I don’t think I’ve ever played anything that mixes genres like Neon White. Let me try to summarize the game: you play as a demon hunter who destroys bad guys in the sky by using cards that serve as weapons or special movement skills, and the goal is to complete each level as fast as possible. It’s part first-person shooter, part first-person platformer, part puzzle game, part card game, part-time attack, and even part visual novel.
I’ve struggled to come up with a better description, but in an interview Neon White creative director Ben Esposito finally gave me one: “a really gamey game.”
“It’s really an unlikely match,” he said. “It’s really a game-like game that’s full of game-like stuff. But the combination of elements is something that nobody asked for.” I think he’s got a point there: the idea of a game that combines first-person action with a race against time, backed up by a charming story, sounds ridiculous even in my wildest dreams.
In a video released last year, Esposito mentioned that Neon White was a game for freaks, and I asked him what he meant by that. “We wanted to create something that was unique and felt fresh, yet felt like it used the history of video games, especially Japanese games from the late 90s/early 2000s, as a great source of inspiration,” he said. “We’re talking about it being for freaks because you have to be open-minded and love weird, mid-to-low budget tropes and clichés. It might not be as dignified as any other game.”
Neon White is Esposito’s sequel to Donut County, a delightful but much simpler game where you play as a hole. Donut County is deliberately very accessible. “Part of the Donut County design was for someone four years old to play it,” Esposito told me. So with Neon White he went in a different direction. “I wanted to challenge myself to do something completely different, which was to make a game that was much more about systems and gameplay and pure fun.” Instead of trying to make another game that tried to serve everyone, “I’m going to try to serve myself when I was in high school,” he said.
Neon White would certainly have served me in high school. As a kid I played Star Fox 64 countless times trying to get a better high score, and Neon White allows me to chase the top of the leaderboards and feel extremely cool doing it.
“Those are so video games”
But beyond the gameplay and aesthetics, the many little discoveries in each level were what really kept me playing Neon White. Most take less than a minute to beat, so it’s easy to practice them over and over without feeling like you’re wasting time. With each repeated run, you may find a new way to save fractions of a second when rounding a corner or even an important shortcut that cuts seconds off your time. There is also a bonus gift – a literally wrapped package – hidden in each level, and they can be given to characters to unlock new dialogues and missions.
It’s easy to get into a flow state while playing the game, and it’s designed that way. “Our goal with the levels and overall gameplay was to make it really clear,” said Esposito. “Everything had to be very, very clear and obvious.” That way, the game could more easily draw players into what Esposito called the “speed zone.” The team brought in some speedrunners to test levels, but found it more useful to test with players of intermediate skill level instead. “Speed runners will figure it out eventually. They like pain,” he said. “But the average person needs to get carried away.”
Neon White also exudes style, and I had to ask about one of my favorite minor details of the game: the “mission completed” sequence. After you beat a series of levels, a short cutscene plays where the main character turns in front of the camera, says the same stupid one-liner, and the words “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” fade across the screen. It feels like a childhood relic that I look back on fondly, but it’s right here in a game released in 2022. time, for me, that’s video games,’ said Esposito.
Everything in Neon White seems to have been born from that philosophy. “What’s at the heart of the game for me is the idea of being the most video game game possible,” Esposito said. “Not everyone appreciates that we’ve made decisions that you would normally consider bad decisions when making a game. We did them on purpose. This game should be fresh. It’s an original idea and it’s a new type of gameplay, but it’s also meant to celebrate the weird and twisted and nonsensical parts of video games that made them so much fun.”
This post Neon White’s creative director on creating the ‘most video games game possible’
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