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Monday, December 26, 2022

Running and Gunning thru Heaven with Neon White

Before I get into the article proper, I’d like to repeat my previous housekeeping announcement: Blogger’s email update feature has broken, so I took the opportunity to start a new mailing list for Out of Left Field! This will probably be the single best way to follow updates here; my plan is to only send out something when I have a new article to post. Hopefully, I’ll get to test it out again soon, as I have both an End-of-the-Year Playlist and another Indie Game article in the works. You can sign up in the box below or in the bar at the top (and if you’d like similar updates for my baseball articles, go check out Hot Corner Harbor for that list!

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    Ever since I finished this game a few months ago, I’ve been working on this article in fits and starts, alternating between bursts of inspiration where I had so many ideas I wanted to discuss and roadblocks both from writer's block and just personal life scheduling. After a while, I wasn’t even sure if it was worth finishing this anymore, as so many other writers found ways to talk it up. But in the end, I think there are just so many good things in this game that get overshadowed, since so much of it is fantastic, and now seemed like as good a time as any to finish it off, since it’s almost certainly my Game of the Year!

    There aren’t many games that I’ve been looking forward to over the last few years more than Neon White. Way back in 2019, I played a fun little puzzle-and-comedy game called Donut County; if you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you might even remember me mentioning it back then in my Year-End Roundup. If not, it was a fun little game with a cute, cartoon-y art style about moving a hole around, and watching as it grew with each object that fell in. There’s more to it than that on the story side (it was pretty funny, as you might guess from the silly premise), but gameplay-wise, it was mostly just that rewarding little loop: move hole, swallow objects, get bigger, swallow bigger things, repeat until everything in the level is gone.

    I loved the experience, and as I do when I like an indie game, I decided to follow the game’s developer, Ben Esposito. Sometime after doing so, he announced his follow-up project: a stylish-as-hell, fast-paced first person shooter about a colorful cast of assassins being allowed into Heaven as part of a demon-exterminating competition, developed by his new studio Angel Matrix. A bit of a shift in styles maybe (to put it mildly), but I had only good experiences so far, and it looked extremely up-my-alley, so I was all aboard the hype train from that point.

    And holy shit, did Neon White live up to my hopes and dreams.

    For those who need a little bit more of a description, Neon White is one part First Person Shooter, and one part fast-paced 3D Parkour Platformer; you try to complete every level as fast as you can, while shooting every single demon along the way. The main gameplay mechanic is an ingenious combination of the two sides: the guns in-game are represented by magical cards that you pick up as you find them in the level, sometimes dropped by defeated enemies, sometimes just laying about.

    Each one works like a standard gun, with a set amount of ammo… but you can also choose to “discard” the weapon. That loses you a demon-slaying option, but gives you some sort of bonus movement in compensation, depending on what type of gun you’re throwing out. So, to provide a basic example, if you can take out all of the demons with five of the six bullets in a pistol, you can discard what remains of it for an extra jump, which you can then use to find shortcuts and improve on your level times.

    From there, the game builds up its library of tools and obstacles, which become easy to learn and master over the course of a playthrough. You immediately pick up what each type of gun each card is, how much damage it does, how it fires, and what special movement it grants you. And you get a stable of demons to go with it, learning how they’ll attack you, how much damage they take, and the best way to dispatch them and move forward.

    In actuality, there’s not a ton of either, with a half dozen or so weapons to pick up and maybe a dozen types of enemies; enough to allow for variation without getting too overwhelming. What lets Neon White keep things so interesting is their commitment to finding new scenarios for these options, aggressively mixing and matching their options, and then placing them into new contexts.

    The level design here really is incredible, some of the best in any game that I’ve played. Even now, months after I beat the game, I’ll periodically just boot it up and run through some levels again; even when it’s been a while since I last played, it only takes me a few seconds to go, “Oh right, this one!”

    All of them are tightly structured, almost like a narrative, with a clear throughline that you follow the first time. But each of them is loaded with shortcuts, some of which you see your first time as you’re running and working on your efficiency, and then more which only become clear as you begin to see the level as a 3D space. Understanding how the different parts fit together gets you a whole array of newer, better short cuts, which you can use to better your time even more.

    And a lot of it works like a puzzle, too. For example, to build off of that earlier example I gave, maybe your best option isn’t to take out the demons with five shotgun bullets and then use the gun for a jump, but instead, to use the discard-jump right away to take a bigger shortcut and then take out the demons with a longer-range weapon you find later in the level. It’s the kind of thing you get a feel with as you try out the level and understand how it’s built.

    And like the best 3D platformers, there’s an in-game system to encourage playing the levels multiple times and learning these aspects. You start with collectibles that unlock on your first finish, pushing you to poke around the edges and corners of the world and look at the level a little deeper. Then if you can hit certain benchmarks on your time, you’ll get a hint at the level’s biggest secret, some sort of marker that draws your eyes in a certain direction and gets you thinking about the trick shots and jumps you can land to cut off chunks of your route.

    There’s also something about the aesthetic of the levels that sticks with you as you progress through the various districts of Heaven, running and jumping across floating stages of marble temples overlooking glass oceans, modernist skyscrapers tops far above the ground, or overgrown ruins above the clouds. Adding to it is the game’s soundtrack (provided by Machine Girl), a pulsing, glitchy drums-n-bass soundscape that urges you forward while sounding perfectly unnatural. It’s all so pretty to look at and listen to, majestic skylines and sunsets with an unrelenting unease of surrealness beneath it all.

    All in all, Neon White has a vice-like grip on the aesthetics on the platforming side of things, like the most stylish of action movies, popping off your screen and drawing you in. You get to play as a highly-stylized, sharp-dressed assassin, part of an elite unit of color-themed gunmen, practicing running through the bizarre-but-beautiful worlds of heaven taking down demons through trick shots and flying leaps until you look as practiced doing it as the real characters would.

    But this is only part of the game! Angel Matrix didn’t spend all of that time coming up with the premise just for the purpose of a unique setting, oh no, there’s an actual story here too! In between sets of stages, you get returned to the central hub of Heaven to learn a little more about the world with your player character, the titular Neon White (“Neon” being the title used for the sinners tapped as Heaven’s new Demon-busters), via voice-acted visual-novel-style conversations with the rest of the cast.

    Upon waking up at the game’s start, White finds himself lacking most of his memories, and is immediately taken in by a group of other Neons who claim to be his friends and teammates during his life, all of whom help fill him in on what’s going on. Once a year, the demons of hell get a little too rowdy and break into the afterlife. The Believers in Heaven have decided they need some assistance to handle the dangerous dirty work, leading them to pull together the various killers and assassins from where they reside to form the Neons. And to encourage their demon-killing performance, the Neons are set up in a competition: whoever kills the most demons over the course of a week gets a one-year “Get Out of Hell” card.

    It’s an intriguing premise, with a lot of potential directions to explore, but it’s also the area of the game that I’ve seen people be the most dismissive of. I think this is extremely wrong-headed, although I kind of understand it. After all, with everything I’ve said so far, it definitely gives you a very specific, carefully-constructed aesthetic, doesn’t it? Incredibly elegant, masked badasses, taking care of supernatural horrors with Matrix-style gun-fu fights? What type of discussions could they have as they unravel the mysteries of the afterlife?

    And the answer is… they are all absolutely massive dorks. Yellow calls everyone “Bro” and loves comparing himself to anime protagonists, Violet is a young woman who feels like she still hasn’t moved past her teenage “Hot Topic” goth phase, Red’s “femme fatale” image is belied by her love of dumb jokes and Minions merchandise (or rather, the copyright-safe equivalent). Even White is totally out of his depth and does goofy things like get into arguments about how cool katanas are with the cigar-chomping angel who assigns him missions.

    (And don’t worry, this isn’t set-up to some sort of cop-out ending where they’re all wrongly here and they aren’t actually killers and thieves; in fact, every member of the crew seems to have met a violent end stemming from their line of work. They’re all just both sinners and dweebs, and I love them even more as characters for that.)

    You earn all of your story in these segments in the form of conversations or flashbacks, triggered via giving the other characters the various collectables you find in the stages. Occasionally, they’ll also give side quests in the form of new stages, each one tailored to their personalities: straight-forward “gun down demons and reach the goal” stages for Yellow, levels that focus on mastery of the different jumps and movement mechanics for Red, and brutal death traps loaded with spikes and other instant-kill obstacles for Violet.*

    *I’m fairly certain this was the intent, but if not, it’s still definitely cool thinking about them as bits of characterization for your teammates. “Explaining characters via their level designs” is one of those elements that I particularly enjoy when it pops up because of how unique it is to video games, and I think it’s pretty well-used here! Also, I won’t spoil it, but one of Violet’s stages had one of my favorite, funniest jokes from a game this year.

    This side of the game is the one that I see criticized most regularly, usually in the form of people saying the game is fun action levels and embarrassing story segments to carry you to the next set of great levels. But I disagree with this take on so many levels. First of all, even if you find the characters a bit embarrassing, I think there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the story as well, with you working to uncover a few central mysteries driving the plot, like what happened to White’s crew or why everything in Heaven seems so… off.

    But more over… I can’t help but feel like that take is completely misguided. First off, this very clearly wasn’t a case of the writers trying to be cool and missing the mark or anything; the characters are written as losers, it’s part of their charm. As Jacob Geller says in his Top Ten Games of 2022 video (adapted from his review at Polygon), “The characters of Neon White aren’t supposed to be cool — they’re posturing, insecure dorks, and the joy of the story is helping them gradually drop the mask.”

    And… yeah, that kind of nails the main mark that I wanted to convey. All of these weird touches make the Neons really endearing; they’re all kind of shabby, barely-holding-it-together losers trying as best as they can. It’s kind of a common trope when dealing with morally dark characters (you know, like the game’s main cast) to make them more endearing by humanizing them, showing that they aren’t just violent bundles of rage or something, but it’s a common trope because it goddamn works.

    It’s such a fun variety of personalities to work with, and the voice cast (including legendary voice actor Steve Blum as Neon White) do such a wonderful job bringing them to life, showing all of them at their best and worst moments and making them feel even more like living, breathing people. I can’t think of any way to scrub them of their charm than making all of them slick, stoic, quipping badasses. Even gaining one of those types would feel like a big trade-off from what we have; especially because the main antagonist of the game (Neon Green) kind of covers a lot of that territory already, a silent wall of muscle and rage that starts the game feeling like a force of nature and slowly shows himself to be much worse than that as you push further into the story.

    And moreover, I just think the story here is really good! Even aside from the functional decisions, like their endearing weirdness and the mitigation of harsher elements, most of the other character flaws allow for good and relatable arcs that made me root for the characters! Red and White in particular are some of the most fun I’ve had coming to understand characters in a while, just learning what brought them here, what makes them tick, and watching them grow as people. Which is kind of a big deal narratively as well, since forgiveness and repentance are some of the main themes here; maybe that’s not a big shocker for a game set in Heaven, but like, there is very obviously more going on here than the developers just saying “wouldn’t it be badass to have a game about slaying demons in Heaven?”*

    *I think that also goes for the world design, actually; I’m not well-versed enough in Biblical canon to cite a lot of them, but there were plenty of details in the various parts of Heaven that I recognized as some sort of allusion to less-referenced bits of the Old Testament.)

    And I think they got those themes across pretty well! For one example, you’re given a choice at the end of the game that gives you one of two endings, with no indication which one is the “better” one other than, you know, paying attention to the story. And every time I check, from when I beat the game months ago to now, the better ending has a higher completion rate, even in spite of the fact that a player might not have actually unlocked that choice when they reach it.*

    *For any completionists, don’t worry; you can just replay the level to see the other ending, and the requirements for unlocking the “good” option aren’t overwhelming. I just think it’s interesting that most people who only get one of them know which one to pick, and I wouldn’t be shocked if more people who got both started with the good ending before checking out the other one out of curiosity’s sake (which is what I did).

    —some brief thematic spoilers, skip to the end if you’d like to avoid—

    It’s maybe not a surprise that a game about sinners in Heaven has forgiveness and repentance on its mind. Specifically, it’s mostly thinking about forgiveness as something that allows the one doing the forgiving to heal, using the mechanics of Heaven to cut through any ambiguities. Forgiveness is something that universally moves the forgiver towards… whatever comes after this weird, demon-fighting purgatory is. If a character says they worry that their choices were immoral, it’s clear that they mean it, it’s not just them being a good person and second-guessing their choices on the outcomes. If there wasn’t some merit to that feeling, they wouldn’t be here.

    Neon White is a fascinating character to watch grow and learn and change as a person as he finds all of these things out, but as much as I like him, I think Neon Red is my favorite encapsulation of the game’s themes. White is great to follow around and hear from, but Red might just be one of my favorite video game characters period, a savvy badass and unapologetic dork simultaneously, with infinite patience for those around her, the catalyst who sets everything in motion and who’s character arc marks the beginning of the game’s finale. Yet at the same time, for all that she seems the mature adult in the room (possibly even too mature and understanding) you can tell that it took a lifetime of hurt to get there, and that she’s still learning and growing as she goes. In a stacked voice cast, Alicyn Packard brings Red’s depth to life, and her interplay with Blum’s White is just so good.

    Really, just putting together the world’s narrative mechanics and all the pieces on its metaphorical gameboard and their various interactions is a treat, and it’s part of what I love. As you go, you get to understand where they’re coming from, what’s driving them, what they’ll do… and yet, the writers still give them a few surprising but understandable twists. Watching them all come to grips with the pain they’ve caused and suffered and how it changed them really drives it all home.

    —end of spoilers—

    In just about every way, Neon White is my favorite game of the year. We can speak at length at how fun and smooth it is to play, at how unique and innovative its gameplay is, at how fine-tuned the level design and mechanics are, at how stylish everything in the game is. I’m hardly the first to note all of these things, because all of the praise is well-deserved. But I do think the story, the beating heart at the center of the game, is also worth celebrating despite also getting overlooked. Its earnestness pulls it all together, and adds an interesting narrative and characters to push you through; I constantly found myself desperate for the rest of the story during the levels, and excited to see the upcoming levels during the story sections, and that sort of “each part is as good as the rest” is a truly rare thing to see.

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