The only embarrassing thing is being embarrassed
Since its release in June, the speedrunning first-person parkour shooter Neon White has been plagued by one common criticism. I’ve heard it more times than I can count, and it comes up as a counterpoint nearly every time I praise the game: “It’s a good game with bad writing.” The complaint doesn’t always arrive in those words (I’ve also heard it described as “so cringy” many times), but the philosophy has pervaded discussion of the game for six months now.
There’s just one problem: it’s completely wrong. Neon White is a good game with good writing. And yes, it’s a good game with writing that sometimes makes me cringe. Most of the jokes are cheap gags about the main character being either stupid or horny. The entire conceit of parkour demons slicing up heaven with cool anime swords is the kind of thing a 14-year-old would scribble in the margins of their math notebook. But the key mistake arises when you assume that cringe-worthy writing is inherently bad. In fact, Neon White‘s embarrassing nonsense is crucial to its success.
Remembering what came before
Neon White takes a lot of cues from dubbed anime of the ’90s and 2000s. This isn’t a secret – director Ben Esposito describes Neon White, in his own words, as a “speedrunning anime FPS.” The main character, the eponymous Neon White, is voiced by Cowboy Bebop‘s Steve Blum (Blum’s voice can also be heard in everything from Digimon to Naruto: Shippuden). There’s even a bona fide beach episode wedged into the middle of an incredibly tense point in the story, complete with new swimsuits for the main characters.
To that end, it would be profoundly dishonest for Neon White to be anything but cringe-worthy. The exact same game minus the frequent eye-rolling jokes about boobs would, in fact, be an entirely different game. It’s impossible to truly send up that era without reminding the player of the annoying tropes that used to prevail. Once again, this is something Esposito himself has acknowledged. In a pre-release interview with GamesRadar, Esposito noted that he wanted to make a game that felt like the trope-laden shows he loved, adding that “part of that is embracing cringe and embracing the tropes.”
Comfort for the shameful
“It’s on purpose” is, of course, a weak justification for a creative decision. Deliberate choices can also be bad choices. Many would argue that the decision to imitate a bygone era of writing is an altogether bad one. Most of the folks who used to love the shows Neon White is imitating look back on those days with a bit of shame.
But the stuff that we cringe at now was cool as hell back then. Parkour demons were cool, and jokes about idiot protagonists were funny. Beach episodes were fun. If Neon White was one of the DVDs in my little collection of video store oddities back in the day, I would have been obsessed with it. As a video game in 2022, Neon White lets me retreat back into that zone. It lets me enjoy things just the way I used to. It’s the interactive equivalent of a reunion tour for all the corniest, most over-played tropes in the world, and that’s great. If you didn’t come up around stories like this, then maybe it won’t do anything for you. Maybe the clumsy comedy is just clumsy, and the cast of horny idiots are just horny idiots.
If you have no affection for a younger, more embarrassing version of yourself, then sure, Neon White is just an annoying attempt to relive the not-so-glory days. For the rest of us, it’s the chance to live like a shameless weirdo again. To get to that point, you have to be able to kill the part of you that cringes. Once you do, listening to Neon White‘s goofy dialogue is like coming home.