Ever since I was a little girl, I have always been creeped out by dolls. Their glassy-eyed stares, immaculate lacy outfits, uncannily human faces, and uneven limb proportions perpetually scared me, fearing they would spring to life when my back was turned. This automatonophobia was brought roaring back upon playing Mr. Hopp’s Playhouse, a side-scrolling horror game involving a young girl facing her own expressionless menace. The first game developed by Moonbit Studios, this unique blend of stealth and side-scrolling gameplay offers spooks and jump scares by the handful.
Ruby is not a fan of Mr. Hopp. A heartfelt gift from her late grandmother, the toy rabbit stares at Ruby night after night with a slumping posture and intimidating grin, making sleep impossible. She asks her father to take the doll away but he refuses, offering to leave the nightlight on instead as a compromise. The light flickers, and Mr. Hopp disappears. More frightened by his absence than she ever was of his appearance, Ruby creeps through the halls of her house, trying to find where her parents and the creepy toy have gone.
Mr. Hopp’s Playhouse is a tense blend of stealth mechanics and side-scrolling movement. Each room is comprised of two planes, with Ruby carefully jumping over discarded toys and crouching behind furniture in the forefront, and Mr. Hopp stomping around in the background. He has grown to gargantuan proportions, and will trigger an instant game over if he spots Ruby. As the game progresses, Mr. Hopp’s movements become faster and his behaviour more erratic, requiring a high level of stealth for Ruby to slip by unnoticed.
As a normal young girl, Ruby is not particularly predisposed towards bounding over obstacles like Mario. Her jump is quite short in both height and length, requiring a great deal of precision to vault over the procession of noisy toys. She can run for short distances, but this movement is loud enough to attract the attention of Mr. Hopp, and as such is best saved for a last ditch effort to dive behind a wall as he approaches. The cacophonous squeaks and trills of the toys can be used in Ruby’s favour, luring Mr. Hopp to one side of the screen so she can safely dash to the other side. I figured out this trick embarrassingly late into my play through, making the game much harder for myself than it needed to be. Some frustration could have been eased with more frequent autosaves: the game saves whenever Ruby collects a new item or receives a new objective, but the gap between these collectables can be vast. The time between collecting the tape recorder and finding the first tape was a particularly long stretch, with the repeated long climb down into the main house growing tiresome. Full manual saves would probably be overkill, but a save point for each room would have eased the frustration considerably.
Both story and game progression are obtained through the collection of six tapes hidden throughout the household. The tapes contain the thoughts of Ruby’s father, who is growing increasingly concerned about the grandmother’s failing health and Ruby’s strange behaviour. The story lends the events of the game a lovely ambiguous tone, with a lack of clarity over whether Mr. Hopp is really possessed or if Ruby is experiencing a mental break. Mr. Hopp’s Playhouse has several endings, each of which lends more credence to one theory than the other, but set nothing in stone.
The tense atmosphere of Mr. Hopp’s Playhouse is crafted by the strong art direction, with the design of the titular character in particular providing a menacing presence. Starting out looking much like a Five Nights at Freddy’s villain with glowing eyes and a tight smile, Mr, Hopp’s appearance degrades over the course of the game. The bright eyes hollow out into dull voids. His jaw hangs slack, mouth gaping open. Fur becomes rough and matted. The shifting design keeps Mr. Hopp a terrifying creation from start to finish, not allowing players to become accustomed to his appearance. Compelling sound design similarly invokes tension: the thud of Mr. Hopp’s footfalls, a tinkling music box for background music, a dramatic sting when Ruby is spotted. The end result is an everyday household turned into a terrifying maze.
While I was not very good at Mr. Hopp’s Playhouse (I took two hours to get through the game, where average playtime is closer to half an hour), I did find the experience to be an interesting mesh of different genres. The ultra precision of a Super Meat Boy with the instant death of a Five Nights at Freddy’s makes for a challenging but interesting concept. My pre-existing mild phobia of dolls made Mr. Hopp a truly terrifying villain, and although I was jumping out of my skin from start to finish, I was determined to see Ruby’s journey through. If you wish to support the developer, consider donating to its Patreon.
Next week, we will be getting in the Christmas spirit with Fork Parker’s Holiday Profit Hike, a platformer all about maximising profits during the festive season. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussion is happening on the Discord server, or you can email me if you prefer.