When Neon White’s gameplay trailer released last year, creative director Ben Esposito introduced the game by saying “it’ll be a game for freaks.” The game, which combines deck building, speedrunning, and first person shooting with a theological, visual novel-infused tale of cleansing Heaven of its demons, seems to be living up to that billing as its planned 2022 launch date approaches. I sat down with Esposito for a one on one gameplay demonstration, and asked him how a game for freaks is developed.
“There's a little bit of an uphill battle to justify putting a story in a speedrunning game,” Esposito says. “I said it's a game made by freaks and for freaks, because we know it's not necessary to combine these two ideas of having rich, interesting lore, and campiness, [but] also a speedrunning game that’s all about going as fast as possible. Naturally, most people would say, ‘don't have any story that stops me, let me just zoom through this’. For the people who want to do that, that's totally fine. They can skip past everything and they don't have to engage with it. But to me, it was really important for a few reasons. One, I just love having a justification for why I should really care about the universe. Also I think it's really important for the pace of the experience as well to have not only be hardcore speed running that never stops you, but also this whole other component where you're exploring the world, you're talking to angels and getting a sense of why is everything so screwed up.”
Actually readers, I must apologise. I didn’t ask Esposito about any of that. In fact, across our entire 35-minute interview, I asked two, maybe three questions. As Esposito demonstrated different levels and perfected his time, his love for the game burst through the usual interview format as he offered paragraphs of answers to questions I hadn’t asked yet, and quizzed me on my own thoughts having played the demo. This passion leaks through into the game itself, especially when you see the perfectionism at the heart of the game’s chaotic, frenetic stylings.
“The original idea of the cards was like something more traditional,” Esposito tells me. In the final build of the game, you pick up cards around the map, each card corresponding to a weapon. You can either shoot enemies with them, or discard them to gain an action like a speed boost or super jump. “[Initially] you had a hand of cards, they were drawn randomly at a deck, and you could adjust the odds by building your deck. We found basically any element of randomness completely fights against [the game]. Doing anything traditional with the cards wasn't really working. But something that we thought was really valuable about the cards is that it made it really clear that they had different functions. So if we had a weapon drawn on screen, it's not necessarily clear that that weapon equals a movement ability or something like that. We really liked the abstraction of the cards where seeing it in your hand means I know how much ammo it has, but as long as it's there, I could discard it for the action. That's why we don't even have guns on the screen, because we wanted to keep it in the realm of the abstract. The most clear way to do that was to keep them as playing cards.”
As a game that seeks to act as something of an introduction to speedrunning, it’s only natural that development was a process of trial and error, of breaking every element down to the smallest piece and rebuilding it in the most efficient way. It’s because of the speedrunning blood coursing through its veins that the cards, typically emblematic of randomness and chance, were not just removed from a deck, but also given more permanent and reliable placements. “We originally had the idea that we could change what sidearm you start with. Maybe you can throw a knife at the beginning or it's a grenade that gives you a free explosion or something like that. Any time we added more and more freedom, or like we made it so different cartons can drop in different situations, we felt like it was taking away from what was really fun about the game, which is like, you think that you've hit the boundaries of what you can do, and then you push beyond that. Giving more and more freedom didn't actually make it more fun. Really focusing on like the really narrow band of possibilities made the game better and better.
“That's something that I found about speedrunners that should have been obvious, but wasn't really until I started having them play the game [that when] anything was even slightly random, they just told me they would sit there and do it over and over again until they got the correct thing. That's not really fun for anyone. So that's something we’ve been stripping out piece by piece over the development, making sure everything feels completely deterministic.
This is also why no upgrades exist in Neon White. The game will never get easier until you get better at it, but rewards offer something Esposito argues is even better: a deeper connection. “We didn't want to introduce any rewards that made the game easier,” Esposito tells me. “We didn't want to introduce power ups [where you could] go back in, you're faster now, you're stronger. The accrual of power makes things trivial at the beginning, we wanted to keep it completely even throughout. Our totally different way of thinking about doing optional content is just about you getting to know other characters and understanding the world better. There is like an alternate ending depending on how well you get to know everyone. We were trying to create an engine of intrinsic rewards for you, but it's a rabbit hole for you to fall down and fall in love with the characters.”
Neon White, the speedrunning card-based first-person shooter made for freaks, will launch on Nintendo Switch and PC later this year.
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