordon’s carrying capacity is pants and quite a bit of time is spent rearranging his stuff.
You’ll also need to make sure you have tokens to use save points and heal stations, though on normal difficulty you should comfortably have enough if you don’t go wild with them.
Combat, like the puzzling, is straightforward, with Gordon unlocking a small handful of word-based weaponry as he explores. The first gun found fires post-it notes that show letters of the alphabet in order - the ammo clip holds 26 rounds exactly, which is really cute. There’s a similarly themed shotgun and grenades, as well as something more powerful hidden away, and despite the neat letter-based aesthetic, they behave like standard first-person shooter equivalents.
Combat isn’t what I’d call satisfying, but it does the job and it isn’t bad. Curiously though, the targeting reticle is disabled by default. You’ll have to manually activate it in the options unless you prefer to simply guess where you’re shooting.
As for the puppets themselves? They’re a bunch of annoying, incessantly babbling assholes, and the irritation factor is all part of their charm… mostly.
Muppety cast members of the in-universe My Friendly Neighborhood show lurk in many of the TV studio’s rooms, with four puppets in particular - Norman, Lilliana, Junebug, Lenard, and George - making common appearances, seemingly existing as a series of duplicates. The main five behave identically, idly waving back and forth while talking to themselves until they spot you, at which point they’ll mindlessly bound toward you with the goal of throwing you around until you're dead - all while constantly chatting bollocks, of course.
In classic survival horror tradition, enemies never leave the rooms in which they’re first encountered, but that doesn’t stop any given puppet’s threat remaining persistent - they can’t ever be killed, so if you take one down, upon leaving the room they’ll get back up and be right as rain upon your return. The only way to permanently stop a puppet is to use duct tape and stick the bugger down so it can’t move. Tape, as you’ll have guessed, is incredibly limited, so it’s best used in rooms you anticipate revisiting frequently.
The Friendly Neighbors aren’t particularly scary or even eerie, firmly settling on the more comical end of the horror scale. While this may be disappointing for some, I actually find it quite refreshing - this game isn’t following in the footsteps of all those Five Nights wannabes that desperately emulate creepypastas and try way too hard in the process. None of the regular enemies would look out of place on the actual Sesame Street, truly resembling endearing mascots made of felt, retaining an affable demeanor even when assaulting the player.
One thing I admire most is how banal much of the enemy chatter is, and how deftly it juxtaposes the violent rhetoric sewn into it. Norman will happily ramble about feeding animals at the park, informing his imaginary audience that you can bring peanuts to feed squirrels and squirrels to feed dogs. Liliana waxes merrily about arts and crafts, teaching kids how to draw biohazard symbols and sharing the fun of separating her friends’ body parts by color. Everything is said in the same cheerful tone, with only the occasional menacing croak or giggle. It’s played for laughs and it’s not subtle in the least, but by videogame standards the malevolence of the puppets’ monologues is delightfully restrained.
Be warned, though, that the Neighbors won’t ever stop talking. Ever. They incessantly run their mouths when idle, they continue doing so when hostile, and they’ll happily chunter as if everything’s fine even after they’ve been taped up. Only after being downed do they stay quiet, and while the silence provides blessed relief, it’s a temporary reprieve since they’ll be conscious upon a player’s return. On the one hand, the fact they never shut up adds to their comical presentation. On the other, they really start to grate after a few hours, especially when you hear the same voice lines over and over.
Repetition is the Neighbors’ - and by extension, My Friendly Neighborhood’s - biggest problem. Despite being five distinct characters, the main puppets behave and are fought in exactly the same way, each one effectively being a reskin of the others. From beginning to end, they remain the most common obstacle and never vary up their tactics. Any threat they posed, any humor they brought, sadly dries up after prolonged exposure and they simply become inconvenient obstacles.
There’s not much else for Gordon to tackle besides the five main baddies, either. A smaller series of puppets show up, unable to move and clinging to random parts of the environment, but otherwise behaving the same as their mobile counterparts. There are two enemies specific to certain levels - a janitor called Ray who swipes at Gordon from pipes in the wall, and a large monster named Goblette who charges at the player like a bull. Their appearances are welcome, but brief.
There are also some dogs later in the game, but they’re basically just faster, less vulnerable, more aggravating Neighbors.
As entertaining an experience as MFN is, I felt really done with it before the credits rolled. By the final act I felt I was going through the motions, fending off the same puppets that had long worn out their welcome and solving puzzles that by this point had grown rote and laborious. I should stress that things hadn’t become bad at all, there were just no surprises left. The game had shown its entire hand yet there was still plenty of it left to go.
That said, My Friendly Neighborhood is an amusing trip while it lasts. Its concept is executed with more grace and cleverness than dozens of games with a similar premise. The story is simple but has some depth going on in the background, particularly with various documents detailing the rise and fall of the television show, and there are regular references to the Vietnam War, which not only serves to put a time period to the game’s setting but informs some of the more dramatic themes bubbling under the plot’s surface.
Interactions between Gordon and Ricky - a sock puppet who isn’t actively hostile but regularly argues against shutting down the broadcast - are often quite charming and funny, thanks in no small part to Arlo’s engaging vocal portrayal of the latter. Voice acting overall is solid, and the colorful visual style is both appealing and another reason this production stands out from the horror crowd. Some praise must also be had for the puppets’ animations, which are perfectly bouncy in their imitation of Jim Henson’s creations.
My Friendly Neighborhood offers a unique execution of a conceit that’s otherwise become trite among horror games. Taking the “spooky kiddy thing” idea and pulling it onto a framework built from equal parts BioShock and Resident Evil smartly separates it from the ocean of similar concepts in the genre, even if none of its individual components are particularly original. It’s sadly let down from a lack of variety and consequently runs too long, unable to stay fresh or surprising enough to sustain its runtime. However, it’s a fun ride while it lasts, and it’s story is charming enough to be worth seeing through to the end.
Now if there was just enough duct tape for the puppets’ fucking mouths…