I didn’t intend to play a game called Death’s Door during the same week that I was processing a death in my own family. I didn’t even think twice about it – it just sort of worked out that way, promise.
Maybe there was something subliminal about it, I’m not sure. Me being drawn to something that stars a little crow with a sword and bow isn’t completely out of left field. That I would reach for escapism while processing grief makes sense, too. As an only child, I always have. The fact that it’s hard like a Souls game and rewards exploration like Zelda only makes the case further: of course I wanted to sink into a sad but-not-too-sad story where my actions could have concrete meaning. The somber themes were just a coincidence: I wanted to piece together a mystery for someone in another world at a time when, for all purposes, there was nothing I could do to help in this one.
That’s part of why we play games, right? To feel a clear sense of purpose for a while.
I guess I just didn’t think it would be quite so on the nose.
In hindsight I can see how it might seem disrespectful to cope with a goofy little action game. There’s a squid who runs a sushi bar and an onion-shaped knight with a pot for a head named Pothead in Death’s Door – for all the gothic imagery, it’s also ridiculous (and frequently very funny). But what does it mean for a coping mechanism to be respectful, anyways? For that matter, what does respect mean in the context of death? How do we address death in a way that matters, and how do we give it integrity?
Can we make peace with the notion of death at all or should we rage against it?
I had expected Death’s Door to give me a much-needed distraction at a time of personal hardship, and it did: I played to 100% completion over three straight days. I loved it.
What I didn’t expect was that it had those questions about death on its mind, too.
Death’s Door is going to feel familiar if you played two-person Manchester studio Acid Nerve’s first game, Titan Souls. That 2015 title – which I tracked down the second Death’s Door rolled credits – tasked you, an absolutely tiny adventurer, with destroying a wide variety of massive and hidden creatures. The game world is empty save for the titans themselves: they do not speak and there’s effectively zero dialogue. For the most part there’s just you, your dash maneuver and a single arrow with which to bring down every living creature in the world.
If that sounds like Shadow of the Colossus, it should. The experiences are very similar. Titan Souls’ killer twist is that everything dies in one hit, including you, and if you happen to miss a shot you have to run after your lost arrow, pick it up, and hopefully try again. The result is a game made up entirely of boss battles, where every single action is potentially game-winning. Despite the game’s mostly bloodless art style, every attack feels like an overwhelming act of violence. Because it is.
With every move, Titan Souls points the player towards the deaths of its titans and asks them to reckon with it. Your only mechanical decision is to kill instantly, or die. Whether or not the player still gets to feel like a hero by the end is a complex question, one that Acid Nerve never demands that you answer. The power is in the question itself: what does it mean to wield that kind of strength?
Death’s Door takes the exploration of mortality a step further.
Like Titan Souls, Death’s Door is a top-down action title, though this time the gameplay is viewed from a three-quarter perspective that shows off the depth of its 3D world. You play as a nameless, genderless and extremely cute little crow who – like Titan Souls’ mystery protagonist – never speaks a word. Gameplay opens as you arrive for work at the monochrome, floating series of hallways and courtyards that make up the extradimensional Reaping Commission Headquarters. It’s filled with equally cute and genderless crows that are much chattier than you are – and they waste no time in reminding you of your responsibilities. As a kind of loan-collector for the bureaucratic side of the soul-reaping business, your job is straightforward: get out there with your sword and bow (or umbrella, there’s one in the stand by the door!) and gather souls that have been dragging their heels at the whole leaving-the-corporeal-plane thing.
In other words, reap the souls of those that, for whatever reason, refuse to die. It’s a familiar gig.
The following contains light spoilers for about the first hour of Death’s Door. It’s deeper than it seems!
Your first target is a big one, something called a Giant Soul, and you’re instructed not to lose it at any cost. Any time spent in the living world will cause you to age, expending your own life-force and drawing you closer to the death that you and your crow friends conveniently avoid back at the office. So you take your neon weapons (striking against the black-and-white of the RCH) and saunter out through one of the many doors leading to the dimension of the living.
You find your Giant Soul. Then, you lose it to someone else – a reaper with a desperate need for Giant Souls in order to track a quarry of his own beyond another, further door, one that seems to lead beyond the limits of life and death itself. He sacrifices your stolen soul to it, but it doesn’t budge. The guys at the office will not be pleased, and now the clock is ticking on your own life.
This door is Death’s Door. And you’re going to have to find a way to open it.
So begins your hunt for the three Giant Souls at the corners of the open map. This is where the Zelda and Dark Souls comparisons start to creep in. Your little crow is equipped with an invincibility-frame dash and a variety of weapons with which to hunt down your unwilling prey, each of whom sits at the end of looping, exploration-heavy dungeon areas. There are warp points and NPC’s to help out, and traversal mechanics gated by items you’ll need to track down in each of the dungeons. There are very, very difficult boss battles that don’t punish you for failing over and over as your skills grow and improve. There are snappy load-times and collectibles to discover – there are all the conventions of a challenging but fair entry-level souls game set in a very attractive, surprisingly varied series of environments. If any of this seems appealing to you it’s worth giving Death’s Door a shot based on that alone. It’s an extremely competent and fun adventure game with charming writing, an uncommonly sharp combat system and some truly excellent visual-design work. Also, cute goth birds.
All of that makes it an easy recommend for anyone looking for some spooky thrills this Hallowe’en season. Review complete. But there’s another important touch that makes Death’s Door unique.
Back to the death thing.
Those Giant Souls are held by three undying, preternaturally-ancient entities at the corners of the world. These are your boss battles. These creatures are ancient because they refuse to die, and the energy they’ve devoted to avoiding death has made them powerful and strange. Some are vain and grasping, but they aren’t necessarily evil: their primary sin is a simple refusal to pass on, whether driven by pride or simple fear. They don’t all long for destruction or even necessarily control – they’ve refused their place in the natural order. They just don’t want to go, and it’s warping the world around them.
You have to put a stop to this – not only as a crow on the job, but as a reaper empowered with the ability to send souls where they need to go. So what happens when you take one out?
The game holds a funeral.
The music drops out after you strike the final blow. Your first, most consistent friend in the world of the living, Steadhone the Gravedigger – an entity who would like to rest but is cursed to live – emerges calmly from the entrance to the chamber alongside any other characters who might have known the Giant Soul. Holding his shovel aloft, he delivers a brief memorial in the name of the deceased. He speaks plainly of their deeds, and of who they were in life. He emphasizes that now they are at peace, and ends with a call to pay respect to the dead, whoever they were.
There are no coffins: the defeated Giant Soul rests respectfully on the floor of the boss chamber, hands crossed over their chest. If you leave and return, the body is gone and Steadhone returns to his graveyard.
I have never seen a game address death like Death’s Door.
In videogames, so much attention is given to the action of death and the fallout from it – wanton violence is nothing new in games, nor are games about coping with loss especially rare. But that’s not what Death’s Door is doing – it’s interrogating our relationship to the phenomenon of death itself. It wants us thinking about what it means for death to be a necessary component of life – not just the conclusion of it, but an equal partner, worthy of integrity. Without getting further into spoiler territory, the Giant Souls are just the beginning of the conversation that Death’s Door is trying to start. Without taking away from the importance of mourning and grief, it wants us thinking about death as its own vital phenomenon, one that must take place in order to facilitate life. It’s not a new idea, but the format gave me pause: when has a game ever made me an agent in that exchange? When has one addressed the topic so clearly and compassionately? Maybe it was just what I needed at the time.
One last thing: in Death’s Door, the only way to heal yourself is to plant seeds and grow flowers. To bring something new into the world amongst all the departure.
I didn’t mean to play this game when I did. But I’m glad that I have.
This is entry 2/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!