Image courtesy of Annapurna Interactive
Neon White, an ungodly fast first-person platformer about shooting up demons while shuffling through colored cards that unlock movement abilities, is extremely good. It’s a game where you’ll complete a level, in theory an accomplishment in a video game, and feel unsatisfied. Levels in Neon White take less than a minute to finish—and frequently over in less than 30 seconds. Finishing a level faster and faster isn’t optional but a requirement.
“If you just play to win each level without going back to optimize your time, you’re not really playing Neon White,” said designer Ben Esposito in a recent interview with Waypoint. “This was not always obvious to players throughout development. We had to make a lot of structural design changes to orient people to the true ‘fun’ of the game.”
In 2018, when Neon White was in early development, it was a “card-based arena shooter with a lot of randomness built in” and ultimately “just wasn’t fun.” Before tossing the prototype out and moving on, the developers crafted a handful of linear stages and found they started racing one another through it. Suddenly, they were onto something interesting.
In the final game, there’s a timer dropped into the center of the screen while you’re playing. It’s omnipresent, but easy to ignore, too. That timer is a real-time judgment of your progress, and combined with what are essentially “lap” times the developers have come up with, ultimately determine whether the player is awarded a Silver, Gold, or Ace medal. A set number of gold medals are required to progress in the game, which means, unlike most games, you are being asked to see success as a form of failure. You need to get better.
It’s all meant to be stressful, but stress only carries so far and can even prove alienating.
“Originally we just had the basic medals and showed leaderboards at the beginning and end of the level,” said Esposito, “but there’s one major problem: before you’d even cleared the level, you’d see other players’ times which often seem impossible to attain. The gap in ability and knowledge is discouraging, and it gets more exhausting as you go.”
“If you just play to win each level without going back to optimize your time, you’re not really playing Neon White.”
In Neon White, things aren’t as simple as “please go faster.” There’s actually a progression system to push players towards speedrunning. Dubbed the “Insight” system, as you achieve new medals on each level, new and illuminating information unlocks in the form of rewards.
“The concept was simple: only show players information that’s helpful to them at the time and nothing more,” said Esposito, who credited designer Russell Honor for coming up with it. “You can’t see the medal times or your friend’s times until you’ve cleared it once. You can’t see your ghost until you’re ready to seriously optimize your time. You can’t see any shortcut hints until you’ve proven you can clear the level efficiently. Finally, you can’t see the global leaderboards until you’ve Aced the level, which for many players is still just the beginning!”
Ah, the shortcut hints. These are devious and delightful and utterly confusing at first. Upon achieving a level’s Gold medal, the player is rewarded with a new quest: find the floating icon in the area that signifies an unexpected shortcut that’ll let you beat it even faster. It may require jumping in a strange way, using weapons in unexpected combinations, or even both. What the shortcut hints do is gesture towards a much more “optimized” way to beat the level.
“Placing the hints actually caused a crisis,” said Esposito. “Hints were added late in development when most level layouts were locked. We found that there were a bunch of levels that had places to optimize your time, but didn’t have a meaningful shortcut. It was important for our Ace medal times that each level had at least one shortcut that saved a significant amount of time even if you didn’t execute it perfectly. In the last few months of development we cracked open a bunch of levels and added more meaningful shortcuts.”
These hints are, in retrospect, vital. The way I’m currently playing Neon White, I do not move onto the next level without achieving the Ace medal. However, in only one instance of a game I’ve now played for more than 15 hours did I find a shortcut on my own. Instead, every other time, I’ve relied on tracking down the shortcut hint and trying to decode what it means.
And yet, it left another question open ended: how exactly are the developers coming up with these times for Silver, Gold, and Ace? These developers are playing the game for tens of thousands of hours, and know exactly how every element of every stage works. There’s no way they can be used as a barometer of good/better/best. Is there some enormous data set of playtesters slotted into a spreadsheet? Does a secret AI run the levels over and over?
“We struggled to generate ‘fair’ medal times throughout development,” said Esposito. “There is such a wide range of player skill that it’s easy to lean too far in either direction. There’s probably a great data-driven way to solve this problem, but we aren’t that smart so we came up with some practical solutions that worked pretty well.”
To that end, Esposito and his team came up with a rule for each medal time to follow:
- Silver: Completed the intended path with no optimizations and some mistakes.
- Gold: Completed the intended path with no optimizations and no mistakes.
- Ace: Completed the level using the designed shortcut, with no optimizations and no mistakes.
Good rules! But the problem I’d speculated about remained: the developers were too good. But, uh, how do you make someone good at something suddenly bad at it in a realistic way?
“Russell hacked the ghost system to record our runs through the levels,” said Esposito, “then it would introduce small errors throughout the run to simulate hesitations and countered some of the simultaneous actions that we would typically do. It ended up generating estimated times that were surprisingly close to real-world player times!”
This solved the problem of the developers being too good, but also planted an idea. As development was wrapping up, level designer Carter Piccillo pitched the team on a secret to drop into the game: hey, what if there was a medal for beating the developers’ good times?
“I recorded my best time on every level (and another set specifically for Nintendo Switch, since we needed to make sure they were reasonably attainable in handheld mode),” said Esposito. “While there are plenty of freaks who got all the secret medals easily, I’ve seen a lot of players experience the secret medals the intended way. Just when they think they’ve got the game figured out they’ll earn their first developer medal and realize they have barely scratched the surface.”
So far, I have not unlocked any developer medals.