How Neon White Teaches YOU To Git Gud | Nerdy Sermon
I’m generally not one for First-Person Shooter style games, but when I heard that Ben Esposito of Edith Finch, Donut County, and the Sonic Dreams collection (we actually don’t talk about that one, shhh) anyway when I heard he was the driving force behind this game - I knew I had to pick it up. This is an indie dev legend dropping a new game. But I wasn’t expecting it to look like… well, like a PS2-era COD mod.
But I braved it anyway, dove headfirst, and was NOT disappointed. There’s a reason this indie game is a certified hit already, and it’s not for the cringe-inducing narrative. No - this game does an incredible job of re-teaching gamers something that likely forgot about themselves: that performance-driven gaming doesn’t have to be a competition. Even if there is a leaderboard, this game redefines what it means to git gud.
For this video, I want to talk about how Ben does this and how it might help us understand our lives as human beings doing the best we can. Life isn’t about doing everything correctly. It’s about doing every correct thing. Let’s talk about it.
Welcome to Checkpoint Church - where nerds, geeks, and gamers come together to talk about faith, games, and delightfully cringy anime tropes. I’m your Nerd Pastor Nate. If you like these weekly deep-dives, be sure to sub and hit that bell to find out when our next one drops.
Romans 12:1-3 (NRSVue)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
What is Neon White?
It’s a speed-based, performance-driven, card-themed FPS that pushes the player to shoot demons as they parkour their way to the end of a series of well over a hundred course that all demand something different from you.
The game's story is fun, and I love the constant anime tropes that are downright nauseating. Plus, you have Spike Speigal’s VO Steve Blum leading the cast as White - it really doesn’t get better than that.
The gist of the narrative is light at best. We enter a world where not-so-kind people are brought up from Hell to serve as assassins (although more like plumbers, if you think about it) for the demons that are running rampant in the lower levels of Heaven.
These assassins are known as Neons and are given different masks and tasks to help cull the demon ranks.
Our MC is Neon White, who predictably has had his memory erased to keep us interested in the story as players.
Our closest pals are Neon Yellow, Neon Red, and Neon Violet. We are somehow connected to these three but only get to learn our story in bits and pieces throughout the playthrough.
There’s also the hulking Neon Green, who has a severe obsession with us as Neon White - maybe they want a reboot of Bebop?
Whoever ranks up the highest gets access to the special halo and gets to stay in heaven when all is said and done, while the others either die (again) or are sent back to Hell.
Green has won several games in a row, and that’s all that I’ll reveal for this video because the narrative isn’t really why we’re here for this video… it’s also not really why you’re most likely playing the game.
In an interview on the Eggplant: The Secret Lives of Games Podcast, Ben said as much, explaining that the story only serves as a kind of salve to the usual burnout that speedrunners get on games like these. The story is either bait or a moment of calm between the game's trials.
So why this game? What makes a game with so much vacant white space and downright boring-looking building models so interesting as to warrant such high scores from all of these reviewers?
In that same interview, Ben commented on his reason for making this game how he did. In some of his other projects, he has taken the angle of making games that defy the conventional gaming tropes - Edith Finch doesn’t play like most narratives, Donut County doesn’t play like most Katamari-collector types.
In this project, he decided not to take that cynical, reinvent the wheel mentality and instead wanted to invoke the most video-gamey video game he could, to the point he wanted to recreate the feeling of trying for the fastest run in his high school bedroom playing the games of a past era.
And he certainly succeeded for me - I haven’t felt about a game how I feel about Neon White in a while.
As a downright narrative gamer, I wouldn’t play this game by the narrative alone. It’s fine enough, and I obviously have a love for the zero-sum game model, but Danganronpa and Zero Escape, this game isn’t.
Yet I am still absolutely drawn to this game. To the point that when I started playing it on stream, I promised that I wouldn’t move on without them, so I went through in-between play sessions and unlocked all of the platinum time trophies I could get up until that point. I am NOT a trophy gamer, but this game turned me into one… sort of
I don’t expect to become the type to go and start trophy hunting on all of my past games of the most recent few years; no, I am only interested in working so hard for this game in particular.
The design of this game is really impressive - you enter a level to do two things: destroying all of the demons and reaching the crystal teleporter thingy.
You get there by collecting a series of cards, each of which gives you a type of weapon. Each type of weapon can also be redeemed for an awesome single-use parkour power-up, such as a double jump, a rocket forward, or a ground stomp, to name a few.
Thus the first trick of the game is to use the cards wisely to reach your destination safely with all the kills you need to win.
But then you see the time trial after your first successful run, and you’re like, WHAT DO YOU MEAN I COULD HAVE DONE THAT IN 13.5 SECONDS?!
Then it’s on like Donkey Kong, and you start getting after it to get the crazy fast Platinum time trial. And, after the first few courses, you begin to notice that each of these levels has a sort of trick to them - a secret tunnel, if you will.
So you start to look for the secret on your first try. And then you start to get good at knowing what’s required just by the guns that the game gives you.
And it feels good.
And you feel good.
And you want MORE.
You look forward to the next mission, the next time trial, the next plat. And if you’re like me, you notice that the leaderboard is no longer something that entices you towards competition but awe. You start to look at others doing the game in insane periods of time, and you find them on YouTube, watching their speedruns, and you’re blown away by the creativity. You pick it up for yourself and try it out, and the game becomes more manageable.
It’s a brilliantly crafted piece of ludological art - the game has taught you how to best play itself without you ever even noticing it.
And that’s the trick that makes this game so very good.
And it’s also where our scripture for today comes in. I included three verses from Paul, but it’s the most famous of them that I want to focus on today.
Pauls's letter to the Romans is a bit different than his others because he hasn’t actually met this church in person yet and isn’t sure if he ever will. He wants to write a kind of 101 Ned’s Declassified Christ Survival Guide for the early church.
This comes across as a very cut-and-dry collection of appeals from Paul on how to live as Christ lived without much flavor, pomp, and circumstance.
This passage explains that, should we want to be acceptable to God, we need to live our lives as living sacrifices. This, Paul says, is how we worship. It is not a works-based gospel but a life lived for Jesus as if it is a sacrifice.
Then Paul drops this line that he has no idea will be seen in Hobby Lobby’s worldwide (is Hobbity Lobbity worldwide?) - Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by renewing the mind.
I mean, that’s downright poetry, right?
Paul says we should discern what is God’s will by the transformative experience of understanding who this Jesus guy is and what is asked of us. Through this process, we know what is good, what is acceptable, and what is perfect.
Paul continues because he has planted more than a few of these churches by now, and he knows what's up, so he says - My Brother in Christ, I say this with love, please don’t think highly of yourself and certainly don’t start a measuring contest, I beg of you.
Paul already sees the competition that we will “discern” for ourselves quickly. Because it feels good to do good, we start measuring ourselves against others. But that’s that confirmation mess he was JUST talking about.
When Paul says not to be conformed to this age, he isn’t just talking about the pagans, but all of humanity, and we’re all humanity ‘round here. The transformation we seek has nothing to do with those around us; we aspire to a higher goal. We run a better race. One that is unique, nuanced, and has nothing to do with competing with others.
Any Christian or speedrunner worth their salt will tell you that no victory is gained in obsessing over the competition. Look at virtually every sports movie trope ever - the point is never just being better than the other person; it’s being the best person you can be.
In the same way, Neon White forces you to discover that skill within yourself. Odds are, you’ll be rough the first couple of times, but then you’ll find the shortcuts. And then you’ll start noticing them everywhere.
You’ll learn how to use the guns and the parkour tricks at the right spot and time. You’ll discover that your skills are growing by leaps and bounds without the game holding your hand or forcing you to conform to its playstyle.
Instead, you’re being literally transformed by a better understanding of how the game works and what you need to do next.
In this same way, we are called to be our best in our walks as human beings and followers of Christ. We discover things about ourselves every day. We may be tempted just to follow someone else’s walk or be inauthentic to ourselves, but the truth is that we don’t need anyone else’s path - we already have the example we are called to follow: Jesus.
But it doesn’t stop there; it’s still not a conforming game. Once we discover we are to live like Jesus, we realize just how beautiful and nuanced that walk is in and of itself. Case in point - not just anyone finds themselves watching sermons from a nerd church about Neon White. You’re likely watching this as a transformed person because you are uniquely called and crafted with care and thoughtfulness.
Even Neon White has its limits; there likely is the best way to play. There is a way to conform to the rules and models in the game to best perform, but there is endless nuance and possibility in real life.
But Neon White does an excellent job at reminding us what life and gaming are really about - being the very best that we can be in that moment, in that space. Testing things out, knowing what to look for, bringing our A-game every time… that’s the stuff.
But what does this mean for us today?
Hopefully, we can remember that speedrunning isn’t about being better than the competition. Someone will always be the best at something. And sometimes, it might even be you. But the point of speedrunning is being the best you that you can be. It’s different than PVP in that way. And life is very much the same thing.
We’re not competitors in the race of life; we’re collaborators, co-competitiors, and encouragers. Rather than forcing others to run your way of life, celebrate how they are gifted. And the same goes for you, don’t measure your worth on the merits of others, but see the amazing things you’re doing with your own two hands and willpower.
In the immortal words of Dr. Suess, there’s nobody you-er than you.
And community is the lifeblood that takes that to the next level. Bring your A-game to the party and then join up with others doing that, too. Together, we can build one another up and bring more than we could ever do on our own.
So, whether you’ve been brain wiped, are a little bit twisted, or just another dude-bro, know that you’re always welcome to run the race of life with us here at Checkpoint Church.
God loves you.
We love you.