Neon White’s Ben Esposito Talks Counter-Strike Mods, Inspirational Smoothies, and Shadow of the Hedgehog in Sun Ash


“I think an overriding concept behind this game and one of the driving forces behind it was that we wanted to make a truly video game,” Neon White lead designer Ben Esposito tells me on a Zoom call. If there’s one way to describe Neon White, it’s gaming, though I tried to be more generous with my words in TheGamer’s review of FPS platformer dating sim slash. But what makes Neon White gamey? What makes a game gamey anyway? During our conversation, we tried to get to the bottom of this.


Esposito dismisses the Titanfall 2 Gauntlet comparison and dives deeper into video game history and his own experiences by 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 was into jump maps,” he explains. “I was playing Team Fortress Classic, doing concussion grenade jumps. This stuff is part of my story. It was really fun and important to me to try to bring a lot of old school ideas into the mix, because we weren’t trying to refine the most modern movement techniques, we were trying to pull from the story of first person platform game scenarios.

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

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

She found the name Neon White. Not for Esposito’s FPS platformer, just for a game. The couple brainstormed together, imagining he was a sky assassin, giving off big Constantine vibes, and there’s a ladder he has to climb to be the best celestial assassin (like no one has ever been). It wasn’t until months later that they realized his current project would be the perfect vehicle for Neon White: “and so it kind of just kind of coalesced naturally, as we were playing around with all the ideas.”

Gone are the mechs from its previous theme (which no doubt would have led to more comparisons to Titanfall), and it evolved into something different. It evolved into Neon White. But since its launch, it has evolved further, and it’s thanks to the players.

“A lot of things that people find weren’t designed by us, like some motion technology,” says Esposito. “For example, I intentionally put in this concept that you can parry a bullet and it gives you a little speed boost. And nobody on the team is particularly good at doing that… Then all of a sudden, when we released the demo people understood right away that if you fire a grenade at the ground and hit it with your katana right after you fire that, you get a speed boost. That makes perfect sense, I guess, since you parried a projectile, but I had never thought of doing it to my own projectile because that’s nonsense.

He loves the absurdity of the Neon White community – it’s a game for monsters, after all – and a lot of his insistence on breaking his game comes from the fact that Neon White is a game about speedrunning.

“People keep finding new things. It’s pretty cool, I’m watching very closely,” says Esposito. “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 whole design of this.”

A few mechanics have been tweaked, but for the most part Esposito just sits back and enjoys the chaos. After all, speedrunning is all about breaking the game.” I’m glad people found ways to stick with us and break our levels because that’s what’s fun about speedrunning is breaking things… If it was all intentional on our end, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

Finding unintended mechanical combinations, exploiting gaps in the map, and generally using every speedrun trick in the book led players to find a secret in Neon White: red medals. The game shows you four rewards for your runs, depending on how fast you complete each stage; Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Bronze is if you complete it but do everything else wrong, Silver is generally a simple and straightforward race, Gold uses the intentional shortcut, and Platinum is a great race using a few trickier tricks and shortcuts. The red medals are Esposito’s times on the levels, and they are already beaten.

“I was mentally prepared for this,” Esposito explains, “but seeing this happen and seeing people posting, ‘oh, yeah, here’s everything I erased every red in that mission and every red in that mission’, I was like, ‘Wow, you’re dedicated.’”

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

“What interests me is to move on to something that I’ve never done before,” he explains. “Because that’s ultimately what drives most of the projects I do. I want to do something that I’ve never seen before, that I know I would like, and that I’m pretty sure no one else will do.

However, another action game is not out of place (there are also no sequels or DLC for its previous games “if there was overwhelming demand”) because it learned a lot about gender when creating Neon White. “I want to use some of that muscle now to make a game that becomes fun again.”

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