Last week's Indie World Direct was a showcase full of ingenuity, creativity, and excitement, as independent developers from across the world announced their games for the Nintendo Switch, often in their native languages. It wasn't just twenty minutes of new games - it was a celebration of diversity, and of game development as a global, uniting force.
Aerial_Knight — a Black artist and creator from Detroit, real name Neil Jones, who describes himself as an "avid sleeper, food & anime lover" on his Twitter bio — was one of those developers enjoying the triumph of being on-screen to announce his game for Nintendo's console. Afterwards, he shared with his followers that the Switch reveal of his debut game was a hard-won success:
The game, described as a "narrative runner", is called Aerial_Knight's Never Yield. The choice to include his handle was a conscious branding decision, and one that speaks to the current state of games. "A lot of the time players don't know who made a game," he says, over Discord. "I wanted to people to know my handle, and use that name recognition to find my other games I might make in the future."
The game is joyously committed to its aesthetic (check out the trailer below if you missed it). Set in a Tokyo-esque Detroit, your character — a young Black runner named Wally, kitted out in a hoodie, jeans, and trainers — catapults his body over police barriers, breaks through road blocks, and slides under drones. The colours are loud and vibrant, clashing pinks and yellows in a mirror-shard kaleidoscope of dynamic action.
There's a lot of environmental storytelling going on without a single word, including the funk-hip-hop soundtrack by Detroit artist Daniel Wilkins. "He was my first and only choice," says Aerial_Knight, who has known Wilkins since childhood. The presence of police, too, is hard to ignore, as their vans and drones chase you, and their guns aim at you, although we're told that things aren't what they appear at first. "I try to leave the story open for people to come up with their own game theory about what's really going on," says Aerial_Knight, "but I will say the "people" after Wally aren't cops."
"I try to aim away from anything too realistic or sad and keep it fun," he adds.
Aerial_Knight's enthusiasm and optimism is infectious and, perhaps, surprising given the relentless struggle he has faced breaking into the industry. "I had about three real interviews in about seven years of looking," he tells us. "There are a lot of people out there like me that just have to do a lot more work to get in the door."
His experience appears to be far from an isolated one. A 2019 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that just 2% of surveyed IGDA members in the US game industry identified as Black, African-American, African, or Afro-Caribbean — and those numbers are the lowest of any racial identity included in the survey, suggesting a huge underrepresentation of Black game developers in the industry.
I had about three real interviews in about seven years of looking. There are a lot of people out there like me that just have to do a lot more work to get in the door.
"I went to school to learn game dev," says Aerial_Knight of his early days in games. "I spent a lot of time teaching myself before focusing on the art side of things." His upcoming game began as a side project in 2019 while working "crappy" day jobs to earn a living. He planned to give up on game development after a year of working on it, but instead he ended up appearing on-screen in a Nintendo Direct watched by millions.
The involvement of publisher Headup enabled him to expand on his ideas. "I never really went looking for funding for this project. I built it on my own for the most part then only when I luckily got a publisher did I decide to add a few more features and levels. I can't speak on how all of that played out but [email protected] offered a lot of help funding additional development."
Aerial_Knight first got a taste of coding through Neopets, and many aspiring developers probably have similar stories; learning HTML through a blog, playing around with C# on Unity, making something small and crappy on RPGMaker. All of these tools have one thing in common: they're free and available to anyone who can access a computer with internet. Kids these days have more coding options available to them that are even more beginner-friendly, such as Minecraft's Redstone and Command Blocks. "I would tell [young gamers] to play with things like Roblox and Dreams - I wish I had those tools when I was a kid," says Aerial_Knight. "As long as you're doing something you enjoy and learning, then you're doing good."
Suda51 was a particular inspiration when he was younger, but now Aerial_Knight himself is potentially a role model for game devs younger than him. As evidenced by the replies to his tweet, developers and players alike reacted to the trailer and announcement with excitement, not just for the game, but also for seeing a young creator they support and identify with centre stage on a global platform. "I'm glad I could be a part of making more people feel represented," he says. The reception so far to the game, he adds, has been "really good".
"I really wish we [could see] more mixed groups of characters working together," he says of modern games. "[And] we definitely need more Black women game characters." The first Black video game character Aerial_Knight recalls seeing was Afro Thunder from Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, a Nintendo 64-era title that featured Thunder on the box cover ("He was so cool."). Seeing predominantly white lead characters in games over and over again, or even a character creator that doesn't allow for Black hairstyles (which is most of them), can be demoralising, and he notes that the representation of Black protagonists in games in general "could be better lol".
When thinking about people who, like him, struggled to get into the industry, Aerial_Knight mourns the loss of what could have been. "I think [the lack of diversity in games] is just something that's built-in, and that's why it's so hard to fix," he comments. "We'll never know how many people there were out like me over the last 20 years but who just never found a way in. They could have made something incredible if only given the chance, or even running studios by now. We'll never get that time for growth or those people back now."
Being on a Nintendo Direct is an incredible, exciting thing for any young developer, especially one making a game almost entirely on his own. It's clear that Aerial_Knight is thrilled about what comes next — one look at his Infinity Gauntlet-styled tweet (above) makes that pretty clear — but he wants people to take notice in more ways than one.
"If I could make this game with nothing," he says at the end of our chat, "imagine what people better than me could do with just a little support from the industry and gamers."
Aerial_Knight's Never Yield is out on Switch eShop (and other platforms) on 19th May — there's a free demo available to download now.