Neon White, the frenzied, first-person card-based speedrun incarnate, drops tomorrow, arriving with an equally hyperactive soundtrack from New York-based electronic artist Machine Girl. It’s the first time Machine Girl has ever created a video game soundtrack, so I sat down with them and Game Director Ben Esposito to find out how this highly sporadic, yet collaborative process has spawned so many banging tunes.
“It’s honestly, so far, like the single most amount of work I’ve put into a single project,” Machine Girl says. “The Neon White soundtrack is an extension of an EP, but the scale is so much larger than any of my albums. There’s a ton of music that I’m writing from scratch, but a lot of it is unused demos that are being retrofitted into levels and scenes like in RePorpoised Phantasies.”
Back in 2020, Machine Girl couldn’t play any shows due to the first COVID-19 lockdown, so they dropped RePorpoised Phantasies, a rave-y and colorful EP. Ben Esposito, a long-time listener since Gemini, heard those tracks and reached out to Machine Girl about Neon White, a project they’d be able to work on from home.
Machine Girl approached it as the album extension of RePorpoised Phantasies and quickly produced four times as much music as Esposito requested. The two tell me it was excellent timing and the perfect fit.
“Our game structures the whole experience of learning to be a speedrunner,” Esposito explains. “So everything about the game is about getting you to understand the joys of optimizing a level, you know, practicing the same thing over and over again. The soundtrack is a super hardcore mission statement for that repetition, that speed. When you get into a level, you might be a little bit overwhelmed, like, ‘Holy shit, okay, I have to live up to that.’ But when it clicks, and your skills develop, you’re truly playing to the music.”
Speedrunning, the art of playing through a video game as fast as humanly possible, has given rise to many dedicated niche communities over the years. From friends huddling up in a college dorm room trying to shed seconds off of a Celeste run to massive crowds gathering in convention conference rooms to watch someone complete Super Mario Odyssey — an 11-hour game — in just over three hours, people love to see how players bend and break a game’s rules to beat the clock.
Neon White heavily encourages this repetitive practice, which means competitive players will be listening to the same songs over and over again to get the fastest time. Part of Machine Girl’s work on it has been dedicated to forming beats in ways that combat the possibility of sonic boredom.
“I tried to keep the songs pretty involved and evolving; Like, they aren’t just simple techno loops, repeating over and over again,” Machine Girl says. “They’re kind of all over the place, there’s so much of it, and are always changing genres.”
Machine Girl describes their production process as “very ADD,” with their objective being to keep the music engaging.
“I want it to catch you off guard,” they continue. “We’ll see how much I succeeded in that, because it’s gonna be like something that will only be known once a bunch of people play the game, and then we’ll see if people are like ‘Oh my god, I can’t listen to this fucking loop one more time.'”
Neon White holds an amalgamation of inspiration in its speedy platforming, pulling templates from Black dance music like Jungle, aesthetic references to the late 90s + Y2K era, and paying homage to the iconic video game soundtracks of Ape Escape 3, Hotline Miami, and Jet Set Radio.
“Jet Set Radio is one of the most influential soundtracks for me, just like a piece of media that totally shifted my life, like period,” Machine Girl says. “It shaped my path and my taste.”
When envisioning making the soundtrack, Esposito told Machine Girl that Neon White is an incredibly stylized game; it’s about making “stuff that is cool.” To Machine Girl, that’s Jet Set Radio. They’re also a huge fan of composers like Hideki Naganuma and Soichi Terada, who have influenced their melodies a great deal.
Esposito tells me he doesn’t generally like to give too much direction with everything; instead, he prefers to loosely request vibes. He might say he wants a song that could evoke feelings like “it’s bleak” or “it’s a windy skyscraper” from the listener.
Machine Girl would then take the vague prompts and go wild. While they’re on the soundtrack, Esposito and Steve Green have been handling the rest of the sound design.
“It’s a collaboration! It started as just me, then we had Steve Green come on and help out and patch up all the holes in the sound palette,” Esposito says.
“But most of it is taken care of by me. I like to be really hands-on with it, and I like to put the sounds in as I build things,” he continues. “It is kind of a give and take: I’ll make an enemy and I’ll also make the sound and at the same time, and I’ll realize that this enemy sounds more powerful than I expected, and then that turns into, ‘What if we actually scale him up and make him more powerful?’ I really like going back and forth in the designing process.”
Neon White, developed by Angel Matrix and published by Annapurna Interactive, launches on June 16. Its soundtrack will be available on all streaming platforms.