Chatting with Ben Esposito, the mind behind Neon White
A heavenly interview for a Hell of a game
Neon White is a first-person action game with a focus on speed. You play as White, an assassin from Hell, and it’s your job to hunt down and eliminate demons hanging out in Heaven. You’ll be going up against a handful of other demon slayers along the way, and if you manage to come out on-top, you can earn yourself a permanent place in the promised land.
Everything about Neon White screams originality. From gameplay to graphics, music to art, Neon White is a one-of-a-kind experience. Thankfully, it seems Neon White has the substance to match its style, as numerous outlets have been earmarking the title for a Game of the Year nomination. If this one wasn’t on your radar already, it definitely should be now!
To learn more about this Switch console exclusive, we had the amazing opportunity to chat with Ben Esposito, the indie dev behind Neon White. Esposito shared a ton of insight into how Neon White came to be, along with some happy accidents and surprises along the way. You can see our complete chat with the man himself below.
GN: For those who don’t know, can you give a quick breakdown of what Neon White is all about?
Ben Esposito: Neon White is a single player first person speedrunning game where you can sacrifice your guns for parkour moves. You play as White, an assassin who was brought to Heaven to compete with other demon slayers for a chance to live in Heaven.
GN: The look of Neon White is equal parts unique and gorgeous. How did the team come to this visual approach?
There are enough first person shooters set in Hell! We thought it’d be fun to do the opposite. The bright, clean, colorful aesthetic is not only striking but it also makes the game legible at really high speeds. Visual clarity was really important to us, so the limited color palette is meant to put the emphasis on the gameplay.
GN: While speedrunners take on any game and challenge, Neon White looks built for speedrunning from the ground up. Was this always a goal the team had in mind?
Ben Esposito: The speedrunning concept was a bit of a happy accident! While prototyping the idea of a card-based shooter, we experimented with getting rid of the concept of a deck and instead had enemies drop the cards that you play with. We designed a few levels this way and found it was super fun to compete for times… so much so that we decided to build an entire game around it. We’re hoping to cater to both seasoned speedrunners but to also make it accessible for players who might be interested but haven’t given it a try.
GN: How does Neon White accommodate both diehard speedrunners and those just becoming familiar with the idea?
Ben Esposito: For players who are new to the idea of speedrunning, we structured the game specifically around replaying and discovering new ways of seeing the levels. At first, you’re just trying to kill all the demons and get to the end of the level. Once you’ve done that you unlock a collectible gift that requires you to use the card resources available in the level in a new way. Then to get a gold medal, you’ll need to use those cards efficiently by discarding them. Finally, you won’t be able to “Ace” a level until you’ve found a shortcut… and if you have trouble with that, the game has a built-in hint system that gives you an idea of where to look, though it tries not to give away the answer!
For players more engaged with speedrunning, there are a whole bunch of hidden mechanics and behaviors for them to find that the game never requires you to do. There are unlockable modes called Level Rushes that allow you to play through the game in sequence without the story. The one I’m most excited about is Hell Rush, which is a permadeath run through the game where your health doesn’t refill between levels.
GN: Neon White puts you in the role of an assassin handpicked from Hell to compete with other demon slayers for a chance to live permanently in Heaven. How will players get to interact with and further the story throughout the game?
Ben Esposito: The story is presented in a breezy visual novel-inspired style. The game is divided into twelve “missions” which are sets of levels that have story beats at the beginning and end. In between missions, players get a chance to spend time in Central Heaven, the hub where they can replay previous levels to collect gifts. They can then give the gifts to characters in the hub to unlock side content like one on one conversations, memories of the past, and sidequest levels which have unique rules depending on the quest giver.
Only through interacting with the other characters and earning White’s memories will players be able to unlock the “true” ending of the game.
GN: The voice cast behind Neon White is star-studded, with anime legend Steve Blum leading the pack. What was the process of landing such a stellar group of actors?
Ben Esposito: When discussing voice roles, my co-creator Geneva suggested a voice that sounded like Steve Blum for the main character White. I thought about it for a second and asked “…why not just ask Steve?” It turns out he was available and excited! He really understood the character and was able to bring out an unexpectedly endearing side of him.
Part of our team comes from the animation industry rather than games, so ultimately when casting we were not trying to get the most well known actors, just the strongest and most interesting character performances. We’re so happy with all of the actor’s performances in the game.
GN: Neon White’s ‘Soul Cards’ seem like the perfect mechanic for speedrunning. Just how many ways can they alter gameplay?
Ben Esposito: The game has 6 main cards (and one that’s a spoiler!). Each card handles differently as a weapon in a traditional FPS way (pistol, shotgun, machinegun, etc), and each one has a unique discard ability that both moves you and deals damage to enemies.
The design of the Soul Cards isn’t to give players more freedom, it’s to introduce interesting constraints and tradeoffs. At first you will worry that you don’t have enough ammo to make it through the levels in one piece, but once you get into the game, you’ll find that you have way more than you need - maybe you should spend those cards instead of saving them!
GN: Neon White is a console-exclusive for Switch. What made the team target Switch as their go-to console for this experience?
Ben Esposito: We thought the vibe fit! But seriously, the levels in this game range from a few minutes down to a few seconds. It’s fun to play the game in bite-sized chunks, and we really thought the handheld mode on Switch is the perfect fit for those kinds of sessions. It also feels great to play with gyroscope controls.
GN: The Switch isn’t exactly known as a powerhouse, yet Neon White clocks in at 60fps. How in the world did the team achieve this, and how big of a focus was it?
Ben Esposito: Neon White is a game where milliseconds matter, so It was important for us to hit 60fps on Switch simply because it makes the controls feel that much more responsive, especially when playing with gyro (which is recommended!)
It was a bigger undertaking than you might think! It would not have been possible without working with Unity directly to port the game. They came up with heaps of tricks to squeeze dynamic shadows, ambient occlusion, antialiasing, and in some levels even planar reflections in under the 60fps mark. We had to rework 100% of our environment shaders and materials to hit the budget, so everything you see in the game was remade with performance in mind.
GN: What is the team most excited to see from players when Neon White releases?
Ben Esposito: We can’t wait to see the shortcuts and optimizations that players find. When we released a brief demo on PC, we were blown away by some of the tricks that came out of it, many of which we had absolutely no idea about. Even though we built specific shortcuts into every level, it doesn’t actually mean that’s the fastest way to beat it. We’ll be watching your speedruns!
A huge thanks to Ben Esposito for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions, as well as the PR team that helped put this together. If you’d like to see what’s next for Ben Esposito, you can follow him on Twitter here.
Neon White is available on Switch right now. The game is priced at $25 and takes up 4.6 GB of space. You can get a full gameplay breakdown via Nintendo’s official eShop listing.