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Dark Sesame Street Done Right: My Friendly Neighborhood

Dark Sesame Street Done Right: My Friendly Neighborhood

Roughly a month ago, I previewed the demo for an upcoming indie horror game from developer John Syzmanski (with the help of many others involved in the project). The title was My Friendly Neighborhood and I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m always a tad trepidatious when it comes to dipping my toes into a horror experience, but after a few tense minutes of teasing around every corner and allowing myself to wallow in the fear of what these strange puppets might do to me, I found myself having loads of fun. In that preview, I favourably compared My Friendly Neighborhood to Resident Evil, a survival horror series that also surprised me with how deeply it has entrenched itself into my heart. However, there’s another famous franchise that this new indie darling draws from on an even greater level: Sesame Street.

My Friendly Neighborhood screenshot If Wet Dont Walk

Now, the base concept for My Friendly Neighborhood — exploring a dilapidated television studio and fending off violent puppets in order to end a broadcasted remake of an old, beloved puppet show that has turned unsettling — might seem like it could describe more puppet shows than just Sesame Street, including The Muppet Show. Frankly, while I could go into some sort of debate over how Sesame Street is a more apt comparison, such a discussion would miss the point of My Friendly Neighborhood being influenced by these sorts of shows. Sure, the in-universe show of the same name, My Friendly Neighborhood, is pretty clearly presented as more of an edutainment-style production, thereby drawing more from Sesame Street in concept than the sketch-comedy focused Muppet Show, which itself had been intended as a somewhat more adult usage of Jim Henson’s Muppets. But that doesn’t somehow mean that The Muppet Show had no influence on this project, nor does my opinion on the subject merit any sort of factual basis. This is my interpretation of My Friendly Neighborhood, plain and simple.

Sesame Street has worked for decades to provide a safe and reliable place for children to relax and learn about the world around them, whether through the magic of letters and counting or with more complicated subjects about life and society. One fairly common element of the show that helps to build this image is the childlike innocence that several of the puppets share. You can always count on Big Bird to be inquisitive of the world around him or on Cookie Monster to indulge himself in delicious cookies. When designing a dark parody or reversal of Sesame Street, this is usually the main element that winds up excised. After all, it’s pretty funny at times to see these creations, typified by their use in children’s media, twisted into strangely adult figures. Avenue Q’s monsters need to pay taxes, struggle under debt, get their hearts broken, and surf the internet for porn. Well, they don’t need to do that last one (particularly not in the Junior versions of the musical), but dang it, they’re going to do it anyway. Saturday Night Live spliced Sesame Street’s classic characters with a pastiche of the recent R-rated Joker film to create a parody trailer for Grouch. The Happytime Murders’ tagline is literally “Sex. Murder. Puppets.” This is not to say that this style of twisting Sesame Street is somehow wrong or even particularly weak. However, few productions opt to keep that childlike innocence of the puppets around, creating a dissonance between these creatures’ felt faces and their more adult personalities.

My Friendly Neighborhood screenshot production rules

In contrast, My Friendly Neighborhood chooses to use that innocence as the cornerstone of its horror. The game asks the question: what if these childlike creatures went without any outside contact for decades? What happens when practically immortal beings are cooped up for basically forever, growing ever-increasingly out-of-touch with humanity? Eventually, all they come to know is a form of slapstick that is entirely unsafe for any human to engage in. Within the demo thus far, the various puppets around the playable sewers area do indeed chase the player around, arms outstretched and ready to inflict damage. From their perspective, however, each puppet only sees a brand new friend coming into view that they should hug and play with as much as possible.

From various notes left around the sewers, the player can come to learn that the puppets don’t even see the player’s violence against them to be something to fear or avoid. In one passage describing a shotgun-like weapon that fires rolls of paper, some of the puppets are described as loving being flung around the room. In a way, by engaging with these almost-kids in the same way, even the player is technically acting the same way, violently “playing” with the puppets and doing nothing to teach them how dangerous their actions are. Frankly, a large part of the horror comes from a sense of unease and disgust at firing down what are essentially isolated and lonely children and tying them to the ground with duct tape.

My Friendly Neighborhood sceenshot Norman tied up

The puppets are always delivering a series of monologues that range from inane to heartbreaking to chilling. Sometimes, they talk about using the phone or what they want to eat. Sometimes, they talk about how to get both of your arms inside of your stomach. But sometimes, they talk about how much they want to escape the television screen or how they need to have a friend. In most of these instances, the puppets deliver their lines like canned laughter, always peppy and full of animatronic-esque energy. But when they get a chance to speak their true desires to just be seen and heard, a note of desperation creeps under their tongues. These rantings and ravings can be heard around the corner or far enough away that they won’t lock their eyes on the player and start barreling towards them while shouting about how they can be such great friends. While that’s already unnerving enough, these moments also happen after the player tapes down a given puppet. They just sit there, monologuing and writhing under an entire roll’s worth of duct tape, not in an effort to escape, but rather to release their boundless energy. Even lying face-up on the ground, they cannot think of their situation as anything other than the playtime that they have long awaited or the unbearable amount of time between those fleeting moments of joy.

Maybe I’m just reading too much into My Friendly Neighborhood and I’m entirely off-base. When the rest of the game comes around, we’ll all hopefully know much more about this horror gem. But for now, I am well and truly chilled by these puppets and the wonderful range of performances from Leo Wiggins, Natalie Roers, and Joshua Michael Cookingham (the voice actors for the three recurring puppets used as generic recurring obstacles throughout the demo). Sesame Street was built off of adults helping the childish puppets understand and interact with the world around them. My Friendly Neighborhood understands that the way to turn this classic program into a dark, twisted version of itself isn’t to inject it with more adult themes.

The way to make Sesame Street dark is to remove the adults altogether.

Erin McAllister

Erin McAllister

Staff Writer

Erin is a massive fan of mustard, writes articles that are too long, and is a little bit sorry about the second thing.

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