Speedrunning – for those yet to stray into the outer wilds of YouTube or Twitch – is the act of attempting to finish a video game or one of its constituent levels in the shortest time possible. Sometimes the challenge is physical: a player must consistently execute perfectly timed leaps, or attacks. Elsewhere the challenge is cerebral: you must divine shortcuts, or uncover reliable glitches that enable a player to finish, say, Elden Ring in under six minutes – 80 hours less than it takes the average person. The best speedrunners are treated like serious athletes, their videos watched by millions. When a world record that has stood for years is broken, it makes headlines in the speedrunning community, a group that has its own dedicated websites, interpersonal dramas and annual charity marathons.
Neon White is a product of speedrunning and designed explicitly to serve that community – although this isn’t immediately obvious from its premise. You play as White, a masked protagonist who has woken as an amnesiac after their death. White has been chosen by God to compete in a kind of purgatorial Olympiad, slaying errant demons while tearing towards the finish line in a slew of tightly designed courses. The winner of the contest will earn a spot in heaven. The backstory is torn straight from the pages of manga (White is voiced by Steve Blum, the 62-year-old fan-beloved voice actor who plays Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop), but it is broadly incidental. This is a game built for human competition outside the narrative: your times are logged on real online leaderboards, where the quickest in the world compete for domination.
Each course – which take place in a celestial dreamscape, full of white pillars and rushing, clear blue water – mixes parkour with target shooting. You leap across a variety of objects, striking any targets along the way (foes that occasionally fight back). The finish line activates only once all enemies are defeated. Your abilities are granted by cards, collected as you race along, that enable you to execute, for example, a double-jump, dash forwards, or shoot an explosive bomb to eliminate several foes at once. Each card expires with use, so you must calculate when and where to use them to optimise their impact.
At first you are simply trying to learn the terrain. But every course contains ingenious short cuts, a hidden present that can be used to deepen relationships and unlock new quests back in the town area of the game, and a variety of medals awarded according to your proficiency. Unlock the platinum medal and you gain access to that global leaderboard. Now every hundredth of a second represents a worthwhile gain, with either a tangible in-game reward or bragging rights. Neon White’s chaotic presentation and somewhat puerile script conceals a game of taut design and striking imagination – a delicious test of skills that generously rewards commitment with exhilaration.