Hey! Listen is a twice-monthly column unearthing obscure video game music and trivia. Today’s column dives into Neon White.
When independent developer Ben Esposito started work on Neon White, he set out to create “the most video-gamey, video game”, he could. That might seem like a strange way to describe a video game, but it’s kinda perfect for a platform-puzzler-parkour-FPS hybrid that takes all of the best bits from your favourite and most obscure games on the PS2 and Dreamcast and vomits them back out, drenched in a Neon Genesis Evangelion flavoured colour palette.
The sleek style and sounds of Neon White will feel instantly familiar to anyone that grew up playing video games in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, but at the same time, the experience of running down and tearing through demons at hyper speed in heaven is unlike anything you’ve played before.
“We wanted to wear our overall inspirations on our sleeve,” Esposito tells NME. “We’re so confident that this is something new – that you can’t get it anywhere else, that it’s a fresh experience – I don’t think we need to hide the fact we’re influenced in all these different ways. This game is everything we love thrown in a blender.”
As someone who’s been DJing, playing in bands and producing his music since his college days, it goes without saying that Esposito also loves music (he cites artists in the LA beat scene such as Flying Lotus and Shlohmo as being hugely influential). Music has been an important part of shaping the creative vision of the games that Esposito works on, and while he initially planned to write the music Neon White himself, a change of plan was needed as plans for the game grew more ambitious.
“It was supposed to be a really quick and really simple game, but it ended up being too compelling when people played it,” he explains. “So we were like, ‘oh, we should invest more money into this – we’re onto something.’
“At that point, I was like, I can’t do the soundtrack myself. I can’t do breakcore stuff – I was copying things and just trying to figure out what the sound could be – so we were like, okay, it’s time to find someone who can do an amazing job.”
This led to him asking one of his favourite artists, Matt Stephenson AKA Machine Girl to score the game. If you’re a fan of Machine Girl’s music, whether it’s the intense breakbeats and hardcore ferocity of 2014’s ‘Wlfgrl‘ album or the mellow vibes and video game aesthetic in the 2020 EP ‘RePoirposed Phantasies‘, you’ll appreciate that pairing Machine Girl with Neon White is a guaranteed match made in heaven. And it helps that Machine Girl lives and breathes video games.
“One of the first things that Ben told me about the game was ‘this is going to be an early 2000s throwback. I want it to feel like a lost PS2 or Dreamcast game,’” Stephenson explains. “So the attitude of Hideki Naganuma’s music in Jet Set Radio Future is something I was always thinking about, and trying to combine that with the sound and airiness of Soichi Terada’s [Ape Escape] stuff.”
The pair immediately started to bond over their shared love of the sound that Japanese composers were pulling off in the Dreamcast and PS2 era of video games. A lot of the soundtracks in video games at this time, whether it’s the groovy jungle and D&B on display in Soichi Terada’s Ape Escape soundtracks or the heavy-hitting techno and house music in 2003’s Chaindive on the PS2, wouldn’t sound out of place in a nightclub.
Esposito wanted the music in Neon White to follow a similar direction to what Machine Girl was doing with their EP ‘RePorpoised Phantasies’. He had an extensive playlist of influences from the mid-’90s right through to the early ‘00s.
“My stuff was less video game soundtrack-y in terms of influences,” he explains. “I was like, ‘here are producers that have a sound I like’, and was throwing in radio hits from the time like the DJ Sammy version of ‘Heaven’. That’s the tone, right? Because we wanna hit you right in the face. We’re not being subtle. We’re not being classy.
“Matt sent back all of the video game soundtracks that he loves because he was really excited to do that, and I really wanted to tap into that passion. He sent back another playlist to me and we picked out specific things, like ‘Mount Amazing Part 2‘ from the Ape Escape 3 soundtrack.”
After hearing that Esposito wanted a sound similar to ‘Reporposied Phantasies’, Stephenson also shared the Machine Girl holy grail with Esposito: over 200 tracks of unreleased material. This marked the initial piecing together of Neon White’s soundtrack, with Stephenson also channelling his wider influences from electronic artists such as Luke Vibert and Loan to achieve the crossover rave and cinematic soundtrack vibe that bellows out with impressive consistently across Neon White’s stages.
Despite the back catalogue of unreleased Machine Girl music, almost all of the tracks you hear in Neon White’s levels, whether it’s the glacial sound of ‘Glass Ocean’ in the opening stages or the dirty bass drops in Neon Violet’s ‘Rigged Game’ music, are written from scratch. “That was all done with the intention of having a consistent sound or vibe between all the levels,” Stephenson says.
The game is oozing with music. There’s a running joke in the YouTube comments for the soundtrack that the latest Machine Girl album comes with a free game. The soundtrack for Neon White is such a colossus beast that it had to be split across two volumes of music, and even then, Esposito tells us about 50 per cent of the music that Machine Girl made for Neon White had to be cut.
“I loved working on this project because we had so much material to start with, so it wasn’t hard to come up with a direction for something,” Esposito says. Matt would come to me very often and say stuff like, ‘you can change these tracks more than you think. So if you like the bass line, just tell me, and I’ll make a new song out of that.’ It was really cool being able to harness that wild energy of [Matt] being excited to make a video game soundtrack because he would keep finding different ways of approaching the music that would be from another game he loved.”
What makes the music in Neon White even more impressive is that Stephenson was juggling his soundtracking responsibilities around touring and performing as Machine Girl. Not only was this tiring, given Machine Girl’s live shows have the same energy as someone letting off a box of fireworks in a powerplant, but it was also logistically challenging given the constant curveballs COVID can throw at touring bands. It doesn’t help that 99.9 per cent of the world’s airports are on their arses right now.
But composing for Neon White actually provided Stephenson with a creative outlet to escape any bullshit that threatened to jeopardise touring plans. When the world was going to shit around them, they’d seek solace in the refuge of a van and switch off by writing chilled, melodic passages. One of the game’s most relaxing pieces of music, the main hub theme for Central Heaven, was written during a moment of absolute chaos. It also came toward the very end of development.
“I remember that day we were running super late for a show, traffic was ridiculous, someone in our van got car sick and had to get out and throw up,” Stephenson says. “And we were touring during Omnicrom so there was always this base level of stress. I made all of these calming ambient things just to calm myself now, and that was one of the things I made. I remember sending it to Ben and not even giving him the option of not using it.”
“I didn’t expect a track like that to make it into the game, but he was exploring all these corners of video game sounds,” Esposito explains.
The music in Neon White may start mellow, but as you journey deeper into the depths of heaven toward the end of the game – which is much more sinister than it sounds – the Machine Girl that many will know and love goes full-blown boss mode. Video game composers such as Soichi Terada and Hideki Naganuma may have inspired the earlier parts of the game, but Stephenson was channelling his love of metal and punk, as well as Mick Gordon’s work in Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, for the final pieces of music he wrote.
“The Doom soundtracks for the new games were definitely an inspiration. Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal are ridiculously good soundtracks – I was definitely channelling that,” they say. “I think the Doom soundtracks are still unmatched, just for the vibe, and I listened to them a lot when I was making the final boss theme.
“I would say some of the music in the game is the wildest Machine Girl stuff I’ve ever made. The second-to-last boss theme is a pretty extreme Machine Girl track. It’s this thrash metal thing with breakcore and all of these different breakdowns.”
For the time being, Neon White is available on Steam and as a timed exclusive for the Nintendo Switch. But given the unanimous praise surrounding Neon White and the music that Machine Girl has written for the game, we’re confident we’ll be hearing plenty more about this franchise and its line-up of freaks in the future. One of Esposito’s pipe dreams is to see his creation turned into an anime.
“We really, really, really wanna make an anime,” he says. “We have a whole pitch and everything. That would be the ultimate dream.”
But will Machine Girl return to provide the music?
“Oh, absolutely. BUT the credits are gonna have the DJ Sammy version of ‘Heaven’ playing at the end. It’ll be completely balls to the wall.”