One of 2021’s surprise indie hits was the Zelda-like Death’s Door, which launched just a few months after being announced to substantial acclaim. However, even without the usual long protracted build-up of hype and delays, it has technically been a long wait for anyone familiar with Manchester-based developer Acid Nerve, whose last official title was its 2015 debut Titan Souls.
“We found we were really burned out after doing Titan Souls so we decided to take a big break,” programmer, designer, writer and animator Mark Foster tells NME. “We went away and didn’t really do too much. We made an iPhone game in our downtime just when I was learning Unity and it was a really casual process of making that game.”
Ideas for Death’s Door did come during the development of Titan Souls but the latter was limited by its mechanic where both the player and the boss titans die from one hit, except the bosses’ weak spot is often hidden while the player has just a single arrow. It was a gimmick that the two-person team stuck to from its game jam roots, for better and worse.
“[Titan Souls] was so defined by that minimalism and the restrictions around how we were designing it,” explains producer, designer, composer and sound designer David Fenn. “We knew that we wanted to make a game that wasn’t about that and was more like a full proper game that we’d be excited to play ourselves rather than a game developer’s game.”
Death’s Door, by contrast, was a more liberating experience, though that potential also meant the two had to make decisions on which directions to take. At first glance of its macabre theme and setting where you play as a reaper collecting souls in the afterlife, it’s not hard to imagine this could be in the vein of a brutally challenging game like Dark Souls, especially coming after a game that also drew those associations with ‘Souls’ in the title.
“Mark has a fair amount of inspiration from Dark Souls, but though I did like Bloodborne and I have recently been enjoying Elden Ring, I’m not as into some of the punishing elements of those games,” Fenn admits. So instead of the slower clunkier combat of FromSoftware games tied to stamina management, movement and combat in Death’s Door has the fast arcadey flow of A Link to the Past (or “Zelda but with intense combat”, as Fenn puts it), while the developers were also inspired by Hyper Light Drifter’s recharge mechanic where getting in close with melee hits recharges your ranged magic attacks.
One other Soulslike element the developers also decided early on not to follow was the mechanic of losing your currency upon death, which are then lost permanently if you fail to recover them before dying again. Ironic, given that the currency in Death’s Door is also called souls. “It was at the point where there were a lot of games coming out where you lose all your souls when you die, and I was just getting fatigued by it,” Fenn explains.
“We wanted to be able to explore more as well, so when you respawn, you can go ‘I don’t know how to do that, I’m gonna go somewhere else’,” Foster adds. “If you die and then you lose your souls and you have to go to that one spot again and to pick them up, you can get into the cycle of picking them up and dying again.”
But what arguably makes Death’s Door stand out is its light and genuinely funny tone, which delights in some hilarious visual gags, like how a written signpost changes after you’ve sliced the top off. That light touch started to crystallise with the creation of the reaper as a small crow, not anyone’s first choice of protagonist. The design had come from Foster, although he’s unable to recall how it came into being, although they did originally have a more humanoid traditional-looking grim reaper.
“Having this cute, cartoony character as a juxtaposition to these dark themes of death and evading death, that’s when it just became much more compelling as an overall concept to us,” says Fenn. “The people seemed to like it, there was a good audience ready for a game where you get to be a crow!”
In terms of the game’s humour, Foster says it was simply a result of their personalities coming through. “If all the writing was really dark and grim, it would be a very depressing game, because it’s always about death, so if the writing is funny, it makes it light-hearted. I think it needs that light element to it,” he explains.
Fenn adds, “A lot of those little fun touches are a result of the fact that we like to have fun while we’re making stuff, and if one of us has a fun, silly idea, then we generally put some time into adding that into the game.”
Speaking of additions, those who have finished Death’s Door will know that Acid Nerve has packed in a lot of content into this game, including a substantial post-game after you’ve supposedly defeated the final boss and the credits have rolled. Even if only a small percentage of players will have continued with this, never mind stats that show how people often don’t finish games, having these optional secrets were an important aspect for the developers.
“We’ve always really enjoyed adding stuff in games for that small group who want to find everything, because they’re the people who are really loving the game, and it’s nice to be rewarded with more surprises and more content if you put more time into it,” explains Fenn. “The world is kind of on its way to healing at that point in the story. So it’s kind of nice to be able to do more stuff in the world in that state, rather than just build up to the boss and then end straight away.”
While Foster hints that they would’ve liked to squeeze another bonus boss in there, what we have with Death’s Door is the definitive package, whether you play it on PC or Xbox, or the later console ports on PlayStation and Switch, the latter feeling well suited given the Zelda influences. Considering that even indies like A Short Hike and Paradise Killer have been keen to add updates to their games post-launch or on new ports, a decision to simply draw a line after the game has shipped is almost refreshing.
“We like releasing as much of a complete package as we can,” says Fenn. “I’m more excited about the idea of making another game than adding extra content to that game. So we’re happy with what it is, and that’s what it will be.”
That said, Fenn also admits that they’ve only just opened a Google Doc a few days ago to start typing ideas for what the next game could be, though we’re assured it won’t take quite as long as the seven years between Titan’s Souls and Death’s Door.
Given those two releases, should fans assume they’ve got Acid Nerve figured out and know what to expect next? “I feel like we have a lot of flexibility and potential options now,” says Fenn. “We could just as easily end up going with something that continues that Titan Souls and Death’s Door trajectory, but also maybe something a bit different.”
Whatever comes next, Foster puts it simpler: “We’ll just find something we’re passionate about and just follow that.”