With a description stating that this game “draws inspiration from the works of Junji Ito and games like Silent Hill” and that it contains “mild jumpscares” I was prepared to either fall in love with From Next Door or be horribly disappointed – I was not disappointed. Even though it’s only about an hour in length, this game’s pace is an extremely slow burn, slow enough that after a few minutes you might start to wonder if those ‘jumpscares’ are just going to be fake-outs without anything legitimately frightening ever happening. Yet this slow pace is what makes the game work so well because the sense of tension continually builds even when nothing is happening. A neighboring house with no windows, a mysterious locked room, and a growing sense of unease are all it takes to make you expect an unknown horror to at last abruptly reveal itself every time you turn on the lights at night.
As this is a short game focused entirely on the plot (and some very light puzzle solving) it’s not really possible to discuss it while completely avoiding spoilers, but as this is also a game which relies strongly on creating a mounting sense of tension I will also make sure to stay as vague as possible and only mention specific details from the early parts of the game. You take on the role of Namie Matsuda, a software designer who has just moved in to a house she is renting for an astonishingly low price after being forced to take a break from work. With this basic information alone the game already establishes two key horror elements. First, Namie is as isolated as she realistically can be in a modern-day urban setting; Namie has access to a phone and a computer connected to the Internet, but she’s still living alone in a new neighborhood far away from anyone she knows. Secondly, we know that our protagonist has such a tendency to overwork herself that she has been forced to take a break and she has chosen to use that time to rent a new house instead of relaxing, which gives players room to question Namie’s mental state at the start of the game and, in turn, how reliable she may actually be as a narrator.
From Next Door takes place over the course of several days and the protagonist being an isolated and potentially unreliable narrator aren’t the only important things players learn on the very first day. Stepping outside of the house reveals that the house to the right is seemingly abandoned and, strangely, has no windows. Meanwhile, the house to the left is inhabited by a woman named Hanae Honda and her unseen husband. Hanae comes out of her house to greet Namie and seems friendly enough, but neither the player nor Namie really knows anything about her and the title could just as easily refer to her as it does to the more blatantly suspicious windowless house. Within the house itself an entire room is filled with boxes of stuff left behind by the previous tenant, indicating that they didn’t just move out quickly, but left so abruptly that they didn’t even take most of their possessions with them. Stranger still, one of the rooms on the top floor is locked and the key Namie was given for it, the ‘Tatami room’ key, doesn’t fit. Thus, it is with the introduction of an isolated protagonist, a strange abandoned house, a seemingly friendly neighbor, and a mysterious room that From Next Door begins.
Dramatic irony is a tool which this game masterfully uses against its audience. Simply put, we, the players, know that this is a ‘horror’ game and expect something scary to happen, but for Namie this is just the start of her life in a remarkably affordable, only slightly unusual house. The result is that tiny, entirely ordinary elements of Namie’s life begin to create tension for players. For example, Namie’s bedroom is on the second floor of the house and there is usually a mundane reason for her to leave the confines of her home each day and neither the fact that she sleeps on the second floor nor that she leaves her house on several occasions is unusual or scary in and of itself. However, to players stepping into the outside world means entering a ‘safe’ location where the sense of isolation is lessened through the presence of a friendly neighbor and the constant sound of cars in the distance only to inevitably be forced to return to the house, the location where some unknown danger will presumably present itself at some point, and immediately have the sense of isolation set in once more as the sounds of civilization fade away to near silence on the second floor. Namie also cares about conserving electricity, so she keeps the lights off at night. What this means for players is that they are forced to flip the light switch in each room they enter at night while wondering if ‘this time’ will be when something unexpected at last greets them. Namie spends quite a while primarily worrying about if she isn’t being productive enough, but for the player there is a sense of anxiety which grows a little but more every time a room is entered or a light is turned on.
If it wasn’t already clear, fear of the unknown is the biggest factor at play here. There is a perceived sense of danger here, but what form it takes, where it will come from, when it will reveal itself, or even if it actually exists at all are complete mysteries. Since virtually nothing is known about the source of horror, it becomes easy to image it appearing in any number of forms from any number of places. The audience can assume that whatever the danger it is comes ‘from next door’ thanks to the title, but that doesn’t really help much. Is it something from the windowless house or from Hanae’s house? Is it going to come from next door or has it already come to the house before Namie arrived? Is it something alive or physical or even the actual source of danger to begin with? You simply don’t know. Likewise, what we learn of Namie herself is gained in bits and pieces through examining objects around the house and through brief conversations with Hanae and with her mother and with Kenji Omura from Furukawa Housing on the phone. Even once Hanae unlocks the mysterious room, which occurs within the first few minutes, the room itself is revealed to be entirely ordinary other than a boarded up window which directly faces a single window on the side of the ‘windowless’ house; one mystery is simply replaced with an even larger one. Hints as to the identity of the previous tenant and the potential source of danger gradually pile up over the course of the narrative, but why this danger might exist, exactly what it is, and how it works are never clear. Like any good horror story about the unknown, the only question which can be addressed is one of how to actually deal with the situation the protagonist has found themselves in because there is simply not enough information available to fully understand anything about the actual cause of the situation.
As far as horror goes, From Next Door was one of the most nerve-wracking games I’ve played in a while as it caused me to constantly be afraid of something horrifying appearing while simultaneously wanting such a thing to happen in order to at last break the mounting tension. The game also works pretty well from a more mechanic standpoint, though with a few minor bumps along the way. Most ‘puzzles’, such as figuring out how to unlock the tatami room, are simply a matter of exploring the house and once Namie finds a key item she will use it on her own when the situation calls for it. Even the most complicated puzzle in the game is still rather easy, though it does have the downside of taking a while to actually complete, which interrupts the flow of the narrative. A short action sequence in the second half of the game also serves as a small stumbling block as it’s a very short sequence as there is an understandable reason as to why it wasn’t handled as a cutscene, but it nevertheless has the same degree of awkwardness to its execution as you may expect from an action-oriented moment in an RPG Maker game.
On the plus side of things, there are multiple endings and many of the decisions you make throughout the game have a direct impact upon how the final events play out. Since the game only takes about an hour the first time through and significantly less time on a second playthrough, especially if you rush through the dialogue, replaying the game to get a different ending is a painless affair and there are even plenty of save slots to take advantage of. Aside from affecting the ending, the order in which you perform certain tasks and how carefully you examine your surroundings can lead to a few more conversation options along the way.
With its slow pace and its subtle methods of enhancing its atmosphere, From Next Door is a far cry from being a clichéd bloodbath and its unknown, unseen danger is far more frightening than any zombies or knife-wielding psychopaths could be.