Neon White is not for kids, or adults, but for freaks.
That’s how indie developer Ben Esposito described his latest game during Annapurna Interactive’s July 29 event. With 2018’s charming physics puzzler Donut County, Esposito was trying to make a game with broad appeal. Now he’s taking the exact opposite approach.
“Donut County was me trying to make a game for everyone. And it was not easy to do. Eventually, I realized I can't truly make the game for everyone,” Esposito tells Inverse. “Neon White is me making a game for extremely specific people. This game is not for everyone, but if it is for you, it could be your favorite game.”
“This game is not for everyone.”
Neon White puts you in the role of a demon exterminator competing for the right to stay in Heaven. As White’s story unfolds, you’ll learn more about the nature of your fellow Neons and the competition itself. It combines the strategic gameplay of deck-building card games with the frenetic pace of a first-person shooter — then adds an unexpected dash of character-driven life-sim. (Think Pokémon meets Overwatch meets Fire Emblem.)
Esposito spoke with Inverse about the eclectic inspirations behind Neon White, the perks and pitfalls of indies becoming more mainstream, and the intriguing prospect of a video game inspired by the works of cult filmmaker Neil Breen.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Shooters and card games seem about as far apart on the spectrum of game genres as you can get. What made you decide upon this combo?
That was in 2016. I was trying to make a deck-building roguelite shooter, and it had to have procedurally generated levels and randomized cards. But I found that pulling random cards was really not fun when you're in a super fast-paced shooter environment.
So I shelved it. Then I picked it up the next year, expanded it a bit, and then I abandoned it again, thinking this is never gonna work — I hate this. After I finished Donut County, I picked it up one more time and realized the things that aren't working about this are the things I'm trying to bring in from genres that don't really make sense.
That's when I decided the cards are more of a metaphor. When you have a card in this game, it's a gun, but you can also exchange it for a movement. Since the levels are hand-designed, you're going to want to play them over and over. The trade-offs and deciding what card you're going to use is the meat of the game. Then it started falling into place.
What games inspired Neon White?
It's an odd mashup of fast-paced platform FPS games like Quake and hero shooters like Teamfight Tactics and Overwatch with a little bit of Mirror's Edge thrown in there. But it also has a whole other life-sim side that’s inspired by games like Persona and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There’s a good dose of Danganronpa in this game too. There are all these characters, and you don't know what their motivations are, and you can choose who you want to get close with and learn more about.
“The general content of the game is horny.”
I wanted to be sure there's good downtime and things to do besides grinding on playing levels really fast. I think that's a problem that's endemic to these types of speedrunning games — you get burned out so fast on them. My favorite component of any game is the characters, the funny stuff, the weird stuff. So we really pushed hard to make sure that was integrated into the game.
Is there a romance element to the game’s relationship mechanic?
It's more that there are saucy things that happen between all the characters, including the main character and the bad guys. So there's a little something for everyone and you're not gonna get left out in the sense of having to “choose” one character over another. The general content of the game is horny, but there's not like a “system.”
A number of indie devs recently criticized Sony for its handling of indie games. What was your experience working with PlayStation for Donut County?
My relationship with Sony wasn't really direct — it was more mediated through Annapurna. As far as I was aware, things went great! We were really happy with the results. I still like Sony and PlayStation a lot.
Do you think indies becoming more mainstream makes it harder to stand out?
It's always going to be better for more people to have access, and for more people to be able to make things that can get seen. But there are a lot of potential pitfalls to being so exposed as an individual. Being directly responsible to my audience on the internet, especially on social media, can be really, really powerful. But it also is very dangerous for the well-being of an individual.
You've got this weight put on every individual to also be a marketing team, be a brand. Making a game is really really hard to begin with. So adding on the weight of the world is not a great recipe for success.
Annapurna Interactive really seems to have embraced a creator-first approach. What’s your experience been like working with them as a publisher?
When I was working on this game, I was 100 percent sure Annapurna was not going to be interested in publishing it. It’s super anime, super genre, and not very high-minded. So I was not going to talk to them about it until they asked, but they loved it and wanted to make it work.
I didn't totally buy it at first, but now I fully understand that they're being really genuine about wanting to support the creative vision of each artist, even if it's something that doesn't feel like it's in their wheelhouse.
The end credits of Donut County include a reference to Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings. If you could make a video game based on one of his movies, what would it be like?
I would want to be fairly hands-on with Neil. Before I pitched anything I would want to know what he thinks a video game is. Like what are his hopes and dreams? How would he approach it? I assume he would approach it from the most epic, the most emotional place he possibly could, and I would want to chase that. I really want to see the resources put into his work so that we can all see where it goes.
Neon White is currently in development for PC and Nintendo Switch.