The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. We've previously talked to Studio Zevere about She Dreams Elsewhere, BareHand about Cede, Decoy Games about Swimsanity!, and Veritable Joy Studios about ValiDate.
Aerial_Knight's Never Yield is a 3D runner in the vein of Flash classics like Vector and CANABALT, but with a style all its own. Creator Aerial Knight — also known as Neil Jones — mixes a visual flair reminiscent of Suda 51 with the musical sensibilities of Cowboy Bebop, then filters that through a Tokyo-style version of his home city of Detroit. He and DBLTAP talked about the game's killer soundtrack, the origins of his name, and what it's like trying to build a career as a Black game developer. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
DBLTAP: Why don't you just tell me a little bit about Never Yield? What kind of game it is, and what the hook is, from your perspective. What do you think makes it special?
Neil Jones: Never Yield is what I've been calling a narrative runner. So it takes the traditional runner mechanics and adds a lot of style and flair to the mechanics and changes just a bit so that it's a little bit different. When creating the game, I wanted to make a game that people could pick up and play that also had a story, that also wasn't too long, and appealed to both casual audiences, and the people who want to go more the in-depth and speed runner route. They can go that route with the game as well. So it's, it's definitely not a game for like everybody in the world. But I want to make a certain audience really happy with it.
DBLTAP: Nice. Do you have an idea of like, what that audience is?
NJ: Yeah, so people who love games like Sonic the Hedgehog, and like — There was an old school runner called CANABALT. Games like that. If you enjoyed those types of games, and wish that we had some more indie, Flash-based games like that, this is more than the game for you. We also have an amazing soundtrack. The game is fully in 3D, we have all types of cool cutscenes, and there's a really interesting story for people who are looking for that.
DBLTAP: What other endless runners did you look to for inspiration?
NJ: I looked at the standard runners that you would think of when you think of runners. But I got a lot of my inspiration from games like No More Heroes. A lot of the Suda 51 games. So those are my favorite genre of games. And standard indie games that you would play, especially the last generation [has] really inspired me to go down that route.
DBLTAP: You know, that No More Heroes is inspiration is super clear in the aesthetic of Never Yield. What do you think it is that appeals to you so much about that kind of retro-futuristic, neon colors, East-meets-West kind of thing?
NJ: The Black culture has always, you know, really appealed to, or found appealing, the Eastern culture. Like, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, coming from that to the Wu Tang Clan. Black people just love that kind of stuff. So I think me just being a part of that, I've always loved those types of things, and wanted to bring it into the things that I was doing. And as far as Suda 51's style, that was already my natural art style. So when I see No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw and all that kind of stuff, it just looks really appealing to me because it's something that is already in my wheelhouse. It's stuff that I like to do.
DBLTAP: Do you think of Never Yield as an afrofuturist piece of work?
NJ: I don't really think of it like that. A lot of people compare it to that. And, you know, I love the comparison. But when I was initially coming up with the idea of the style of the game, I was just kind of in my own world, in my own space. But I'm sure subconsciously I drew from other things like Missy Elliott, and artists like that really pushed that aesthetic forward. And you know, I probably drew upon that, subconsciously.
DBLTAP: So the full name of the game is Aerial Knight's Never Yield, right? So Aerial Knight is you. But where does that name come from, Aerial Knight?
NJ: Aerial Knight's been my gamertag since I was, like, 12, I think. And, you know, Neil Jones's Never Yield doesn't have that same ring to it. I always go by Aerial Knight online. You know, some people even in real life call me Aerial. But that's more of my persona that has followed me. So I just decided to keep with it with, not only this game, but the next game I make, and probably the next game after that. Just so people can — if, you know, people like what I'm making — they can easily find me in this very crowded market.
DBLTAP: So I also have a gamertag that I've had since I was in middle school, probably, and sometimes I'm ambivalent about that. I sort of wish that I had a different name. Do you like being Aerial Knight? Are you still into that name?
NJ: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's... I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. Because it's been with me for so long, I just see it as my name now. If someone told me to change it, I would literally tell them I can't. It's my name. But it's a name that I chose, you know? I chose it when I was younger, but at least I had a choice. So I like it almost as much as my actual name.
DBLTAP: How did you choose the name Aerial Knight? Where does that actually come from? Because I know my [gamertag] is from like, this obscure webcomic that I found when I was like, I don't know, 12 or whatever. So yeah, what's the origin story there?
NJ: Oh, it's not much of a story. When I was younger, I just was trying to find a good name. I think I spent two weeks going through names. I just put two words together that I couldn't find online, that no one else really had at the moment. You know, ever since then, there was like a Magic [the Gathering] card named Aerial Knight, so that took up a lot of like ad space.
DBLTAP: Dang. Your [search engine optimization] juice got rocked.
NJ: Yeah, but I still still got it first. So there's no going back. And, you know, a Magic card isn't the end of the world.
DBLTAP: Yeah, man. Do you play MTG?
NJ: No, I haven't. I was more of a YuGiOh kid.
DBLTAP: Yeah, I was definitely into both as a youngster. But yeah, there are definitely worse fates than sharing your name with an MTG card. Do you know if the card is good?
NJ: I don't. When I was getting the domain name I ran across it, but I didn't do too much research on it. It looked like a cool card, though. I like the art.
DBLTAP: That's important, that's important.
DBLTAP: So Never Yield is set in — you call it a Tokyo-style Detroit, right?
NJ: Yeah, I don't call it like a futuristic Detroit. It's just more of a semi-futuristic, Tokyo-style Detroit.
DBLTAP: Why set the game in Detroit?
NJ: Because I grew up in Detroit. There's not a lot of what I consider good games based in Detroit. Detroit is very overlooked when it comes to video games and all that stuff. We have some spots in some racing games but nothing too interesting outside of that.
DBLTAP: What do you think was important to bring to life about Detroit in your game?
NJ: Well, my game's based in Detroit vaguely, but it's my fantasy of Detroit, really. A take on Gotham City, almost, where it's a lot of buildings, interesting layout, lots of freeways. And I bring in aspects like the bridge that connects Detroit and Canada, the walkways, the river, all of those cool things. So it's more of my romantic idea of Detroit than it is anything one-to-one.
DBLTAP: Slight pivot, but the music in the trailer for Never Yield is so good. And I've seen people bothering you on Twitter about it. They're like, "What's the name of the song?" And you're like, "It's called Trailer Song Version 2 Updated," or whatever.
DBLTAP: Tell me about how you're putting the soundtrack together and what's going on there.
NJ: Currently, the soundtrack just wrapped up. We finished with the soundtrack. I think it's 14, 15 songs. We, me and my friend, Dan. Originally, it was just me, but I'm terrible at making music. But I know what I want it to sound like. We spent a good three months before we settled on the first song. And we kind of ran across the sound while we were — I think we were watching Cowboy Bebop or something like that. And Dan had an idea and he just went off and made something in, like, a night. And then he sent it to me.
I asked him for a couple tweaks, and then it was the perfect theme song. Then we just based all the rest of the music off of that. We found some good singers and R&B singers and rappers to complement a couple of the tracks, including the trailer's and such. It kind of all just flowed together. Me and Dan have been working together for almost nine years or so just because we came from the same school. And, you know, we're both from Detroit. There's not many game developers in Detroit so we all kind of know each other. So yeah, it's just all kind of flows together really well.
DBLTAP: It's interesting that it was Bebop and not [Samurai] Champloo [also directed by Shinichiro Watanabe], because I feel like Champloo is the hip-hop show. Bebop is the everything show. But then I guess the soundtrack's not just hip hop though, right?
NJ: Yeah, no, the soundtrack is — you know, there's hip-hop elements in it. We push those forward in the trailer just because you know, hip-hop elements are easier to cut a trailer to. But a majority of the soundtrack is jazz-based.
DBLTAP: Now that's the Bebop.
NJ: Think of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo put together. That would be more accurate than just one or the other.
DBLTAP: I've seen you talk a little bit, I can't remember where, about the danger, or the perceived danger, of feeling like you're fitting into a stereotype when it comes to [being an artist]. You're a Black creator, so it's like, people expect you to be into hip-hop or whatever. And then it's hard because you do like hip-hop, so you feel like you're being put in a box for just being yourself, right?
NJ: Yeah. That's actually very accurate.
DBLTAP: Tell me about that struggle, that feeling of being caught between these two things.
NJ: It's mostly because we're not a monolith. I'm into a lot of stuff. I'm into anime. I'm into rap. I'm into jazz. I'm into musicals. I like "Hamilton." I like... What's that Wizard of Oz one..? [He's talking about "Wicked."]
DBLTAP: Oh, uh. Oh my God. What is it called? [It's "Wicked."]
NJ: [Laughing] Oh man, I can't remember either. [Again, "Wicked."]
Anyway, I like "The Book of Mormon." I like all that stuff. I like a lot of different things. The problem comes when you go to make a game. You want to make a game that represents you. So all my favorite things consist of rapping, Detroit, and hip-hop music, stuff like that. But the problem comes when there's more than one Black person in a space. Not saying that's the problem, I'm saying, creatively, everybody kind of expects us all to kind of make the same thing. And when we don't make that thing, or [create] in that box that people imagine us to be in, then they see us as pandering to outside forces. Which isn't true. So if I made, you know, a musical game about "The Book of Mormon" or something like that, people would be like, "Oh, that's not very Black-centric." And I would reply with, "I don't know what that means. I just made something that I like." So it's kind of a catch 22.
It's a struggle. It's hard to explain, as well.
DBLTAP: No, totally. I know what you mean. It's like, when you express your individuality, they're like, I don't know, "You're not 'Black' enough," quote, unquote. And then when you try to make something Black, it's like, not true to you as a Black person, right?
NJ: But everybody has their own idea of what being Black to them is. So, you know, everybody's right. But everybody kind of has to let other people move how they want to move. As long as it's not being disrespectful in any kind of way.
DBLTAP: Totally. This is kind of a step back, but do you have plans to release the soundtrack on its own as a standalone thing?
NJ: Yeah, we're working on that. We're still trying to figure that out. But I post updates on my Twitter all the time, so soon as we have something solid — You know, I'm kind of open with everything. I just announce stuff.
DBLTAP: Nice. Yeah, because I'm thinking like, "Yo, a record of this thing would be so sick."
NJ: Yeah, definitely. I can't wait until people really dive into it. Especially the later tracks, that's tied to the actual ending of the game. I think people will like that a lot more than the stuff they already heard.
DBLTAP: That's a high bar. I was listening to you on the Iron Lords podcast, and I heard you say that you thought that Never Yield was going to be your last game. Why was that the case? And what's changed?
NJ: I made Never Yield specifically because I didn't think I was ever going to succeed, in a certain way. Because I've been trying for so long to make my way into the game industry, be it working in other companies, or applying for studios and such, and I really didn't make any headway or get any opportunities. So I made a game before this called Murder the Reaper, that some people like. It's free up on Itch.io.
DBLTAP: I played it!
NJ: Oh, you did? Oh, man. Thanks! But, honestly, it's not the best game. It's just more of a fancy prototype that I was putting together. But I ended up not liking it as much, and I really didn't get any good feedback, as far as if I should continue with it. So I kind of made myself a promise to do one last push, one last game, where I put my full focus into one thing. Make it something easy and accessible for people to pick up and play, and that I can move between platforms with, while at the same time, keeping it small enough to the point that I can do it on my own. And then I'd put it out into the world. If people like it, then, cool, I'll keep pushing with it. But if I really don't go anywhere with it, I was just going to drop everything and just move on to something else.
DBLTAP: But you've gotten enough positive feedback on Never Yield that you feel like you can stay in games?
NJ: Yeah. I just needed to know that what I was doing was right. I wanted to know if I was on the right path, if the stuff that I created was appealing to people. Because with the internet, you only hear the negativity. All of the games I've worked on on my own got a lot of negativity. So I kind of just put it out there as like, "Yo, if y'all want it, y'all want it. If y'all don't, then cool, I just make this for me and then move on to my next opportunity."
DBLTAP: I've talked to a few Black developers who have come to similar points of — maybe crisis is too strong a word for what you're talking about, but maybe it is a crisis. But this moment where you're like, "Am I even supposed to be doing this?" And I think, actually, it probably is tied to their being Black insofar as there's a lack of support and stuff. I'm not asking you if you've like, literally been on the receiving end of racism in the games industry and that's why you feel like you're iced out or whatever, but do you think it's harder to be... What am I asking you?
NJ: I think I know where you're going with it. That's a big question. And, you know, it's different for everybody. So for me, for example, I've been doing game industry stuff for like, 10 years. So I've experienced all of it. I've been the only Black guy at GDC. Well, not literally the only Black guy at GDC, but, you know, you can pick me out in the crowd. If you go to GDC you know how many people are there, and you see all of, you know, a sea of white people. But I'm very easy to find. They'd be like "Oh, Neil's over there." [Laughs]
While at the same time, my other job is a teacher, and I teach people how to do 3D models and add a lot of style to the game and make stuff look good. And I've seen students get jobs that I can never get. I mean, that speaks to how dope of a teacher I am, but also, you kind of, after a while, you see a pattern of where the opportunities go. And it's very hard to speak on it. Because, personally, I feel that, not the game industry, specifically, but gamers don't support not only just Black game devs, but game devs in general. And specifically, if you see any kind of supportive post by a giant, major studio, supporting anything Black, all the comments will say, you know, "It doesn't matter that they're Black," while at the same time not acknowledging that the game industry is only 2% African American. That's men and women combined.
So all you have to do is look at the numbers, and you can see that there's clearly an issue. And I think it's a systemic issue where nothing is done intentionally at the moment, but traditionally where people hire their game devs from, how they hire them, has created this problem over time that's very hard to fix, or there's lack of a willingness to fix the problem.
DBLTAP: Do you have people in the industry that you can look to for support?
NJ: Yes and no, because there's only so much an individual can do. But there's definitely a lot of support for people like me, who are just kind of trying to make their own path, and other people who are really on the path of working at an EA or Bethesda or something like that. And there's always support out there. But the issue is, what level is the support coming from? So if it's coming from very low levels in the company, there's only so much they can do. So support has to come from the top to create major change.
DBLTAP: Why is it important to you to have Wally, the main character in Never Yield, be a Black man?
NJ: When I was like, "This is my last game," I was like, "Well, I'm just going to make something that represents me the best." Wally was based on my uncle, and then a bunch of inspirational Black people when I was younger. Like Axel Foley from the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies.
DBLTAP: The GOAT.
NJ: Yeah, for real. Wally was just based on my childhood heroes. I kind of just meshed them into one person as best as I could, and then I built a lot of stuff around that.
DBLTAP: What inspired you about your uncle?
NJ: He was a really cool cat. He didn't really bother anybody. He was just a guy. He just minded his own business. He did his job. He went to work and never caused too much drama. And, you know, I think especially now we need more of that.
Every Black person doesn't have to have superpowers and have a really traumatic backstory. In my game, that's kind of the case, just a little bit, but at the end of the day, if you really look at the character, he's just a guy. He stumbled upon this thing, and now he can do certain things, but it's very temporary.
DBLTAP: There's a lot of mystery about the story of the game. I want to ask about it, but I don't want to spoil things.
NJ: I mean, I'm pretty open with everything. But basically, something was taken from him at the very start of the game, the first cutscene. We see him taking it back, and then this evil corporation is chasing him, trying to get this object back that brings out Wally's full potential at certain moments.
DBLTAP: I'm assuming that's tied to all the slo-mo sequences in the trailer.
NJ: Yeah, that's part of his powers. He can temporarily push time. Not completely slow time, but he can just like, move between it just a little bit. I wanted to give him really specific powers, where he can kind of nudge things, but he can't really — he's not a super-powered being.
DBLTAP: In Murder the Reaper, there's also a heavy emphasis on slo-mo. What do you like so much about slo-mo? Why are you so into it?
NJ: I don't know. I think I like that mechanic a lot because it gives the player a little bit of time to figure out what's going on. There's a lot of games, especially in the indie space, where it's based off of reaction time. I think to be different you have to take those traditional things and either disregard them or change them. So while everyone else is focused on "Hey, reaction time is the key focus," my key focus is strategy and timing. And a lot of people look at that and say, "Oh, that's just a quicktime event." But it's not. Because if that quicktime event has options, then it's no longer a quicktime event. It's more of a choice.
DBLTAP: I was not even sure if I was gonna ask you about the slo-mo thing, but then it came up so I was like, "I got to know."
DBLTAP: After the events of this summer there's been a pretty significant push for more talk about people of color in games. That's amazing, obviously, I think we both agree on that. But I've also seen you talk about the importance of highlighting Black work specifically, and Black workers and creators specifically. Can you tell me a little bit about why that's important?
NJ: I think on all levels it's important. But specifically with the rise of Twitter, and all of these things, all of these platforms, you can really see how stark the difference is between a Black creator who's doing one thing and a creator of another race that's doing the exact same thing, and how much more support one gets over the other. So, traditionally, in the game industry, it's always been white media, white characters, white creators. And if any of those three things are mixed up, like say a white game that's reviewed by a Black person, it gives you a different perspective. It gives more of a welcoming look at people's views, and it opens up gamers to say, "Hey, other people can be a part of this space." Even though they already have been, but you know, in front of the camera as well as, behind the controller.
So, I think we just have to expose gamers to the fact that Black people have always been gamers, and not just in the sports realm, but in all areas. When I was in high school, most of the kids in my high school were playing Mass Effect. But if you asked a generic gamer who doesn't know about Black gamers, they would think all we do is play Mortal Kombat and, you know, 2K whatever. So I think the more we show gamers that we're out here and we've been existing, then the more they'll chill out and stop attacking Black people randomly online or in games.
DBLTAP: This increased focus on POC creators and on Black creators, do you think that is a trend that's going to stick around and keep growing and gaming? Or do you see us reverting back to the status quo more recently?
NJ: In the past, if you look at history, it's always been ups and downs. It's always going to be a trend of support, and then — I can't think of the word, but everybody goes back to their normal routine slowly, and then we get complacent again. And then there's this giant trend of support again. So hopefully. This year has been very dramatic, so it's very hard to tell the future of what's going to happen now. But hopefully, this time, it really sticks. And not only studios, but gamers are more welcoming to Black characters, Black creators.
Because just look at [Marvel's Spider-Man] Miles Morales. There's not much you can hate on that game without hating on the original Spider-Man as well. And then if you blatantly hate Miles, and you don't hate the original Spider-Man, then that kind of shows you who you're talking to. I think we're just creating more, you know, justifications. The more we see characters like that, and creators like that... So as long as we get more of that, I think, we'll be good eventually.