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Neon White
Annapurna Interactive


Ben Esposito talks ‘Neon White,’ the trick to crafting cool, and the game’s brilliantly merciless fairness

“The fun of Neon White isn’t to beat the level the first time, it’s to go back and, with your knowledge, start to deconstruct it and play it faster.”

Developed by a small team named Angel Matrix, Neon Whitereleased last month — is a consistently thrilling puzzle as both a narrative and a game. Its story, a tale of damned assassins called Neons pulled into Heaven for a week-and-change-long demon-slaying contest with a year in paradise as the prize, balances genuine cool (particularly Machine Girl’s stupendous, two-album score) and pathos. It holds a deep affection for those teenaged days spent fervently insisting genuine cool had totally, totally been achieved.

Neon White giddily pokes fun at the foibles of its colorful, dorky cast while spinning complex histories for them that make their gameplay moments of fury and connection LAND in all-caps. The result, in other words, is indelible — and on a personal level, a game that stands alongside Perfect Tides as one of 2022’s standouts.

AIPT sat down with Angel Matrix’s Creative Director, Ben Esposito (whose work includes the delightful puzzler Donut County and the fascinating Anamanaguchi experience Capsule Silence XXIV) to talk about the making of Neon White, the nature of video games as a vessel for embodiment, trends in the medium as a whole, and the joy of hurling foes off a cliff in Dragon’s Dogma. Esposito is a funny, thoughtful conversationalist, and the interview was a treat to conduct.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

AIPT: I’d like to get started with a question about gaming as a medium and from there move into more specifics about Neon White and its craft. So, for you, what makes video games distinct as a medium, particularly in terms of how the player relates to the game?

Ben Esposito: I was just thinking about this. So, I think what excites me about video games is there’s an element of nostalgia, obviously — I’ve played games ever since I was a kid — but the reason why I’m really drawn to it is that a game can be a complete aesthetic experience in a way that other media can’t. Other media can get close: I’m a big music fan, and a musician can have an album, right? The album has album art on it — that’s part of the aesthetic. But beyond that, everything else has to be part of the marketing campaign or the band’s persona — maybe they’ll do a music video but it’s not all part of the same product. And I love video games because you can theme everything in them and create this overall feeling of being immersed in this totally weird, wacky world. That level of escape is what got me interested in games in the first place.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: Interesting! I’ve played two of your games, Neon White and Donut County. While their pacing is hugely different, both are built heavily on motion — specifically deliberate motion. So what I want to ask is as a developer and a storyteller, what interests you about motion as a gameplay device and storytelling tool?

BE: There’s an element of preference here — I think I’m fairly omnivorous when it comes to video games, but I draw a really hard line when the game isn’t about embodying a character and it doesn’t have direct movement. I’m just not interested in strategy games that are very abstract-management-style. They just don’t speak to me as much. I have always wanted to be a little guy moving around on a screen. That’s what got me so excited about video games, and so a lot of my work is about the idea of embodiment and moving and interacting and touching the world. Donut County‘s a lot about “what happens if you’re the negative space in the world, and how can you directly and physically interact with everything?” Neon White is very much about “how can you just reach out and headbutt everything?” (laughs)

AIPT: That’s an awesome answer, and I’ll tie it into a question more towards the end since it’s a little bit of a tangent. So, from gaming as a whole to to Neon White specifically, how did you and your collaborators build the game’s coolest-of-cool-2000s-anime aesthetic? Where did that get started? What did you draw from? 

BE: I think it helps that that was our mission from the very very very beginning. When we started working on it, we had this idea that this game was going to try to be cool in every conceivable vector at the same time. And we wanted to also embrace the absurdity that would come with trying to be cool in every single arena. So that was my pitch to everyone when they started working on the game, “No, you’ve just got to crank it up, make it as cool as possible, and I’ll figure out how all the pieces come together.” We had some documents that were a shared vision for the visuals and what we thought constituted something cool, and that was what we rallied everyone around in terms of the art and presentation and the music as well. It was about picking a time period and really picking what our influences would be specifically.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: During development, did Neon White‘s feel and storytelling undergo any major changes? Were there any aspects of the game that were there from the start, and came to a where you said, “This isn’t working, we should cut it”? And conversely, was there anything that really surprised you and snuck up behind you as a huge part of the feel and experience?

BE: Neon White is a bit different than other games I’ve worked on in that we had a really really clear idea about what we wanted to do at the beginning. I was playing a build of the game yesterday from February 2020 and it looks exactly the same in terms of what it’s trying to do: a bunch of levels with story beats in between and the hub world and stuff like that.

I think on a broad scale it didn’t fundamentally change, but on a micro-scale, there were a lot of changes along the way. Particularly, how much story content there would be and what kind of story content there would be in the game. We ended up taking a lot of the mandatory stuff for the main quest and moving it into more optional things you can unlock. It was kind of late in development that we decided that you’d collect gifts to give to characters to get more content from that character. And I think that helped us really square the circle where we were able to make it so if you want more character you’ll have to play more game, and you’ll actually get more game out of more character and vice versa. That was something that did change.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: Interesting. So, in Neon White version 1.0, White’s conversations with his fellow Neons were a bit more directly integrated into each given run?

BE: Yeah, you’d get more story per mission before. And we kind of pulled back on that a little bit. It’s a really character-focused game 00 not a ton of plot, at least early on — but we made sure to try to refine that over time.

AIPT: On a personal level, as I’ve been working my way through the game, one thing I’ve really been impressed by is what I’d describe as its “merciless fairness.” As the game advances, and especially in those character-developing side quests, it is tremendously challenging while also always provides the tools with which to solve those challenges. It pushes the player to push themselves. How did you and your team build that balance? I have spent the better part of an hour on some of Neon Violet’s side quests, and it’s just like, “Okay, damn those spikes but I am going to solve this.”

BE: (laughs) You can blame our designer Russell (Russell Honor, Sky: Children of the Light) for the side quests. He did all of them, and they were originally even more cruel, but I helped pull them back a little bit. But, no, I’m really happy with how those turned out. I think the answer to this question comes from a broader philosophical idea behind the game: we knew from the beginning we wanted to make a game about optimization.

The fun of Neon White isn’t to beat the level the first time, it’s to go back and, with your knowledge, start to deconstruct it and play it faster. As a result of that, what we ended up deciding was that we had to make every single encounter in every single level as clear as possible so that you understood the resources that were involved and what was being asked of you. And only if we did that could we make the optimization meaningful. Because if we tell you exactly what’s in front of you and what resources you have, then and only then can you start to make connections about “Well, if I use a resource from back here over here, then I can go faster.” That merciless clearness was part of the whole design.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: Yeah! I was hunting for a present in a level, and it was as much a matter of figuring out “Okay, what cards will I have access to in this area of the level, and how do they work together to get me where I want to go.” A lot of trial and error, but that made the success so satisfying, that, yes, this is how these pieces fit together.

BE: Yeah, and the feeling of “That can’t be possible,” going from that to “Oh! All the resources were here!” is really, really fun.

AIPT: Exactly! Moving back into game design in general, are there trends in modern game design that you’d like to see continue in your own work or in general? And are there trends that you’d like to see wind down and for people to shift focus away from?

BE: I have two answers to this. First, the things that I don’t enjoy — and this informed the design of Neon White — I love first-person shooters, but I hate accruing power and accruing too much freedom. A standard practice in a first-person shooter is that you start with one gun, and then by the end of the game you have eleven guns, and you’re always picking what the best gun is for the situation based on what ammo you have. There’s tons of freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that empowering because you could do anything, and it’s just a matter of efficiency — so, tons of management. Neon White‘s whole core concept was “What if you had two guns, and I really wanted you to throw them away?” That was the basic design behind the game — I never want you to become too powerful because the constraint is what makes it fun.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

BE: That’s the thing I don’t like. The thing I do like, and that I want to explore more is, I feel like Elden Ring opened up the door to making a game that’s way more demanding and more arcane and making that kind of unknowable experience more appreciated in the wider gaming sphere. I really want to see more stuff like that — where it’s like a huge unknowable world that people are all jumping into together and figuring out and making their own way. I want to see more of that stuff.

AIPT: Building from that, were there any games that particularly informed your work on Neon White? Specifically, games you’d like to point folks towards or just games in general that you want to shout from the rafters about how great they are?

BE: (laughs) Yeah, there are a bunch of games that if you like Neon White you’d probably get a kick out of these because they inspired certain parts of the game. If I had to describe Neon White in terms of other games I would probably say it’s a combination of Lovely Planet — which is a 2014 first-person shooter that has a similar format, it’s a time attack shooter where you have to get from point A to point B and kill the enemies, and it’s all about super short levels that force you to have this muscle memory that you didn’t think was possible to develop in such a short amount of time, Lovely Planet is a blast if you like Neon White‘s gameplay — and then (laughs) story-wise and presentation and format-wise, I think the Danganronpa series is like a pretty close analog to the way we approached how to do the story.

AIPT: (laughs) Oh yes…

BE: (laughs) And you know, it’s a little bit divisive of a game, but I just love the absolute unhinged quality of storytelling that is in all of those games. I played all three of them — I devoured them, I think they’re so funny. So those are two touchpoints that if you like Neon White, maybe you should try those.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: I want to circle around to what you said earlier about the nature of games as an embodiment. What do you mean by that? What do you seek for a player to embody in a game of your own, or in a game that you’re seeking to play yourself?

BE: I would say that the thing that interests me in video games is the act of embodying another character. And what I mean more specifically is in a physical way I want to inhabit the space of someone else. So, in a game the further you pull back the camera from the action the less interested I am in it. I don’t like the sense of detachment. It reduces the activities of the game to an abstract layer. A management game is completely abstracted from the actors in it. With a football manager, I’m not playing football, I’m merely managing the concept of people playing football. And that level of remove, a lot of people find that fun, and I think that’s great, but when I think about playing games and what really hooks and immerses me into a game world, it’s that actual physicality.

A good example of a game that does that really well is Dragon’s Dogma. It’s super cool because it’s physical to a fault. It’s so physical that you can do extremely silly things in it. They built the game so that you can climb on almost anything including other characters. You can climb on a cow and you can pick up anything under a certain weight. So sometimes the combat will be like, someone gets knocked down, and if you’re near a cliff you can pick up their unconscious body and toss it over. And that, being so committed to the physicality of the characters like that, is really immersive to me personally.

Neon White
Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

AIPT: Building off of that a little, embodiment for you is the layer between player and player character? What do you think the balance is to making the player character a distinct character. White in Neon White, for instance, has a specific identity, a personality of his own that is not necessarily shaped by the person playing him.

BE: Yeah, that to me, that extra bit of tension — of having a speaking protagonist — is part of the texture of games that I really like. I think a silent protagonist makes a lot of sense in a lot of cases, but having a protagonist with a very specific personality allows us to talk about a lot more, to have a lot more depth to the character interactions and we can do a lot more with “Well, I don’t agree with the way he’s reacting to this situation but I’ll go with it.” And I think in Neon White, sometimes people react to the story, to some of the other characters… and sometimes people miss the fact that the main character is still the perspective of the story.

AIPT: We are seeing what White is seeing, as he is seeing it.

BE: Yeah, exactly. Not everyone approaches it that way, and that’s fine. But to me, that’s something that’s very fun about the game. I find it kind of annoying that I relate to this character so much (laughs).

AIPT: It also creates some very striking feedback. Through Neon White‘s storytelling, did you want to drive a specific style of gameplay? The instance I’d like to use specifically is the first boss battle, which occurs right after a haymaker of a story beat, where White’s fury becomes the player’s fury, motivating them to pummel the stuffing out of the boss.

BE: Part of what was fun and freeing about working on Neon White to me was that we were very particular about when we cared about the interaction between the gameplay and the story. In a lot of my work, a lot of the pain of developing it was this extreme dedication to matching what’s going on in the gameplay and in the story. And I think that’s great when it works, I think What Remains of Edith Finch [Mr. Esposito did prototyping and served as a major consultant during development] is an extremely good example of that. But what we wanted to do with Neon White was not just assume that it’s the best thing to make every single gameplay beat tied to the story, but instead let it be kind of an abstract, arcade-y game that at certain points is extremely on point with the story. And that’s something we pulled from the era we were inspired by — the late ’90s and the early 2000s — [and] these character-based Japanese imported games had that element. They’re still kind of arcade-y, they have that legacy, but they’re pulling in an extremely extensive story with huge cutscenes and big drama. That’s what we wanted to do, when it really counts — connect it. And we did that through the boss fights specifically.

AIPT: You succeeded. You succeeded admirably.

BE: Thanks, I appreciate that!

AIPT: This has been terrific. Thanks so much, Mr. Esposito!

BE: Yeah, thanks for the really interesting questions.

Neon White is available on PC and Nintendo Switch. 

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