When We Made: Behind the scenes of the Zelda-inspired indie hit Death’s Door

Mark Foster. Acid Nerve

Death’s Door immediately attracted our attention upon its release in July this year. Not only was this stylish and immediately charming indie title getting rave reviews in the press, but this Zelda-like was born right here at home. In Manchester, to be more specific.

Developer Acid Nerve was already known for their previous game, Titan Souls. While there’s certainly a lot of that game’s DNA to be found here, Death’s Door feels like a big step up from the company.

After a comparatively smaller project in Titan Souls, Death’s Door has attracted comparisons to giants like Zelda and Dark Souls (although we’ll have words about that later), and has received the public praise of senior Microsoft executives on Twitter. It’s quite the achievement for such a small studio to be behind arguably one of Xbox (and PC)’s best exclusives so far this generation.

And so as a fellow North Westerner, I thought it was only right that we reached out to Acid Nerve’s David Fenn and Mark Foster to talk about the game and their most recent success.

CROWING UP

David Fenn, Acid Nerve

First off the bat, the studio’s work has often been compared to the Dark Souls series. Now, you could argue that it’s hard to find a video game that games journalists haven’t compared to Dark Souls, but with Titan Souls and Death’s Door it’s especially apparent.

”Realistically, I don’t think either Titans or Death’s Door has very much in common with Dark Souls,” replies Fenn, “although I feel like we were maybe asking for the comparison with the name Titan Souls.”

Oh. Well then.

While Fenn admits there’s maybe a few more parallels between Death’s Door and Dark Souls than there were in Titan Souls, those aren’t the games Acid Nerve is pulling from at all.

“I mean maybe there’s elements of opening shortcuts and the map looping back on itself in Death’s Door, like you had in Dark Souls… But it’s funny, I’ve just started Skyward Sword again, and that has all of the same shortcut things Dark Souls has anyway. It’s just Zelda! It’s a very Zelda-inspired game.”

The game was born out of the pair’s desire to expand upon their previous title, in a way that was less constricted but still true to the game’s DNA.

Titan Souls was just so stripped back, because it was part of a game jam thing,” says Foster. “It worked in its favour because it was all about this knife edge combat, we think it went well. But we wanted to expand upon that, with all the mechanics you’d have in a traditional game.

“We wanted to take that Zelda formula and add the Acid Nerve twist to it. We wanted more to play with.”

“As designers we just wanted to experiment with more systems, and expand on that first idea. We liked the idea of having a ‘proper game,’’ Foster adds. “Titan Souls is just boss fights, so we wanted to have enemies in there, and so you can explore a little. The idea of being able to reuse enemies is a pretty big thing compared to when we did Titan Souls.

“Like, a boss fight is just one thing. But obviously, when you have multiple enemies, you can put different combinations of them and get a lot more variation out of that. You get a lot more bang for your buck in terms of what you’ve made. So that was definitely a plus point for doing a more fleshed out game.”

The game’s boss fights can certainly pose a challenge

ACCESSIBLE MASOCHISM

It’s not entirely accurate to imply that Death’s Door is a direct evolution of the Titan Souls formula, though. By the team’s own admission, Titan Souls could split opinions – a challenging game with such a specific focus was never going to appeal to everyone.

While Death’s Door is certainly still challenging in places, the Zelda template allows a more approachable version of the Acid Nerve approach: “When Titan Souls came out, it was a 50/50 sort of thing,” Foster recalls. “it was a bit Marmitey. Some people really liked it, and some people thought it was terrible!”

“I think Titan Souls was good for a specific kind of masochistic gamer. Whereas Death’s Door is a lot more accessible. I think that’s where the Zelda influence shines a lot more.”

Death’s Door also has a remarkably different tone to the more serious atmosphere of Titan Souls. The game’s sense of humour and attention to detail immediately proved popular on release, with many taking delight in one particular line: ‘You got the horn! Mother will be pleased.’

We promise it makes sense in context.

“Acid Nerve grew out of the game jam scene,” Fenn notes. “And those jams kind of cemented what it was that we shared in our passion for making video games. We made a point of putting in effort into details in the game, in a way that kind of felt silly at the time – But that’s what we enjoy, that’s what got us excited to make it.

“I think that’s become part of our core. Like a little thing in Death’s Door went viral, you cut a sign in half and you can still read the sign, but only see the bottom half of the text. Mark would just come up with stuff like that as a weird idea. And we’re like well, it’s going to take a day out of our schedule, but let’s just do it. I feel like that kind of approach has stayed with everything that we’ve done.”

Just to really underline the “not like Dark Souls” note, Foster adds that the lighthearted tone, in stark contrast to FromSoftware’s work, is a crucial part of why the game works at all.

“It’s a game about this dark theme of death, but it wants to be light hearted about it all. It has these moments of positivity. I think that comes through a lot with the humour. It’s kind of a grim setting, and if you were going all in on it being sad and depressing, I don’t think it would be a very fun game to play. But because it’s a bit wacky and strange, it has this nice quality to it, which makes the death stuff not really that dark at all.”

The game is Acid Nerve’s most stylish title to date

STRIKING A NERVE

The approach has certainly proven to be a popular one. Death’s Door has already been mentioned in early “game of the year” conversations for many, and there’s arguably more eyes on Acid Nerve than ever before.

“The release was insane for us,” says Foster. “We definitely weren’t expecting it to be as well received as it has been. I’d just log into our Twitter and scroll through all the messages, it’s just crazy how positive it is.”

That success, and the development of Death’s Door as a whole, might have some implications for that ‘Acid Nerve core.’ While the pair are tight-lipped on the specifics of their future plans, it certainly seems fair to say that Death’s Door will be an influence going forward.

“I think even before we’d seen any of the reception to Death’s Door, we were really attached to the world, its setting and the extra elements of character
and personality that we put into it,” says Fenn.

“So the reviews have just cemented that kind of world building, along with the humour and the personality, is something that is important to us as a studio going forward.

“It’s a weird one,” he adds. “Because halfway through development, we toyed with the idea of expanding on our previous title Leaf Me Alone, because that was a classic Acid Nerve game.

“But one thing I’ve realised as this game has come together, is that it’s such a lightning in a bottle kind of thing. We’ve really just nailed this world, which is so compelling in a way that, if I think about future game ideas, it’s just hard to think of anything that appeals to me as much as the world of Death’s Door.

“It’s got every element to it that makes me attached to games in terms of being funny, but also being dark and having this juxtaposition and having moments where it can feel a little bit sentimental as well as being able to go super silly. It’s very hard for me to think of something that ticks all those boxes in the same way.”

“I’m in love with the kind of stuff we’ve made,” adds Foster. “So it would be cool in future to expand on those things. We really, really didn’t expect it to be as well received as it has been. Even little things like playing as a crow, and the whole lore around that. We didn’t think it would be such a selling point, which might sound weird, but so many people just love that they get to be a bird with a sword.”

He’s a good bird, Foster.

And I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that I can’t wait to see where Death’s Door takes the team next. Acid Nerve certainly had some attention on them upon the release of Titan Souls, but it feels now as if they’re in the spotlight more than ever before. That’s certainly a lot of pressure, and a lot of work – but overall the situation doesn’t seem to have fully sunk in as yet.

“When you release a game you’re ready for a holiday,” says Fenn, “but then you have a month of post launch support to do, so there’s a certain amount of just being too exhausted to really take it all in.

“But definitely just, every day since it came out I just think ‘God, I just can’t believe this. It’s just so amazing.’ I just can’t believe how well it’s gone, I just never expected it. It’s just blown us away.”

So we strongly recommend Fenn and Foster get some well deserved sleep first, as excited as we are for whatever it is they do next.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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