Neon White’s Ben Esposito On Counter-Strike Mods, Inspiration Smoothies, And Putting Shadow The Hedgehog In Solar Ash

“I think an overriding concept behind this game and one of the impetus for making it was that we wanted to make a really video gamey game,” Neon White’s lead designer Ben Esposito tells me on a Zoom call. If there’s one way to describe Neon White, it’s video gamey, although I tried to be more generous with my words in TheGamer’s review of the FPS platformer slash dating sim. What makes Neon White gamey though? What makes any game gamey for that matter? Over the course of our conversation, we tried to get to the bottom of just that.

Esposito rejects the Titanfall 2 Gauntlet comparison, and delves further back into video game history and his own experiences when explaining the inspiration behind Neon White’s speedrunning tekkers. “My background is playing Counter-Strike surf maps, and I used to make mods for Half-Life and Quake and I was into jump maps,” he explains. “I was playing Team Fortress Classic, doing concussion grenade jumps. That stuff is part of my history. It was really fun and important to me to try to bring in a lot of old school ideas into the mix, because we weren't trying to make a refinement of the most modern movement techniques, we were trying to pull from the history of first person platformer gameplay scenarios.”

Esposito describes Neon White’s inspirations as a “smoothie,” but it’s clear that these late ‘90s and early ‘00s inspirations make up the bulk of the smoothie, the banana and oat milk that form the base. The ingredients that add more of the flavour, however, are more obscure.

After finishing Donut County, Esposito was working on a concept inspired by Jumping Flash for the original PlayStation. He always wants to make something different, both from what he or anyone else has made before, so this game was never going to be a Jumping Flash remake. It was one ingredient in his Neon smoothie. Except it wasn’t a Neon smoothie at this point, it was just a regular video game smoothie. The Neon inspiration came from his partner Geneva.

She came up with the name Neon White. Not for Esposito’s FPS platformer, just for a game. The pair brainstormed together, coming up with the idea that he is an assassin from heaven, giving off big Constantine vibes, and there’s a ladder he has to climb to be the very best heavenly assassin (like no one ever was). It wasn’t until months later that they were hit with the realisation that his current project would be the perfect vehicle for Neon White: “and so it kind of just merged together naturally, as we were toying with all the ideas.”

Gone were the mechs of his previous theme (which would have undoubtedly led to more Titanfall comparisons), and it evolved into something different. It evolved into Neon White. But since its launch, it’s evolved again, and that’s thanks to the players.

“A lot of the stuff that people are finding was not designed by us, like certain movement tech,” says Esposito. “For example, I intentionally put in this concept that you can parry a bullet and it gives you a tiny speed boost. And no one on the team is particularly good at doing it… Then all of a sudden, when we put the demo out, people figured out instantly that if you shoot a grenade on the ground and you hit it with your katana right after you shoot it, you get a speed boost. That makes perfect sense, I guess, as you've parried a projectile, but I had never thought of doing it to my own projectile because that's absurd.”

He loves the absurdity of the Neon White community though – it is a game for freaks, after all – and a lot of its insistence to break his game comes from the fact that Neon White is a game about speedrunning.

“People keep finding new stuff. It's pretty cool, I'm watching pretty closely,” Esposito says. “Sometimes it's the coolest thing ever. And other times, I'm talking with Carter and Russell who designed the levels, and we're just like, ‘Oh my God, they completely undermined the entire design of this.’”

A couple of mechanics have been patched out, but for the most part Esposito is just sitting back and enjoying the chaos. Speedrunning is about breaking the game, after all. “I'm glad that people found ways to stick it to us and break our levels, because that's what's fun about speedrunning is breaking things… If everything was intentional on our end, it almost wouldn't be as fun.”

Finding unintended mechanic combinations, exploiting gaps in the map, and generally employing every speedrunning trick in the book has led to players finding one secret in Neon White: red medals. The game shows you four awards for your runs, depending on how fast you complete each stage; Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Bronze is if you finish it but basically do everything else wrong, Silver is generally a barebones, straightforward run, Gold uses the intentional shortcut, and Platinum is an excellent run using a few more complicated tricks and shortcuts. Red medals are Esposito’s own times on the levels, and they’re already being beaten.

“I was mentally prepared for it,” Esposito explains, “but seeing it happen and seeing people post, ‘oh, yeah, here's all my cleared every red in this mission and every red in this mission,’ I was like, ‘Wow, you are dedicated.’”

Esposito has an incredibly varied CV, from the narrative adventure What Remains of Edith Finch to the unique puzzles of Donut County, and he has credits on a bunch more titles besides. His special thanks in Solar Ash is because he suggested that long time friend Alx Preston add rail grinding to the game. “It’s going to be just like Shadow the Hedgehog,” he told the Heart Machine founder. “He got really mad, but you know what? He added rail grinding eventually.” But what does this mean for his next game?

“What interests me is moving on to something that I just haven't done before,” he explains. “Because that's ultimately what motivates most of the projects that I do. I want to make something that I haven't seen before, that I know I would want and that I'm pretty sure no one else is going to make.”

However, another action game isn’t off the cards (neither are sequels or DLC for his previous games “if there was overwhelming demand”) because he learned so much about the genre in the making of Neon White. “I want to use some of that muscle now to make a game that is fun again.”

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