The industry just loves games about death, doesn't it? We've seen the grim reaper take up the scythe in multiple games, from the expletive and squeaky in Conker's Bad Fur Day to the 'travel agent' Manny Calavera from Grim Fandango. And now, Magic Design Studios is taking up the black cloak with Have A Nice Death, a roguelike all about corporate burnout and the cycle of death, all with an absurdist humour twist.

Boasting stunning hand-drawn visuals, Have a Nice death is stylish, silly, and stuffed full of snappy combat. You'll get to explore Death, Inc. as the CEO of the company, Death himself, as you try and get your employees into shape. Some employees are reaping too many souls, while others are overindulging. So Death needs to put his (skeletal) foot down and march through the ever-changing offices.

Ahead of the game's launch on 22nd March, we've been given an exclusive 15 minute gameplay trailer, which showcases the brilliant humour from the brutal combat. Armed with spells, scythes, and all sorts of special skills, Death is pretty adept despite feeling burnt-out, but he (and you) are bound to slip up. It's a good thing Death doesn't die then, isn't it?

We also got to chat with the team over at Magic Design Studios about all things Death, Inc. related. From the weapons on show to the visual inspirations, you can find out more about this gorgeous-looking game in our chat below...

Nintendo Life: What do you think it is about the idea of death being a corporate business or an office job that keeps so many games coming back to the idea?

Mérédith Alfroy, Narrative Designer: In terms of video games, I wouldn’t say there are “so many” of them. But one possible reason is that death is a universal concept and an inevitable part of the human experience. Exploring it in a fun and fictional way, whether in a video game, movie, or comic, etc. is an intriguing and stimulating notion.

This theme can also be used to create interesting gameplay mechanics and challenges. For example, games in which the player plays the role of the grim reaper or an executor of death may involve the management of souls passing between realms, or making decisions about who lives and who dies, which can result in some interesting choices and consequences for the player.

By and large, the idea of death being a company or an office job is an interesting and versatile concept that we can use to explore a variety of themes and create engaging game experiences.

Have a Nice Death 1
Image: Gearbox Publishing

Simon Dutertre, Lead Game Designer: Our society is obsessed with work. Our expectation is that everyone will work… up until they retire. This fantasy takes that one step further into the great beyond, where, unfortunately, yet more work awaits us. No rest for the dead.

Nicolas Leger, Animation and Creative Director: Representations of death and the great beyond are as old as time. For all that this notion was taken very seriously a few centuries ago, nowadays, it is also a source of entertainment. Perhaps it is the desire to see a mythical character such as this brought into our everyday lives, through our current society, our way of being.

Video games allow us to break the rules. And when that echoes reality, it becomes highly entertaining, liberating even. Cathartic. What’s more, I think traditional hero archetypes have now become outdated. Characters from the dark side shroud themselves in mystery and, in some cases, are more appealing.

How important was it to keep a quirky, sarcastic tone throughout the game, and why did you decide to take that route?

Mérédith Alfroy: The workplace is the central theme throughout the game narrative, and we paid particular attention to how work is currently viewed in our society and how this could be transposed into a cartoon Gothic universe. As this sort of topic can be quite gloomy, we decided at the start of production to take a more humourful, often satirical approach. We were especially keen to keep the tone of the game lighthearted and play on stereotypes present in the workplace in general. Therefore, our initial inspiration came from the very images brought to mind when we talk about company life.

Death is, by definition, tragic, terrifying, and… “immortal,” so a cartoon incarnation of him, in which he is — against all expectations — puny, could only result in this quirky tone.

On a personal level, I have previous experience working in a civil service role, and some clichés are pretty much on the nose. This provided some great inspiration for the game. In terms of writing, we’re influenced by the absurdist humour of some French animated series and TV shows (Kassos, COGIP, Les Nuls, Les Inconnus, Camera Café), as well as The Office (US) and Parks and Recreation.

Nicolas Leger: Really, it all started with the character. Death is, by definition, tragic, terrifying, and… “immortal,” so a cartoon incarnation of him, in which he is — against all expectations — puny, could only result in this quirky tone. The narrative designers took this direction and really ran with it, both in terms of enthusiasm and creativity, and they also added a sarcastic touch. I’m really pleased with the outcome, even though I’d initially imagined a more serious and poetic universe.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous in motion. With Creative Director Nicolas Leger (Rayman Adventures) and Concept Artist Christophe Messier (Rayman Origins, Legends) both having backgrounds in film and TV, what experience did they bring to the visuals and animation?

Nicolas Leger: What we wanted to do was bring these two universes together. In Have a Nice Death, I wanted to finally be able to express the fluidity and possibilities offered by 2D animation, without too many technical restrictions. Whilst rare in cinema animation, these restrictions have a big impact on video games. Since I started working in this industry, I’ve noticed how costly 2D could be (in terms of memory resources, from a technical point of view), and the drive to keep costs down was often quite frustrating. So this project is a real technical challenge, but the results are something I’d like to see more of in video games. And it’s happening! I’m seeing more and more cartoon-style projects being developed. An obvious example would be Cuphead, which combines these two fields better than anyone could.

We were able to handle cinematic production in-house thanks to our skills in the cinematography area, and it has been a real pleasure to implement.

Have a Nice Death 2
Image: Gearbox Publishing

How did you come up with The Sorrows (the individual department executives at Death Inc.), and how are they incorporated into the game and the story?

Nicolas Leger: There are a number of inspirations (artistic, societal) for the characters, and overall, the production of the Sorrows was pretty smooth. Working from documented evidence of the main causes of death, we first selected those images that are most readily held in the collective subconscious (the big clichés). Then we adapted them to this universe while trying to give them a more original comical or satirical dimension. There were some fruitful exchanges between the game designer, narrative designer, and artists, and we regularly involved the whole team to ask for their opinion. Usually, the characters’ designs were based on a few sketches, but they could also be based on a gameplay concept or a key element of the story. It was highly stimulating.

Mérédith Alfroy: In game design, Simon already had some gameplay pattern ideas for each of the Sorrows, while Nico had some character design ideas for their visual appearance. For narration, it was really important to remain consistent with those and with the game universe as a whole. For example, for Waldo, the Toxic Food-Processing Department Sorrow, Simon came up with the idea of a mechanical boss with tentacles, a bit like the Sentinels from The Matrix trilogy. In terms of narrative design, we wanted this enemy to represent the food industry itself (hence the fast-food factory element) rather than one specific type of food (which would have been too cliché for a boss), by creating a disturbing-looking robot with a fast-food mascot for a head. After several attempts and discussions with Nico, we finalized the creation of the Waldo character. Since he’s a robot, he had to talk differently from the other Sorrows, which made him stand out more.

Simon Dutertre: For Ms. Catherine Imamura, the Natural Disasters Department Sorrow, we wanted a water-related enemy. At one point, we discussed a surfer dude, but since we didn’t have a lot of female characters, we came up with the idea of a sea witch, a bit like Ursula in the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. But then Nico suggested this geisha-inspired character design. We liked the idea, and I decided to use this imagery and the fantasy around geishas when developing her attacks.

There are eight confirmed Departments to make your way through in Have a Nice Death, what were the inspirations for each of these, and how did you make these different gameplay-wise?

Nicolas Leger: We had a large choice of ideas to choose from for each world theme, whether in terms of graphics, narrative, or gameplay. It was sometimes difficult to whittle down all these different options, and we had to make some difficult decisions (when choosing which enemies to use, for example). Also, in terms of level design, we tried to give off a unique architectural vibe for each of the departments. For example, pathways around a central heart for the Physical Illness Department, a complex labyrinth for the Addictions Department, mountains of waste to climb over in the Industrial Pollution Department, and a very flat no-man’s-land-type area with tortuous colours (trench-style) for the Modern Warfare Department, etc.

Simon Dutertre: Most of the departments were designed with the gameplay mechanics in mind before the theme was finalized. For example, the Thanager Candice was designed around teleportation from the start, even before we’d decided that she would be a sort of hyperactive cupcake that needed to be dodged at the right moment. As such, it was important that the player was confronted with challenges that required faster reflexes when exploring the department and that they echoed the challenges they would face against the minibosses and the boss herself. What’s more, since it was the second in-game world, the difficulty level needed to be higher.

What can you share with us about the weapons or magic in-game? Are there any you particularly enjoyed designing or do you have a favourite weapon to use?

My own personal favourite is “Piercing Ray,” because it’s a homage to Konami’s Vandal Hearts, one of my favourite games.

Simon Dutertre: There are three weapon categories in the game: the Scythe, the Cloak, and spells. The Scythe — in all its various forms — is Death’s primary weapon. You can use it to make combos with a number of different attacks, and the player can choose whichever version of the Scythe they like at the start of a run. The Cloak can take the appearance of a weapon (a hammer, a bow, etc.). These are strong weapons with a cooldown to balance that power out. They can be very useful for killing small enemies in a single blow.

Finally, spells — summoned by Pitbook, Death’s pet — require mana, but as long as you have enough, they can prove very effective in killing multiple enemies at a time. My own personal favourite is “Piercing Ray,” because it’s a homage to Konami’s Vandal Hearts, one of my favourite games.

Nicolas Leger: The basic weapon that is indissociable from Death is, of course, the Scythe, and we wanted to keep it equipped at all times.

As for the book, it is the ideal acolyte to provide Death with all his magic, while his polymorphous Cloak gave us an opportunity to create whatever we wanted — in this case, a range of conventional weapons (swords, spears, hammers, bows, etc.), as well as more fantastical and unique weapons (giant weapons, a parasol, a flail, crows, etc.). Ideas came from both the artists and game designers, but each time, a specific combat move had to be determined. At the start, each weapon was planned to be used as a combo (between two and six blows), just like the Scythes. But for game design reasons, we decided to go in another direction for “Cloak” weapons.

Curses seem to be fairly different from your usual roguelike upgrades. Can you tell us a bit more about how this Bonus/Penalty system works, and if there are any amusing consequences or stories you can share?

Simon Dutertre: One of our main intentions was to make sure the runs were all distinct from one another, so we thought that making slight changes to the behaviour of the enemies encountered by players might be one way of doing so. In our game, the player can win a BONUS that we call a 'Curse'. Curses all belong to a skill tree with three branches, each of which has a specific type of bonus. In the case of certain bonuses, a penalty is placed at a random point on the skill tree that will give the player a PENALTY if they choose a curse in that location. But most of these penalties will usually affect the enemies and will give them new properties.

This system has changed a lot over the course of production. Initially, we were applying a penalty with every curse, which meant the increased power of a new bonus was always countered in some way… But that didn’t feel very satisfying. In fact, it could even be frustrating because players would actively avoid them. So we changed them to make these penalties more situational.

How has Early Access helped shape your game, and why is the Switch the right choice of console for Have a Nice Death?

Simon Dutertre: We opened up Early Access having a very clear idea of our roadmap ahead. There was a big list of things we wanted to do from the very beginning, such as create new bosses, or change certain gameplay systems, notably the meta progression. That was actually a huge help because it meant we didn’t have to lose time on the core of the game. The biggest influence the early Early Access period had on us was in simplifying our mechanics and making them more accessible. It became more important to focus on the experience of players who weren’t yet familiar with our game or with roguelites at all, really.

Nicolas Leger: Definitely, although many aspects of the game had been determined since the beginning; early access served to either confirm our choices or to rectify them. It’s certainly a chance to find out more about players’ expectations during the production process, but it isn’t without risk. Trying to please everyone can soon result in an unsatisfactory compromise. We had to make firm choices in the interest of consistency that we knew might end up displeasing some.

Despite its cartoonish style, the universe itself is not what we would call “mainstream,” but we were very pleasantly surprised by the community’s support, which far exceeded our expectations! Many of the suggestions — whether gameplay, artistic, or narrative — could well be implemented at a later stage.

Trying to please everyone can soon result in an unsatisfactory compromise.

Mérédith Alfroy: In narrative design, we always had a clear vision of the main scenario from the very start of production. We wanted to explore questions like how Death survived burnout and his desire to take a vacation, the reason behind all the chaos caused by the Sorrows, and if any one person was responsible for all that. However, early access allowed us to develop Sorrow and NPC characters in greater detail. Part of the community was constantly coming up with new theories about the main storyline and inventing relationships between the employees, even going as far as to create new Sorrows or new departments in their fanfics. We made an effort to regularly check in on their comments and ideas and integrate them into the game wherever possible, even if it was just the odd detail here and there.

Simon Dutertre: Developing a game for the Nintendo Switch comes with its own challenges, such as the limited hardware capacity compared to modern PCs. This means we have to be meticulous in our optimization efforts to ensure the gameplay remains smooth. Despite these challenges, the Switch does offer some unique advantages, in particular in terms of portability, which is perfect for taking the game on vacation or other journeys with you. Our game, Have a Nice Death, can be played in short, fun sessions that can be enjoyed wherever you are.

Mérédith Alfroy: And we’re sure Nintendo fans will love the universe, the humour, and the cartoonish aspect of the game.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity. We want to extend our thanks to Mérédith Alfroy, Simon Dutertre, and Nicolas Leger for chatting to us about the game. Have a Nice Death launches on Switch on 22nd March.

Are you deathly excited for the next roguelike obsession in Have a Nice Death? Get reaping and sowing in the comments.