‘Neon White’ is one of the best games of 2022

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Speedrunning, the art of completing a video game as quickly as humanly possible, is a marvel to watch. A good speedrunner cuts through a game like a katana through butter, bypassing complex fights and puzzles with delectable smoothness. But the best part of speedrunning events — like the currently ongoing Summer Games Done Quick or Awesome Games Done Quick — is not strictly the blinding-fast action. Rather, it’s listening to runners methodically explain how they’ve managed to skip massive chunks of a game’s intended path.

The process of slipping outside a level’s boundaries and into the warped, glitchy worlds between is fascinating — the end result of hundreds of hours of studious play. By comparison, the run itself is a victory lap. “Neon White” is a first-person platformer meant to be played this way. It does a masterful job of making you feel like the genius who figured out the skips that speedrunners rely on in popular games — even if you actually kind of suck at it.

On its face, “Neon White” is about a deceased assassin with amnesia, White, competing against other assassins to kill demons and get out of hell. But the real relationship at the heart of the game is that between the player and the individual levels. At the outset of each blistering obstacle course — many of which can last fewer than 30 seconds — the goal is simply to kill every demon and reach the finish line. You can use various items, which take the form of cards that act as either demon-slaying guns or single-use abilities depending on how you deploy them, in service of this. One allows you to double jump, another lets you slam down with craterous impact and so on. Playing the specific hand you’re dealt in each level — and realizing how to creatively exploit it — is key in optimizing your run times.

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An intro guide to speedrunning, gaming’s seemingly intimidating subculture

It’s only after you first “beat” a level that it evolves into its most sublime form. At that point, a gift — which you can later offer to another character to deepen your relationship with them — spawns somewhere on the course. You can then run the level again to try to figure out the gift’s location. This simple change wholly reframes each location. Suddenly, it’s no longer about sprinting, shooting and slashing; instead, you’re tasked with using each area’s specific array of cards to circumvent the main path, which the gift is never on.

Gifts are almost always positioned not to reveal a level’s best-shrouded secrets but to get you thinking. Where once you might have used cards that propel you forward at blinding speed to ping-pong between enemies en route to a ground-level finish line, you might go on to discover a gift positioned at a level’s highest point, resulting in cascading eureka moments. If the gift is up there, it must be possible for you, too, to get up there. And if you can use cards to leap that high at one spot in the level, maybe you can hold on to those cards and climb that high almost anywhere else in the level. And if you can figure out a perfect point at which to leap up a couple stories and dash forward, maybe you can proceed to bypass half the level.

But of course, that’s all theoretical. So then you run the level again with your new theory in mind. And again. And again. You tweak and optimize — or maybe you realize you’re beating your head against a wall and seek out a new route altogether. Eventually, 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, perhaps even a god. Also you still have 120 more levels to go, and everybody else in the world somehow has a better time than you.

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The best video games of 2022 so far

This might sound laborious, but it’s not. Every step in the process is meticulously calibrated to engage the pleasure centers of your brain — and not in the cheap, mindless sense that you might associate with, say, loot-driven shooters or mobile games. In “Neon White,” you can go from awkwardly fumbling your way through a level the first time to blazing past its trickiest sections with pure muscle memory on the 20th or 30th. More importantly, you can feel that progression. Levels are so short and smartly designed that even when you finally master one, you’ll still remember your Bambi-like first steps through it.

On top of all that, you feel like a diabolical 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 the smartest person on Earth for progressively gaining fluency in the language of its portal-based gameplay, even though all you were actually doing was solving a series of linear puzzles. Similarly, “Neon White’s” skips and shortcuts are built into each level’s design, but they feel devious.

You’re constantly going over, under and through impediments that give the impression of being designed to keep you firmly on rails. When you uncover a new skip — which happens constantly and with a procession of new cards to widen the possibility space — it’s like you’ve defied the will of some unseen overlord, even though said overlord absolutely meant for you to figure all of this out. It’s a magic trick of level design that continues to fool me, even as I noticed the sleight of hand many hours ago.

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It’s this simple-sounding but perfectly executed formula that puts “Neon White” over in a year light on quantity when it comes to singularly excellent video games, but heavy on quality when you factor in landscape-changers like “Elden Ring” and indie gems like “Citizen Sleeper.” Cliche as it might sound, in “Neon White” the reward is in the journey. And in going back through all the early levels and repeatedly beating your friends’ best times.