Death’s Door is arguably the year’s biggest pleasant surprise. The Zelda-like adventure of a soul-reaping crow battling monsters to serve a bureaucratic afterlife commission won many hearts and earned a 9 out of 10 review score from us. Now that the dust has settled, we sat down with the game’s principal creators, Acid Nerve's David Fenn and Mark Foster, to reflect on Death Door’s success, discuss the team's design approach (such as ditching the map), and their overall takeaways for the future.
Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers regarding Death's Door's endgame content.
What has surprised you most about the reception to Death's Door?
David Fenn: I think that people liked it so much [laughs]. Probably just how universally people like it. Having all of our past games being much more divisive, I just never really expected to have a game where it just seems like 90 percent of people are really into it. So that's definitely been really cool.
How did you approach balancing that game’s humor with a subject matter as grim as death?
Mark Foster: I think the subject matter of death and the serious elements of it kind of go hand in hand with those lighter, comedic things. I don't know if it's maybe a British thing or what, but the idea of making light of a situation to try and kind of take the edge off it is like a classic thing that we've both [have] kind of been brought up with and the game just plays that all the time. The juxtaposition of the light and the dark themes, like having all the enemies trying to kill you, but then you've got these little forest spirits spawning in the world and running around, is a good example of that kind of thing. The comedy and stuff was just our personalities kind of coming through in the game. We like to just make jokes and stuff all the time. That was the main thing we wanted to put in over any kind of overtly negative themes because the whole game revolving around death, you could imagine it going into that dark kind of route. But having this kind of offset thing makes it just a bit more palatable when you do kind of hit those notes of more poignant moments in the game as well.
DF: Yeah, I think it helps for the player as well to stay kind of engaged and motivated in the world if there is a sense of lighthearted fun to take them through this adventure, which does touch on the darker themes.
Was there a time when the game was too dark and needed to be lightened up?
MF: I think it always was gonna be a little bit silly and have slapstick comedy and stuff like that in it. I think that's just how we like do things really.
DF: I think that the darker stuff was always there in the sense of we wanted there to be kind of twisted and strange ideas in the world to make it unique in that way. I think that's probably something that we had emphasized from day one in our original pitch. But yeah, I think if anything, it's probably more that as the game went on, we kind of stumbled upon the poignant elements of the game as opposed to [going] really heavy with that stuff to begin with and had to reel it in. I think that the kind of lighthearted style was what was more natural to us, and then the darker stuff came as more of like an exploration as we went along.
Many players love how Death’s Doors is a tightly condensed experience. How did you approach content planning?
DF: I think for about the first year or so we did just kind of write down every idea we had and just started making loads of stuff. And then there was a point around then that we kind of sat down and had some long discussion about how this world should actually be structured and how the game should be structured in acts and stuff. From that point on, I feel like we had our plan quite locked. And that really did help with the concise nature of the game, while still making sure that all of the best ideas that we had, that we were excited about were all crammed into that relatively concise playtime.
What ideas didn’t make the cut?
DF: There's probably a few. I think originally, you were going to meet the gray crow a quarter of the way through the game. And the summit was going to be like a much longer journey from the start, and it was going to be surrounded by four fortresses on each side of it, like four separate levels. And then that became completely re-adjusted to just focus on the chapters that we wanted. And then the game kind of follows the structure of having an intro, three chapters, and an end. I think that gives you a better sense of momentum than you go a couple of hours into the game before you get any sense of what the structure is. That's one example that comes to mind.
Why did you decide to exclude a map, and how do you design a level where players will feel they don’t need one?
MF: For me personally, I don't like maps in games. Recently, over the past two weeks, I've been playing Hollow Knight. Loads of people compared our game to it, and I've never played it before, so I thought I should give it a go. And it's great. But the map thing, one thing I find myself doing with games with maps is just looking at the map all the time and kind of not really internalizing any of the structure of the world because I know I can just defer to the map at any point. And I think if you don't have that, it forces you as a player to become more aware of your surroundings and kind of make a note in your head of the landscape and monuments and things like that. And just points of interest where you can kind of tell where you are from there. Games like Dark Souls kind of do that kind of thing, which is maybe a bit more tricky to do in our game because of the isometric kind of camera angle. But I definitely just prefer that kind of style.
And then with the map thing, the benefit of it is that players can find secrets really easily because they're like, “Oh, I just need to go here, and I've got a new power,” or something, but then that kind of takes away from the exploration and the kind of discovery that you get of finding those things organically as you play through. And I think our game was pretty good at not forcing you to have to go and backtrack to make use of those powers. All that stuff was kind of optional. So you can go through and play the main game and not have to go back too much except for, like, you get the new power, and you beat the boss, then you have to go find the next one. But that's kind of all going through the central hub. So the stuff that you can go and discover if you go back to an old area, you organically find it if you play through the same sections again. To me, that's more interesting than just looking at a map and just ticking off the boxes. You know, just going through saying, “Okay, I could go here and like, check this lantern that couldn't open before” and stuff like that. So that's kind of just the way I think that me and David probably prefer. Games to flow more organically.
DF: I like to think that the game is actually quite guided early on. And then just through the general way that the levels work, you unlock various shortcuts in a way, which is going to help you kind of gain mastery over those areas. And then all of the really deep exploration comes much later, when, for one thing, it's optional, but then also, it's like, you're already invested in that story, and you already are getting to know the world. So that's a really nice time to be doing, like deep exploration and letting yourself explore everywhere, just from your own memory.
How did the post-game content come about? Were you worried most people wouldn’t engage with it after completing the game
DF: I think the post-game stuff, and just secrets in general, have always been the part of making games that we're the most excited about. They're the bits that we put in the game just for our own enjoyment. In all the games we've done, we've done these kind of post-game elements. The Death's Door one is actually quite heavily inspired by a flash game. Pretty much the first game that me and Mark ever worked on together, half of the game was after the credits, and it was this big treasure hunt where the world changed to night and everything was mysterious, and we just really enjoyed making that part of that game. And I think part of the joy of that is the feeling that if only 5 percent of your players, like your biggest fans, they're the only people that experienced that, then that's just going to make it feel all the more special for them.
Although I think with Death’s Door, we kind of guide you a little bit more than we have done in the past because we do show a little cutscene showing you the key on the ground and the Hall of Doors after the credits. So that's kind of just a little prompt just to tell you, “Hey, there's something more in this world.” And then also the fact that after the credits, it respawns to you in the crow camp, so you can kind of see that it's not just reverting you to the save before the final boss. It's actually the entire world is in a post-completion state from that point onwards, which is one thing that I really like as well. That always makes postgame more exciting to me when it's lore-appropriate.
MF: Another thing on that is I think that it's okay that most people won't see that content as well. We put a lot of that good fun stuff in there that we enjoyed making, like David said, but I think it's fine to just have it so that people play the main game, and if they enjoy that, then that's cool. And then, if they want to go into the extra stuff, then they have that option. Even if they don't do it which makes the world feel a lot deeper and bigger, like there's always stuff to discover and more things to do inside of it.
DF: Yeah, it's nice when you finish the game, and you've decided to move on for a bit, it's nice to have that feeling that there is more that you could do in that world if you ever decided to go back to it.
What’s been the biggest takeaway or lesson learned that you’ll apply to the next project?
MF: Now that it's all done, just kind of think about what we want to do next and try and like, I think maybe I'll do some kind of post-mortem type of thing on the actual game and try and collect all my thoughts properly. Because I'm not really sure what to fully take away from it. It's just been a really good, overwhelmingly positive experience for us really. It was that weird thing of working on something that no one knows about for three or four years, and then suddenly boom, it's out there, and people can play it and people enjoying it after that is super rewarding for us. When the reviews all came out at the exact same time, the game was coming out. Actually, Marcus, your review was the first one that I read because it just happened to pop up, so I was like, "Oh, thank god, 9 out of 10" [laughs].
DF: Yeah, it was such a tense moment. I'm sure there's loads of things we've learned from development, which we will channel into future projects in terms of things that we want to improve and stuff like that. But in terms of our journey as a company, it has been such a huge, overwhelmingly positive success. It’s definitely the most successful game that we've ever made. So I think at this point, we're just exhausted from all from the launch and all the post-launch support and stuff like that. But I think my state of mind is we can definitely just be proud that we made a game that loads of people like, so [I’ll] probably just be happy with that feeling for a while.
MF: Yeah, and definitely learned a lot along the way as well. I think we'll be better prepared going into anything we do in the future for sure.
Death's Door is available now on Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and PC.