After working at developer Giant Sparrow on indie darlings like “The Unfinished Swan” and “What Remains of Edith Finch,” Esposito would go on to craft “Donut County,” an indie success story if ever there was one. Released by arthouse indie game publisher Annapurna Interactive in 2018, the game about raccoon app developers gobbling up Los Angeles with a hole in the ground caught on to mainstream success.
While Esposito had been the only developer of a few interactive music videos and enjoyed some success with his 2016 Furby survival horror game “Tattletail,” “Donut County” was different. Esposito was the only name behind a game that would step out of the indie sphere and into the spotlight of the gaming world at large. Its unique mechanic, moving around an ever-growing hole, coupled with a charming, lo-fi art style, made the game accessible and easily adaptable across all devices.
“Neon White” does not try to copy this success. He doesn’t even try to please everyone. It’s a hyper specific but hard to categorize project that struts around, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. You don’t like it? Shame.
In “Neon White,” you play as a damned soul, White, competing with your fellow hell for a chance at penance. White is joined by old friends, members of a group of mercenaries who died in a heist gone wrong. Together again, they can fight across the sky, slashing and shooting the demons that infest it (and trying to kill each other again) with breakneck speed.
By beating a level, you receive a medal ranging from bronze to ace. Achieve an ace runtime and you’ll unlock a leaderboard of other players’ fastest times. Maybe someone made the jump half a second before you did, or maybe someone halved your time with a shortcut you didn’t know about. Complete a level fast enough and you can unlock the Secret Red Ace Medal. This feeling of wanting to gain fractions of a second on your time is the true origin of the game.
‘Neon White’ makes you feel like a speedrunning god, even if you suck
Building the first prototype of ‘Neon White’ was a reprieve for the developer, something he said he just had to get out of his system in 2017 while working on the more laid-back, puzzle-focused gameplay of Donut County. After delivering that title, Esposito returned to the shelved “Neon White” prototype with fresh eyes. The roguelike deckbuilder “Slay the Spire” was released around this time, inspiring a wave of indie developers to mix card-based mechanics with other genres, leading to never-before-seen combinations. Esposito was part of that crowd, but it took a while to strike gold.
“I worked on it for about a month and then I almost gave up,” he said. “Getting weapons randomly handed out isn’t fun at all, it turns out.”
What saved the project was the competition. Esposito abandoned the random deck approach in favor of looting enemies for cards, which opened up new possibilities for level design. In “Neon White”, each card represents a weapon which, when discarded, activates a movement ability: double jump, dash, grappling hook, etc. Chaining them in succession while collecting new cards from fallen enemies is the second goal of any given level. Building levels around specific cards and combos allowed for more interesting challenges for both developer and player, but what really caught Esposito’s interest was a post from a friend who demonstrated of the project: “Here is how long it took me to beat this level.”
“Pfft,” Esposito thought, “I could do better than that.”
Development seriously ramped up in 2019, and this time around Esposito wasn’t going it alone. Working with a group of indie developers united as the Angel Matrix (the first of many nods to ’90s anime), Esposito and his team began work on what would become over 100 levels. of platforming, filming and storytelling.
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Going into the development of “Neon White,” Esposito decided to drop any assumptions about what a good fast-paced first-person shooter might be. This approach would lead to a tangle of design decisions that together created the genre-defying experience at the heart of “Neon White.”
For example, including a player’s weapon in the on-screen UI wasn’t essential to “Neon White” gameplay, so they got rid of it – just a break from convention that had cascading effects. With no physical presence of the player character’s body on screen, the developers discovered that there was no concept of time-consuming actions through animations. When players lacked this reference point, the idea of carrying three of the same light machine guns when jumping off a stunt didn’t seem so outlandish.
“Those early picks of not being beholden to FPS conventions were the things that I learned early on that I was able to bring to this and do something weird and counter-intuitive,” Esposito said.
“Neon White” doesn’t share many similarities with the more popular games in Esposito’s portfolio. Games like “What Remains of Edith Finch” are labeled “walking simulators” (with affection and derision) for their slow pace, with a narrative experience largely taking place around the player. The walk is slow. “Neon White” wants you to constantly think about how to be faster.
But Esposito explained that “fast” is a relative feeling, ultimately an effect of what the player has the options to do. In “Neon White”, each level has an obvious path available to players. But to improve their run times, players are encouraged to “break” the level in much the same way as sprinters, by finding new routes or using the cards dealt to them in seemingly unintuitive ways.
“It’s not about moments of extremely high speeds, it’s about feeling that you can always go a little bit faster at any point in the level,” he said.
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Although “Neon White” was a critical success, many recoiled from its explosive and hypersexual songwriting. But Esposito said he just didn’t want to do “a wholesome thing” again: “I wanted to do something that was just stupid and over the top and really indulgent.”
Fortunately, he had some of the best people on hand to launch a crude, anime-fueled assault on all things holy: visual novel developer Aevee Bee (“We Know the Devil”), animator Ryann Shannon (screenwriter on “Infinity Train”) and Geneva Hodgson (“Trick Moon”), character designer, co-creator and wife of Esposito. Together, the group made a character-driven crime drama about explosions, sex, and dead gods.
“It’s wacky,” he admitted with a laugh.
The story’s breaks also serve as a respite from the game itself, a chance to slow down and recuperate before rolling on to another series of levels at ever-increasing speeds. This juxtaposition is striking – and intentionally – something Esposito said he learned from “late 90s Japanese import games that had pre-rendered cutscenes and fast-paced video play.[play].”
Ultimately, Esposito wasn’t concerned with the cohesiveness between story and gameplay. “Ludonarrative dissonance?” he said, referring to a line of criticism in game studies that highlights discrepancies between gameplay and storytelling. “Awesome, I don’t care.”
The popularity of “Neon White” surprised the team. The game is a pastiche of early 2000s video games and cartoons, featuring the voice of Steve Blum, best known for his portrayal of Spike Lee in the English dub of Adult Swim staple “Cowboy Bebop.” and its Toonami programming block. since the series premiered in the United States in 2001. If you weren’t there, or haven’t read about the lineage of “Counter Strike: Source” and the influence of “Trigun”, “Neon White can sound hostile.
Esposito understands this: “Sometimes when people don’t understand what we’re trying to do, I’m just like, ‘Oh, you haven’t played enough localized, mid-budget PS Vita games.’ ”
The team prepared for rejection.
“We thought we were like ‘screw the awards,’ we’re just going to do something cool and fun,” Esposito said. “But it was quite the opposite. People understand. They talk about how – even if it’s counter-intuitive – it works together. So we’re just shocked to be honest. It’s really cool.”
Unlike White, Esposito doesn’t try to portray himself as a suave action hero. You don’t get a game like “Neon White” by trying to be cool – or by trying to design something with the intent of making it “cool”. It’s a passion project through and through, from level design to character writing to thematics to lines.
As Esposito would say: it’s “purely vibe-based, ultimately.”
Autumn Wright is a freelance game reviewer and anime journalist. Find their latest writings on @TheAutumnWright.