In a back room at London’s Tobacco Docks, two smiling but visibly nervous game developers lounge on a sofa. Between them, they make up the indie games duo Acid Nerve, and it’s hard to blame them for having the jitters. Against all odds, their second ever game – 2021’s Death’s Door – is nominated for two BAFTAs tonight, and in just a few hour’s time, the Manchester-based studio will be up against blockbuster behemoths Forza and Deathloop.
“It’s just been wild,” says one half of Acid Nerve, David Fenn, with a disbelieving grin. “Before launch, we never would have envisioned it.”
The follow up to 2015’s unfairly overlooked Titan Souls, Death’s Door is a far more ambitious affair. Where Titan Souls was the equivalent of a musicians’ favourite band – a techy game made for other game developers – the more accessible, fleshed out Death’s Door is a crowd pleaser, and a festival-ready banger.
“Yeah, this is a proper game,” says Fenn, with a laugh.
Stressing about their tuxedos – and what to say if they do manage to win – it seems like the new found success is finally beginning to sink in.
“The BAFTA nominations feel amazing,” says Mark Foster, “It’s something that people outside the game industry have as a reference. My mum and dad were like: ‘Oh, a BAFTA! That’ll be good if you win that’. It’s my first ever black tie event, too,” he adds. “It all feels slightly surreal.”
Scrabbling to finish their ambitious creation during the pandemic, the duo had no idea whether their intricately-crafted love letter to Zelda would be well received. As things outside their windows grew increasingly bleak, they instead focused on further improving the one world they had far more control over.
“We [had] been working on it for three and a half years, and we genuinely just didn’t know what direction it was going to go in.“ reflects Fenn, “All we had to go off was Robbie [Paterson] from [our publisher] Devolver saying “yeah… it’s pretty good.” Then the reviews came out and they were way better than we expected. Seeing loads of people whose stuff I’ve always followed in the games press playing it and talking about it was like: ‘oh, wow, this person likes it!’”
Launching at the start of 2021, Death’s Door found itself releasing to a hungry audience of house-bound gamers. It was the perfect moment for their creation to get noticed, and for Acid Nerve, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“Sometimes I shudder to myself thinking, wow, what if we came out now against Elden Ring?,” Fenn reflects. “It would be so much harder to get noticed. Titan Souls came out on the same day as GTA 5 on PC. So, it was nice to have a well timed release…”
In the hype-orientated world of the video games industry, trends come and go. Where publishers spent the last five years scrambling to hop aboard the battle royale train, last-player-standing gameplay now feels like a gimmick that has long left the station. For Fenn and Foster, game development is instead all about pouring your heart into something they’d actually like to play, rather than attempting to follow the market.
“I’m always a firm believer that no matter what the trends do, there will always be an audience for what we’re making,” says Fenn, “There are clearly loads of players like us who want to play single player, 10-hour, story-based adventures, with no live service element. Obviously everything else is going in the other direction, and there’s a tendency to figure out what’s going to be a massive splash and make loads of money, but people can tell that your heart wasn’t in it. I just feel like as long as we can speak to our audience, then these kind of games will still exist.”
And speak to their audience Death’s Door did. While many games come and go, the outpouring of love for Death’s Door showed that this is a creation that really resonated – with many players returning to the game long after the credits rolled.
“The amount of people telling us ‘Oh yeah we one hundred percent-ed the game and got all the achievements is wild. It seems to be a vast percentage of people who finish it again,” smiles Fenn, “All the people messaging us and everything… it’s just been nonstop… almost relentless positivity since the moment the game came out!”
For Foster, it’s a huge comfort. While game sizes and budgets balloon, the success of titles like Tunic and Death’s Door in such a crowded market, proves that there will always be room for smaller, more traditional video games.
“If you think about an all-you-can-eat buffet being a game like Elden Ring – not a crap buffet, but like the best buffet in the world… sometimes you just want to have tapas,” Foster says. “That’s what we make, something that’s smaller, where you’re not left too full, and you can handle it. Elden Ring, you can just sit there and keep eating until you just explode…” he explains with a satisfied smile.
“… Yeah, I’m not convinced by this analogy” Fenn quips, before they both laugh.
No matter how you plan on devouring it, Death’s Door is a dish made with love. While the boys sadly didn’t win at the BAFTAs, the reception and nominations are still undeniably a huge win for this two-man team and arguably indie developers as a whole. And as they start to plan their ideas for game three, the future is looking incredibly bright for Acid Nerve.