In a stellar year of game releases, the indie darling Death’s Door is something worth crowing about – and crow about it we did in our glowing review.
A curiously quirky tale of death and duty, it presented a world where Crows grind out their nine to five collecting souls and uncovering otherworldly plots to thwart the natural order. It was my privilege to sit down with Programmer/Designer/Writer Mark Foster and Producer/Composer/Designer David Fenn to peck their brains on character inspirations, sinister secrets and why on earth a crow may choose NOT to fly.
WellPlayed: Good morning, everybody! It is obviously much earlier there than it is here. A big thank you very much to both David Fenn and Mark Foster from Acid Nerve, developers of Death’s Door for joining me today.
How are you guys?
David Fenn: Really good thanks.
Mark Foster: Yeah, good.
WP: Is it weird having the entirety of Acid Nerve in one place like this? It was always interesting to me when I first noticed that the studio only has two names attached to it initially – but obviously you guys are very collaborative. Is that something you want to explore? You know, expanding the studio, or are you just sort of winging it for now?
DF: I think so far, winging it is working. We basically had to set up a company because we ended up turning Titan Souls into a commercial release after it started out of the game jam project. How it has worked so far is that we kind of just enjoy this collaboration and cover everything other than art, and it’s nice to be able to just collaborate with artists, maybe approaching a different artist for every game or just working with artists that we like. A lot of our games have ended up having quite different art styles for that reason. It’s just kind of nice to be able to collaborate with people.
WP: Well, one thing I promise you is I am not going to ask the obvious question of “WHY A CROW?” Because I noticed that you have answered that quite a few times already. I do think the one question I will ask is this, was it always a crow? What came first, was it the concept of a small feathered animal doing things? Or was it the idea of this grand saga in the realm of death?
MF: It actually started with the concept of a door, and the idea of all the places you could visit. The original idea for the game was the player visiting all these different places, through a single door. But we quickly came to realise the challenges with that from a development perspective, which lead to the hub world being full of doors.
WP: So just on a whim, you thought it would be fun?
MF: Yeah, and really a lot of it sort of stemmed from drawings and doodles that I had previously done. I kind of refer to a lot of concepts that I had put together in the past, inspired by other games I had played and the ideas that I had afterwards, just sort of randomly placed in a sketchbook.
WP: So, the doodles pre-date Death’s Door?
MF: Yeah absolutely.
WP: Oh excellent, I did not think that it would start with the doors, but I guess that is a very key element in the world you have built.
WP: When it comes to Death’s Door, my three-year-old daughter is just tickled that it’s a bird for no other reason than…it’s a bird. But it does mean that I have one question that is coming from her specifically –she wants to know why doesn’t our little Crow protagonist fly? Is it by choice or is it just part of working for the Reaper of Souls Commission?
DF: Well apart from the obvious, there is an in-world explanation for that – but it’s not really something that we have made an effort to flesh out/share. You see our crow using public transport to get to work, so I like to think that the crows in our world are happy using their wings for other stuff than just flying. They can hold things, for example.
WP: I mean, this one uses a sword for one, so there’s that.
DF: Exactly. You do encounter other crows throughout the course of the game, and there is a kind of implication there that they have more traditional wings and flight ability, and that they are kind of like ancient beings in this world, so you can kind of imagine that they’ve changed over time.
WP: So, a little bit like humans losing their ability to grip with their feet like apes – they’ve become a little bit ‘more’…I guess socially oriented?
DF: Yeah! Probably what will happen to our crows eventually in the real world.
WP: I just have to try and not bore my daughter with details like ‘well from a gameplay perspective, the idea of flying is going to remove the vertical element of platforming…’
DF: That would also be a MAJOR challenge for us!
WP: The game is very centered around death, and there are a lot of very profound statements in it. The world itself does have a hint of darkness to it – it’s very sort of mellow in a lot of ways. I got to play the preview initially before I eventually got into the review train of thought and a big part of me talking about the preview is that the world is painted as having a very strict set of rules that happen, and there’s some very well-established themes and expectations that creatures have their life cycle, and when it reaches the end of it, that is sort of…it.
I’d like to ask, obviously from a writing perspective, was the idea of death something that was a starting point to work towards this project? Was it something you wanted to explore and Death’s Door formed around it?
MF: The original seed of the idea was that the theme of death was something that I could use as a tool to explore. I wasn’t out to try and make any kind of points about it, but it’s the same way that we make levels in that the world is built organically as we go through making the game. As developers we’re making these discoveries as we go, and the same goes for the writing. Like, we put this level together and we are like, oh this, this point could link to this point – and then you can put a secret here.
There are things that you realise as you’re making it, like I’d be writing some of it like and have this big document, all the lore of how these things fit together and thinking like, oh, if we just change THIS to THIS – then THIS makes a lot more sense, making a more poignant, impacting statement.
Actually, along those lines, our plan for the Old Crow. He actually goes crazy at the end of his life – it’s quite an intense moment for the game, especially when it’s usually quite light hearted. And it’s fun to play with those themes. Some of it was planned out, but the other parts were found along the way.
WP: Being a game journalist for many years, there’s a certain level of cynicism that sort of creeps into what you do, and you do start to anticipate twists and turns in games. I was shocked that I never actually saw the Old Crow moment coming. When it happened, it shocked me how it caught me off guard – and the emotional response. It’s such a tragic story that sort of defines your entire adventure and leads you to this big moment, followed by a really stellar boss fight.
Again, anybody who’s reading this, if you haven’t played Death’s Door yet, can you please hurry up, and do it? It’s fantastic.
WP: When it comes to designing characters and the stories they dwell within, is it a case that you imagine a narrative and then come up with characters to suit it, or do you think up these weird and wonderful beings and let the story coalesce around them and their spotlight?
MF: It’s hard – like, I should know because we wrote everything – really, it is just like a process of iteration. We’re always taking little baby steps as we are making it so we can be like, “Oh! We can add this to this character here,” and then, “Now why does that character want to do the thing that he wants to do?” We keep thinking about things from those perspectives the whole time. Then you can sit back and kind of assemble this mesh of interconnected characters with an integrated world. It’s trying to make people do the things that you imagine they would do in that situation given their personalities.
DF: Bosses all share a common trait in that they’ve all lived for too long and this has impacted them in a negative way. This helps our process because we can think from different angles about how their personalities have changed and they now have a negative impact on the world at this point.
WP: It’s interesting how each boss character appears to be an individual working towards a particular goal; they end up feeling like maybe they didn’t have enough time in their lifespan to meet that goal. And initially it seemed they all had somewhat benevolent intentions. Like, Frog King DID want to look after the forest, but in his advanced age he became quite selfish and heavy handed.
It’s an interesting statement about people maybe being fearful of what they haven’t achieved at the end of their life, because obviously the real world is a bit more grim than Death’s Door and you don’t really have borrowed time.
DF: It is a great way to look at it, yeah.
WP: The game has this amazing gallery of super interesting individuals that you run into. Best character of 2021, I feel HAS to be Pothead, simply because he’s so friendly. He’s so very, uh, I guess accommodating? Obviously offering soup whenever he can. Oh, and there’s also just a slew of jokes to be made from the fact that he’s called Pothead.
Was it fun coming up with just these interesting, incredibly unique individuals that populate the world of death’s door?
MF: That was the most fun, Pothead again was from the doodles thing I mentioned earlier. I just looked in this book and a few pages before the door was a pot-headed character. It just said ‘Pot Head’ underneath it, so that’s been like one of the things for the beginning as well. Like, before we even HAD a crow protagonist, I knew there was going to be a character called Pothead – which is really weird. It actually carried over into the main game, as we had the silly idea for having this pot-themed area – inspiring the Witch of Urns, stuff like that. So that’s an example of how this kind of thing, organically, you know, sort of grows from this one idea. We can extrapolate this entire world from it.
WP: People with pots for heads…organically grow. That’s my quote of the day. I’m very interested in what your sketchbook looks like when you start to explore further game concepts.
WP: The soundscape of Death’s Door is something that I really enjoyed. It’s an incredibly cohesive and very, very enjoyable auditory experience. There’s a couple of things that I really enjoyed just moment to moment – one thing I have to praise is how the audio effects behave when you are struck in combat, where the audio kind of briefly slows down. It’s very interesting because as a player it does actually sort of lift you out of the game for a second, and you realise what has happened.
Was this sort of an experimental thing that you’re trying, or an idea that came up as you’re working on the game?
DF: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things going on. Through the process of iterating, we had to make sure that you really FEEL when you get hit – this is important for making the game feel fair, so you always know what’s going on.
So, there are the two main things that contribute to that – there are the sound effects itself, and then we automate a lowpass filter just for like, less than a second. Then it just fades back up gently to the game, immediately afterwards. It just means that your ears will never lose that sound of getting hit no matter how much chaos is going on around you, because that needs to be the primary thing that you notice in that moment. Oh, and then also having the animation of the player falling over and getting back up.
It is really fast, but it does the same thing from a visual end, making it really clear exactly what has happened to the player.
WP: It’s amazing how it is incredibly fast, but doesn’t feel fast at all. You have this brief moment of…relaxed panic? As you realise, maybe you weren’t paying close attention.
The other thing that I really enjoyed is obviously the way that music plays a part within the game.
There were a couple bosses that presented a pretty obvious challenge to me, so I would end up investing a…uh, healthy…number of attempts into them. But the use of music in those encounters kept me engaged and interested and going back for more. I can see you know you’ve got your name down, David, as the sound designer – did this also incorporate the responsibilities of being the composer also?
DF: Yeah, I did all the music as well. That was my background for our first games – I was mainly doing music, so that’s always been my comfort zone. I probably spent more development time on level design and production, but then once they were done, I could spend a couple of days churning out whatever music we needed.
WP: Was your background in game design or sound design?
DF: Well, sound design, but always with the intention of it being music for games. I have never really had much interest in making albums or anything like that.
WP: Apart from maybe game soundtracks?
DF: Yeah definitely.
The theme of death was something that I could use as a tool to explore
WP: I have an open question for both of you. You’re both listed as designers, which means that sort of you obviously both have a lot of input in the game.
…Which one out of the two of you is the more sinister mind behind how some of the secrets are hidden within this game?
DF: Haha, you can probably blame both of us to be honest. We’re both very much on the same wavelength when it comes to hiding.
MF: Yeah, yeah. Which secrets are in your head that are considered sinister? We just like secrets that are actually hard to find.
WP: I consider myself an incredible stickler for games. I’m reasonably good at finishing a game with a high percentage of secret stuff found – but with this game I think I was around 60%?
The diabolical one was in the witch’s manor, where I realised that you hid a secret door in the reflection of a polished floor.
MF: …That was me!
WP: I noticed it and I went – Oh, THAT’S dirty. But, great.
WP: Now bosses are incredibly fun – but there was one that while still fun, absolutely walled me. Absolutely shocked me how unprepared I was.
So, who is responsible for Betty?
DF: DEFINITELY Mark yeah.
MF: Well, yeah, I was responsible for all the bosses, basically.
WP: It’s an absolutely brilliant boss fight. I was just surprised how it really put my knowledge of the game’s mechanics to the test. There are really unique, arena-based fights like the Frog King (again, top notch) – but Betty made me do the ‘losing in Mario Kart, better lean forward’ stance.
MF: Yeah, I think Betty is likely the hardest boss in the game. It’s trying to teach you to take a step back and consider how you might be playing. There are people that play games like these, and they just go in and SWING and SWING and SWING, but with Betty it is more like, okay, you need to recognise what she is about to do. Your windows to react are far smaller than other bosses, it’s kind of her thing.
Like, the roll – you need to know when she is about to roll. You can’t really react to it – you need to pre-empt it. As a fight, Betty is more like a sprint – whereas the Lord of Doors is a marathon kind of encounter.
WP: Oooh, marathon is a great descriptor for that fight. No spoilers here, being the last boss, but it’s a very apt description.
WP: One thing that I appreciated was how the game has unique weapons that promote unique playstyles – but the game itself is not built specifically around finding and using those weapons in particular ways.
For example, I applaud the fact there are not specific enemies that are weak to a particular type of specific melee weapons.
Was it a design choice that you thought, we will definitely have unique weapons – but we won’t mandate their use?
MF: The addition of weapons actually came later in the development cycle. We based it all around the main sword initially, but as we continued development, we eventually realised it wasn’t too much effort to add extra ones into the game. Just to allow people to have more freedom of expression as they play the game. Like if someone just wants to spam attacks, they can play with the daggers – or if someone wants to get a fucking massive sword and just hit stuff with that, they can. One of the fun ones was the uh, the lightning hammer – because it has unique effects. I always found that I like hitting stuff with that because the sounds and the lighting just felt way better than anything else.
Just overall means people can play in the way that they want to play – and it also gives them another secret to find!
DF: There’s a nice little advantage for pros as well to get really good with the daggers or the greatsword – specifically because the way that the rolling slash works on them is slightly different to other weapons. It’s more of a thrust where you can adjust the direction. I was in the thick of playtesting and played the game for about 150 hours, I felt that they were probably the fastest way of killing some of the bosses, just abusing those thrust attacks everywhere. So I like those options as well.
WP: Obviously, the games came out and it had a very, very good reception, so massive congratulations to you guys and obviously all the incredible collaborators that worked alongside you.
Do you know what’s coming next? Are there plans? Any ideas to revisit? Maybe throw in a New Game Plus so people can revisit a reinvigorated world?
MF: For now, I think we’re just working on post launch support stuff, and I’ve got like a document with ideas that I’ve written down, but we haven’t got any solid plans yet for what’s going to be next.
We’ll just see what happens over the next few months.
WP: Excellent, well that’s probably as exciting as anything could possibly be.
I will end with one final question, which is just something worth putting to the minds of the people that worked on the game.
What’s the inside scoop that you would share with a brand new player approaching Death’s Door?
DF: Just don’t be intimidated by the game, I don’t think it’s an intimidating game. You can’t really do anything to truly mess up. Like, you can’t really miss out on anything or make anything harder for yourself – if that makes sense?
There’s not really anything that really punishes you in the long term in the game, so when I start a new game, I always appreciate knowing that I can’t mess up my journey. I don’t need to stress out about that.
WP: It’s impossible, to ‘truly’ fail?
DF: Yeah, exactly.
MF: I can’t think of anything else like…maybe saying you can deflect projectiles if you hit them, that is something that like 50% of people will work out and then the other 50% just do not get.
WP: I actually learned that by accident! It was a MASSIVE change to how I approached the Urn Witch fight.
WP: David, Mark, thank you so much. Your game really is a fantastic title. So many games have come out this year, but the one that I keep talking about is Death’s Door. I love it and I will be keeping a close eye on whatever you guys come up with next.
MF: Thanks a lot!
DF: Thank you very much.
WP: I am going to go put my daughter to bed and explain that the crow doesn’t fly because it doesn’t need to, and that is fine.
What a marvellous ruffling of feathers. A massive insight into the creative process that painted the fascinating world and memorable characters of Death’s Door, and a huge highlight – there may well be a ‘door’ open for further content. Now if you’ll excuse me, apparently there is a lightning hammer somewhere in the game that I was completely unaware of.
Death’s Door is available right now for Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One.