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Ben Esposito on Neon White’s Inspirations, Catering to Switch, Physical Release, and More

An interview with Ben Esposito.



After injecting the harassment he endured by local Las Angeles raccoons into his last project, Ben Esposito is taking players to the gates of paradise for a top-notch demon-slaying adrenaline rush. Neon White, the stylish first-person action runner game from developer Angel Matrix and Donut County‘s director, was released last week on Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows to overwhelmingly favorable reviews. I had the opportunity to chat with Ben Esposito this week on the NXpress Nintendo Podcast to discuss Neon White’s development, catering to the Switch’s hardware, a possible physical release, and more.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

Goomba Stomp: Last time, Ben, you created a game about a selfish raccoon who is comically creating donuts on the ground to fix his problems. What made you want to jump from the goofiness of Donut County to Neon White’s more melancholy outlook and grounded philosophies?

Esposito: You know, I finished Donut County and I was really happy with how it came out, but I felt like there was this whole other world of games that I was really passionate about when I was a kid that I just have totally not even dipped my toes into making. After Donut County, what I really wanted to do was tap into my first-person shooter middle school days where I was playing Counterstrike surf maps and Team Fortress classic jump maps. I wanted to see if I could challenge myself to make a game that had a completely different energy, a totally different audience, but was still something that I was super passionate about when I was a teenager.

GS: Last year you had an interview with Game Informer where you explained that Neon White was going to target a cult audience. In this interview, you said it was very much a game that “if it is for you, then it’s your favorite game.” Now that Neon White is out in the public’s hands, do you still believe that sentiment reigns true?

Esposito: I totally 100,000% stand by it! The game is a first-person shooter but it’s also a visual novel and it has this super anime aesthetic and it’s got these awesome breakcore soundtrack elements. It’s things that don’t necessarily work together traditionally. It’s not something people have combined traditionally, and that was the thing we thought was really fun about this game. We’re not going to try to appeal to everyone in any way. We’re going to just put the things that we really like together and we’ll make them work and you’re going to have to trust us.

Neon White interview with Ben Esposito
Image: Annapurna Interactive

GS: Neon White’s shining aspect as a first-person runner comes from two things, the godlike powers called Soul Cards and the stylistic approach to visuals. In regards to the implementation of Soul Cards, was the team eager on making Neon White a game where players are given as much freedom as possible? Or were you more interested in creating linear paths or was there a mix behind that?

Esposito: We approached it in a slightly counterintuitive way. I think a lot of shooters and really high mobility shooters like Doom are all about giving you a big suite of tools to accomplish a goal in whatever way you want to accomplish it and I personally find it way too overwhelming. So the philosophy behind Neon White was about providing really interesting constraints to the player. You can’t accrue too much power in this game at any given point. You can only have six cards total and there’s never even a need to use six cards at a time.

We really wanted to create a game where the action was really clear, the resources were really scarce, and the constraints that it puts on you cause you to think about the game in a little bit more of a puzzle way… That’s where we came up with the idea of implementing speedrunning. Speedrunning is a puzzle, in a way. Once you get to a certain high level, it’s all about looking at what resources are available in the level and using them in maybe counterintuitive ways.

GS: Puzzles definitely captivate the whole game in general, especially in terms of level design. I’ve been looking at so many players on social media and how they clear levels. Have you seen any strategies or routes so far that you and the development team never thought of when designing some of these levels?

Esposito: Oh, my god. There are conceptual ones that when we created this level, we didn’t even consider you doing it backwards or just from the beginning. That kind of stuff we didn’t plan for. But a good example of something that we totally did not intend for is a mechanic that’s not explained in the game. If you shoot an enemy bullet or if you use your katana to swipe an enemy projectile, it’ll give you a slight speed boost. And this is something you can figure out on your own if you’re poking around. Every bullet has the potential to go faster. And one of the things that totally surprised us was the first card you get launches [what is] essentially a grenade, and then it blows up and you can use it to bounce off of. We didn’t realize that you could also parry your own bullet that you shot into the world and so all of a sudden, one of the most common movement techniques is you shoot the grenade and then you hit it with your katana and you go flying.

GS: I put over 20 hours into this game and I didn’t even know that!

Esposito: Yeah, right! And we never ask you to do that. That’s the kind of the stuff that we tried to plan for it and it was way wackier than we ever anticipated.

GS: Every outlet that has been covering Neon White has used one word about its visuals: stylish. You have minimalistic gameplay graphics, highly detailed characters, Persona-esque visual novel art, and so on. What were your main inspirations in terms of art direction for the game? Did Donut County’s minimalistic visuals shape Neon White at all?

Esposito: For the Donut County connection, you can definitely see a throughline in terms of me being preoccupied with super simple and clear visuals for gameplay and making sure when details are placed somewhere, it’s really intentional to draw your attention. We don’t put detail anywhere that it would distract you or cause you to ever get confused when you’re playing. That minimalist approach is definitely something that I carry with me. But when it comes to the game more broadly, the whole art style, something we wanted to do with this game was make the most video-gamey game that we could make. To me, the video gaming era that really hooked me was like, the late 90s and early 2000s, with really stylish Japanese games that were getting localized in the States.

One reference point that I’ve talked about, and it’s not really a direct reference at all in terms of the game, are Grasshopper Manufacture games like Killer Seven or No More Heroes. We didn’t really take any of their specific stylizations, but their whole attitude of being style over substance in certain cases is something that we really wanted to tap into because the whole point is that we’re just so confident that the scheme is going to be cool. We can do really silly things that are over the top, and that over-the-top confidence is going to maybe be a little bit funny and cringe to the player but you can’t deny that if we throw a million cool things at you, it’ll be kind of cool.

GS: We’ve talked quite a bit about style and gameplay, but one thing in my review that I specifically highlighted about Neon White was the story which is focused on the afterlife and belief in God. Even though the game is very much in a fictional world, was the development team at all worried about the narrative focus and how it could affect the overall appeal of the game?

Esposito: That’s not something we were concerned about. I guess, on one hand, we’re such a teeny tiny team that if we make someone mad, it doesn’t mean anything. We’re nobody. So it’s not like if someone’s going to ban Nintendo or whatever for making a game with crosses in it [laughs]. But on the other hand, something that made me more confident was that our treatment of the religious material is kind of flipping.

It seems really flippant and it seems like we don’t care about this and that we’re being really disrespectful. But I think the overall tone of it [the story] is actually more respectful than the player would think. The idea that it is about God in a way, and your relationship to God made me feel like even if this might rub someone the wrong way, if they give it a chance, they’re absolutely going to be able to get something out of it other than making fun of religion, because that’s not what we were doing.

GS: There definitely is respect towards religion. I won’t spoil it, but towards the end of the game, I noticed that there is a blend of Hebrew writing in the characters’ names. I feel like not many will pick up on that unless, of course, if they’re aware of the Hebrew language.

Esposito: Yeah, there’s a lot of little things like that! And there are big ideas behind the whole thing that we just haven’t talked about because I don’t think it’s really important to appreciate the game [in that way]. It’s also not what I wanted the conversation to be about. It’s supposed to be a fun game, but if you notice certain details and you get something else out of them, that’s really great.

Image: Annapurna Interactive

GS: The voice cast for Neon White contains quite a few all-star players. Is there any story as to how you got Steve Blum onto the project? Have some of his previous roles like Spike Spiegal from Cowboy Bebop impacted the way in which the writers wanted to portray his character?

Esposito: The story is very simple [laughs]. It’s that Geneva, my wife, was coming up with a list of references for who we would want White [the main character] to sound like. The top of the list was Steve Blum because we had this idea of this [Neon White] being like an early 2000s anime dub. When we thought of that, the first person we thought of was Steve Blum. He’s a ridiculously talented and diverse voice actor. We were like, “we probably can’t get him, but let’s put him at the top of the list for references, someone who sounds like that.” The more we thought about it, the more we were like, “Is it possible to get him? Can we just call him? It’s not crazy, right?” So we reached out and it turns out he was very excited about the concept and the role. He was able to bring a really fun dimension to that character. He loved how White was both a really cool demon-slaying badass, but he’s actually underneath a huge nerd.

[Blum’s performance] didn’t change it [the script] dramatically because that was a little bit of the voice that we had already imagined White to sound like. He brought an extra dimension to the writing. He leaned way harder into those kinds of elements of vulnerability in White than we even expected. I think that is what makes it more fun. You might think White is a wimp, but actually, that’s what’s endearing about it to us. Steve was really excited to bring that side of him.

GS: In Neon White, the player unlocks memories that give White insight into his past. Did the team have specific memories they believed shouldn’t be in the main campaign itself and perhaps needed to be unlocked by players?

Esposito: That was important because we wanted to offer the opportunity for someone to beat the game without going super, super deep into optional content that they don’t necessarily need in order to understand the plot. But the fun of it to us was [that] we want you to get invested in the story and understand what the connections to the other characters are. We found that it ended up being a lot more satisfying if it was self-motivated to figure out the actual backstory. That’s why the game has two endings and if you don’t have the memories you’ll get one ending, but if you do, there’s a different one. We thought having that motivation to do it yourself and go the extra mile made it feel a lot more meaningful.

GS: Unlocking these memories in the game requires the player to collect gifts that are in every level. When the team was designing levels, did you immediately have in mind that outside of the of speedrunning to collect medals the gifts would be implemented into maps?

Esposito: At first, we didn’t really have that concept, but as we went on we found that there was a lot of more puzzling gameplay that we wanted to do. We found it was at odds with the fun of going really fast through these levels though. Any time we made someone stop and think, we lost them–they’re not going to have any fun. So what we ended up doing was implementing the gifts, so once you beat a level you can search that level… You have to totally rethink how you use the card resources in the level to get to that particular gift. From this, we were able to do the puzzle gameplay that we wanted in a way that didn’t stop you from enjoying the speed of the game. The way we were able to marry the two and then tying that into getting to know the other characters just seemed really natural as a result. So that’s why we tied this whole idea of the deeper you go on the level, the more it feeds into understanding the character relationships better.

GS: Neon White was built specifically for the Nintendo Switch, correct? Why did you choose this console in particular?

Esposito: The main reason why we chose this platform is because the way you’re actually supposed to enjoy the game is in super bite-size pieces. A level can take anywhere from two minutes to 10 seconds. We felt like [the gameplay] was a really good fit for the Switch, especially in handheld mode where you’re picking it up and you want to play for a few minutes, and you might get sucked in more than that. But having the handheld mode and having the gyro and all those nice quality-of-life things means that I want to play it more because I don’t have to boot it up again. I don’t have to have a whole startup time. It’s something that felt really at home when you considered the way you’re supposed to enjoy the game, which is in small little chunks.

GS: There are two aspects of the Nintendo Switch that we [NXpress Nintendo Podcast] always talk about with games. One is how it runs and the other is multiplayer. First off, in regards to how it runs, did this game have to be 60 frames per second? Did that impact the art style and perhaps certain elements of the game, like how much was going on in each level?

Esposito: So we had designed a lot of the game before we fully committed to 60 frames a second. The decision to say “we can’t ship with less than 60 frames a second” was a very expensive one [laughs]. But it was really important because once we were really playing it on the Switch, we could toggle between 30 and 60. The difference was just so noticeable. In a game that asks you to be precise and to have a really fine degree of control, it felt unfair to ask you to do that at 30 frames a second. When it runs at 60, you feel more in control of your actions.

Once we made that decision, we essentially had to rebuild a lot of the art in the game. We rebuilt all the materials for all of the worlds, so they kind of look the same, but they look a little different [at the same time]. I always take the opportunity when we do have to redo something to refine it and make it better than it was, so I’m actually really happy with the art style and how everything ended up looking. But it was definitely a challenge to try to hit that target in all these different situations. But the game itself was already well-suited to being fairly constrained, and we always know what could be happening at any given moment. So there were a lot of advantages to when we went into that fight for 60 frames.

Gif: Annapurna Interactive

GS: You mostly tackle single-player experiences, but this game has a lot of multiplayer elements with the leaderboards system. Did Angel Matrix ever consider implementing a two-player coop?

Esposito: You know, we really have never discussed it. The origin of the game, the reason why we even made it, was because we had this concept of cards and the prototype wasn’t really working. It wasn’t that fun. Randomized cards would get drawn. We stripped everything out and said, “this is going to be a single-player game that has cards that are in very specific positions and the levels are pre-authored”. I made a build of that and I sent it to my friend Tom. He sent me back a list of his best times for every level and I was like, “Oh, I could totally beat you!” and so we ended up going back and forth trading our times over and over again.

We thought this experience is really fun and unique to not be playing together at the same time but to be competing with one another asynchronously. That’s why the leaderboards are super important… fighting your friends specifically is extremely fun. So we haven’t discussed a multiplayer, but who knows? I don’t know. What would it be like to you?

GS: I was thinking something along the lines of a portal situation where perhaps one person plays as White, and the other as Red. Red has to do some sniping, but White is doing the usual bear rushing through the entire level.

Esposito: Oh my god. You have to be in concert with one another to make sure certain things are happening at certain times? That sounds dope. I like it!

GS: Is Neon White going to get a physical release?

Esposito: It’s something that I think would be really cool! We haven’t even started discussing that. So yeah, I can say it’s something that I think would be really awesome, but we don’t have any concrete plans just yet.

GS: The jump from Donut County to Neon White was quite significant in terms of game design. Whereas Donut County adhered to a minimalistic philosophy and a simple pastel visual style, Neon White is extremely stylized and undoubtedly dips into more complicated layers of game design. Are you going to aim higher with your next project or do you think Neon White establishes a line between creating complex titles and perhaps doing something more simplistic with storytelling?

Esposito: The way I viewed it was like, I want to see what the total other end of the spectrum feels like. I want to hone my skills in that area of game design, and I just want to do things that I haven’t done before that I feel like no one else is going to do. That’s how I’m picking what games I’m going to make! I would say I put down two data points. Donut County is one data point: all ages, super easy to pick up, you can’t even fail in that game [laughs]. And then Neon White is a totally different plot on that graph of super edgy speedrunning. My next project will probably be somewhere equally distant from both of those things. I just want to be challenged and I want to figure out what else hasn’t been done that I could forge some fun new ground on.

GS: You’re very much a person who jumps between writing, DJing, game design, all sorts of professions. For Angel Matrix, this development team you brought together to develop Neon White, is this a future studio for you? A one-time get-together?

Esposito: Angel Matrix is a one-shot for this project. I would compare it to a super group of musicians where we came together and made one album. People who are just awesome at what they do. Got together, made an album, and then we said, “All right, peace.” We’re going to go do something else. That was how the team was conceived. I love working with everybody on this team, so I’m definitely going to be working with people from it again, but the actual team structure is not a studio.

GS: And I’m sure asking you about possible Neon White DLC is a bit too early at this point in the game for you?

Esposito: I need to take a nap first! [laughs]

GS: You don’t usually return to game worlds you create, but considering how many talents you have, would you consider doing a Neon White anime?

Esposito: Oh 100,000%. My wife, Geneva, is a cartoonist and a director, and she is just awesome at directing animation. We would absolutely love to. We conceived of this idea from the beginning as something that felt like an anime. If we could get the opportunity to do that, we would jump on it for sure.

For our full interview with Ben Esposito, be sure to check out episode 289 of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast!

Creative writer, NXpress Host, and Games Editor. I have always held a high interest in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.