The process of slipping outside the confines of a level and into the twisted, glitchy worlds in between is fascinating – the end result of hundreds of hours of eager play. In comparison, the run itself is a victory lap. “Neon White” is a first-person platform game referred to be played this way. It does a masterful job of making you feel like the genius who invented the skips that speedrunners rely on in popular games – even if you actually kind of suck at them.
On the face of it, “Neon White” is about a dead, amnesiac killer, White, who competes with other killers to kill demons and get out of hell. But the real relationship at the heart of the game is between the player and the individual levels. At the start of each blistering obstacle course – many of which can take less than 30 seconds – the goal is simply to kill every demon and reach the finish line. You can use different items, in the form of cards that act as demon-killing weapons or single-use skills, depending on how you deploy them, in service to them. One lets you double jump, the other lets you knock down with a crater-like impact, and so on. Playing the specific hand you’ve been dealt in each level – and realizing how to use it creatively – is key to optimizing your running times.
Only after you first “beat” a level does it evolve into its most sublime form. That’s when a gift spawns somewhere on the track — which you can later offer to another character to deepen your relationship with them. You can then rerun the level to try to find the location of the gift. This simple change completely reframes each location. Suddenly it’s no longer about sprinting, shooting and chopping; instead, you have to use each area’s specific suit of cards to bypass the main path, which the gift is never on.
Gifts are almost always positioned not to reveal a level’s best-hidden secrets, but to make you think. Where you’ve ever used cards that propel you at blinding speed to ping-pong between enemies on your way to a ground-level finish line, you might discover a gift positioned at the highest point of a level, resulting in cascading eureka moments. If the gift is up there, it’s should also be possible for you to get there. And if you can use cards to jump that high in one place in the level, maybe you can hold those cards and climb that high almost anywhere in the level. And if you can think of a perfect point to jump on a few stories and rush forward, maybe you can skip to bypass half the level†
But that’s all theoretical of course. So then you redo the level with your new theory in mind. And again. And again. You tweak and optimize – or maybe you realize you’re hitting your head against a wall and looking for a whole new route. In the end it all clicks. You nail every twist, turn and flourish and hit that sub-17 second sweet spot to unlock an ace medal. You are a king, maybe even a god. You also have 120 levels to go, and everyone in the world is somehow better off than you.
This may sound cumbersome, but it isn’t. Every step in the process is meticulously calibrated to activate your brain’s pleasure centers — and not in the cheap, mindless sense you might associate with, say, loot-driven shooters or mobile games† In ‘Neon White’ you can clumsily plod through a level the first time, past the trickiest sections with pure muscle memory on the 20th or 30th. More importantly, you can to feel that course. Levels are so short and cleverly designed that even when you finally master one, you’ll still remember your Bambi-esque first steps through it.
Plus you feel like a devilish speedrunning master while doing it. This is the game’s central illusion – one that reminds me of Valve’s 2007 first-person puzzle classic ‘Portal’, albeit with a greater degree of freedom. That game regularly made you feel like you were the smartest person on earth as you gradually became more fluent in the language of the portal-based gameplay, even though you were really just solving a series of linear puzzles. Similarly, “Neon White’s” skips and shortcuts are built into each level’s design, but they to feel cunning.
You are constantly driving over, under and through obstacles that give the impression that you are designed to stay firmly on track. When you discover a new jump – which happens constantly and with a succession of new cards to increase the possibility – it is as if you have defied the will of an unseen overlord, even though that overlord was absolutely meant for you to figure this all out. It’s a level design magic trick that continues to fool me even when I noticed the sleight of hand many hours ago.
It’s this simple-sounding yet perfectly executed formula that makes “Neon White” in a year light on quantity when it comes to exceedingly excellent video games, but heavy on quality when you consider landscape changers like “Elden Ring” and indie gems like “Citizen Sleeper.” As cliché as it may sound, in “Neon White” the reward is in the journey. And by going back through all the early levels and repeatedly beating the best times of your friends.
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