Fighting for inclusion within the gaming industry had always been at the forefront of Neil Jones’ heart.
The thought of seeing protagonists in video games that looked like him was something that he felt helped elevate the gaming experience to another level, and he knew that was the case for other gamers as well. So, when it came time for Jones to come up with the concept and direction for Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, he had already decided he would draw from the idea of inclusivity as one of his many forms of inspiration. Jones set out on his lonesome to create a gaming experience and narrative that appealed to players of all backgrounds.
“A father made a comment on Twitter about how he really enjoyed the game with his son and helping him with the hard levels in the game,” says Jones, a Black game developer and the creator of Never Yield. “It gave me flashbacks to playing games with my grandma as a kid in Detroit. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside making up random games to play with other kids who lived around me, as well. I think that’s why I love video games so much; they’re for everyone, and everyone can play.”
Born and raised in Detroit, a city with the highest percentage of African Americans in the US, Jones understands the importance of diversity, inclusivity, and representation. Before becoming a full-fledged game developer, Jones got his start working for small app-based studios, mainly specializing in making apps for cars. He also assisted smaller projects with friends, such as Dot’s Home, a game that explores historical housing injustices faced by Black people, and Clique, which is aptly described as a game about facing prejudice.
This work experience furthered Jones’ understanding of his strengths and weaknesses in game development and helped him decide what he would do differently on his own to continue the standard of representation that he achieved through collaboration with his friends. “Representation matters to me because the more we include everyone, the more interesting stories and ideas we have to draw from,” Jones says. “That’s not only for the characters in the games but the members of the development team making the games as well.”
Jones’ mindset stands in direct opposition to that of the gaming industry, which often perpetuates the racial biases that exist outside and inside of the gaming microcosm. These obstacles, unfortunately, lead to little or no Black representation in the games being made and the teams creating them, resulting in Black characters becoming mere stereotypes. Jones actively wanted to work to do his part in remedying this injustice, so when making Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, he made the conscious decision to work on the project by himself.
“Some of the biggest obstacles I faced as a Black developer starting out were just being taken seriously and making sure I didn’t let anyone come and try to change the vision of my game’s voice. That’s why I handled everything from even cutting all the trailers myself. There really isn’t a team, just me,” says Jones. “[With] Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield in particular, I didn’t have a hard time with obstacles because I had already given up on pitching games and going that route. So, no major company ended up seeing it ‘til it was halfway done. I don’t think [these gaming companies] would have understood what I was going for without playing it anyway. But [publisher] Headup and their affiliates noticed me during this showcase I was involved in called The Mix. I wasn’t looking for a publisher, but Headup’s email stood out to me, so they ended up helping me with the game towards the end of development.”
Much like other independent video games by Black developers, such as 5 Force Fighters and ValiDate, Jones’ creation of Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield is an enormous deal. It serves as one of the latest steps in an overarching march toward a far more inclusive vision of what gaming, and the gaming industry, should be: diverse stories and narratives for a diverse base of players. And Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield is hoping to be exactly that.
Never Yield is a 3D side-scrolling endless runner, or “narrative runner,” as Jones passionately calls it, where the player must jump, dash, slide, and race to complete each level. The protagonist is a young Black boy named Wally who has recovered a mysterious artifact from the heart of a Tokyo-styled Detroit that could help save the rest of humanity. Running through a multitude of culturally vibrant environments, Wally must evade obstacles and enemies hell-bent on retrieving this stolen good.
“The concept of the game was always to take a cool game mechanic that’s been around for a while and mix it up a bit and really make it my own by adding a lot of styles you wouldn’t normally find in that genre. That’s why I call it a ‘narrative runner.’ The game’s setting has always been based on my weird take on Detroit, but it’s not one-to-one,” says Jones. “Also, I think the main character, Wally, stands out a lot, especially in the indie space, not just because he’s a Black main character but because his story stands out. I hope players have fun piecing together his story and what’s going on in that world.”
Fans got a taste of his unique concept in April during the release of the game’s demo. The reaction? An overwhelming amount of anticipation, support, and love. “You are the first dev (to my knowledge) to create a game with a protagonist that looks like my babies,” @DadPadGaming said on Twitter. “Stay strong because you’re showing my kids they can be heroes. #NeverYield #RepresentationMatters.” “You’re doing amazing work! Keep representing us and killing it out here,” says another Twitter user named @L1keMike. “Ignore the haters!”
Along with his decision to create a game seeped in inclusion, Jones also ensured that this passion project would be a blast to play. Jones states that he wanted to push this particular genre forward with new and exciting gameplay elements and invite players into the genre who may be playing this type of game for the first time. “I added a lot, such as how you control the character, adding a story and cutscenes, progression, and replayability,” Jones says. “People have reached out after playing the demo and said how they don’t normally play these ‘types of games,’ referring to endless runners, but this one really drew them in.”
The culturally significant experiences that come with being Black compounded with Jones’ own unique lived experience and development skills shine throughout Never Yield. These subtleties separate Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield from endless runners of the past and present. It features a well-constructed soundtrack courtesy of Danime-Sama — a Black main character with a prosthetic leg doing parkour — and little to no dialogue, which purposefully shifts the player’s focus toward the design of the game’s culturally rich aesthetics and equally excellent music. “I don’t really care for a lot of dialogue. I wanted anyone, anywhere, to be able to play and enjoy this game, so I tried to do everything in animations,” he says. “My intent with making Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield was to give myself an opportunity to make something dope that I would have never gotten the opportunity to do otherwise.”
Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield launches on consoles and PCs on May 19th at a turbulent time for the US. The verdict for the George Floyd case has sent shockwaves through the nation, and ignominious acts of police brutality continue to impact African Americans at a disproportionate rate. Jones understands that his game won’t solve major issues on that particular front. Still, he is hopeful that the success of this game will create a moment of solace where players become more curious and interested in exploring Black-led games and become familiar with the lives, experiences, and narratives that come along with the rich cultures of Black people.
“I’m not sure how or if my game will or can affect the whole industry. That also sounds like it would be a lot of pressure for me or anyone to think about. I just hope enough people buy the game so I can make more of it. If the game does well, then it shows that Black characters actually do sell well,” Jones says. “The climate is definitely wild right now. So, I hope people look at my game and realize that Black talent that’s never been given the opportunity to grow in the games industry; there are so many people that are so much better than me that were never given a chance. I hope that the next wave of Black game devs is given those chances.”
Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield launches May 19th on the Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, and PS5.