Death’s Door is understandably pretty dark, given that the game focuses on death. But there’s a little bit of humor injected into the game too.
“If we’ve done our job right, there should be a few laugh out loud [moments],” programmer, writer, and animator Mark Foster told me. “That’s the idea–it’s a dry humor, but also a very British thing in that we find humor in misery. We like the comparison of that: something could be funny just because it’s in this grim situation.”
First revealed during the ID@Xbox Showcase, this offbeat fantasy action-adventure puts you into the webbed feet of a crow that must collect the souls of the dead. You’re basically this world’s version of a grim reaper, working in a reality where it’s your job to kill people when it’s their time. Of course, not everyone is ready to go, so they won’t just go quietly into the night without a fight–that’s what your sword and bow and arrow are for.
All of that is the grim situation. The humor comes in with how the whole thing is framed. In this world, being a grim reaper is just a job. You clock into work, report to a supervisor, walk up to your coworker’s desk to hear a terrible joke about how the early bird gets the worm–it’s all rather absurd. But the writing–at least of what we’ve seen so far–is really good.
“As someone who was pretty hands-off with the script, it’s pretty funny,” producer, designer, composer, and sound designer David Fenn told me. “I like it because Mark wrote the script, and he doesn’t really play as many games as me, and I feel like that benefits us in a way. I find [Death’s Door] to be funnier than most games that tried to be funny. I’m not sure what the direct reason is, but it’s probably from taking more inspiration from other forms of media.”
One of those other forms of media is anime–specifically, Studio Ghibli’s movies. “We wanted [Death’s Door] to have dark vibes, themes that are all about death and stuff, so the world has that element in it,” Fenn said. “But then at the same time, we’ve got your main character, a crow, and the other characters in the world depicted as quite cute and endearing, and they kind of have a bit of a Ghibli vibe that we were aiming for as well.”
You can really see this in a few of the enemy designs. For example, one of the levels, Inner Furnace, sees you battle your way through a dank-looking area, with blobs of sludge popping out of pipes to attack you. The concept of being attacked by sewer sludge is disgusting, but the enemies are actually these cute little blob-like creatures with giant adorable eyes and goofy-looking grins of terrifying teeth. They very much look like something from a Ghibli movie.
This art style and humorous story all frame the core-gameplay loop of Death’s Door, which is an adventure to collect the Giant Souls from certain bosses. As you travel through the world, you’ll stumble onto doors that lead back to your hub area, The Hall of Doors. In this way, you can regularly return to your office space to speak to coworkers, invest in upgrades, and unpack more of the story. There’s plenty of story to discover out in the world though too, as well as new abilities to uncover. And much like a Legend of Zelda game, you can backtrack to certain locations to use those new abilities in order to reach previously inaccessible areas. Doing so can net you several different kinds of rewards, such as additional upgrades or hidden pieces of lore.
Going off the beaten path is entirely optional, though. “The core story of the game is presented to you through the characters that you meet along the way,” Foster said. “Like, for example, who the bosses are; in fact, some of the bosses are characters that you befriend and talk to along your journey in storylines that eventually build up to a fight. But there’s also these shiny things that you can collect which have some lore on them, so you can read them and they expand the story. The deeper you dive into exploring and finding these things and finding little nuggets of lore, you can expand your knowledge of what the situation is.”
“But even if you just do a straight run of the game, you will still be told a satisfying tale,” Fenn added. “The story isn’t all lore in the background for people who are interested in it. We’ve made sure that the story is all told through dialogue, which is all punchy, short interactions rather than long paragraphs to read through.”
Death’s Door looks right up my alley. I’ve been a longtime fan of games that deal with topics of death and grief, and the quick, combo-focused combat (and, honestly, business-like setting for its hub) remind me a lot of Hades, which is still my personal Game of the Year for 2020. If Death’s Door looks to be something that interests you, it will launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC this summer.