After reviewing Felix the Reaper earlier this month, we were left with a lot of thoughts on Kong Orange's puzzler. How did this game merge the concept of the Grim Reaper with adorable dancing so well? What on Earth encouraged the developers to fuse these two ideas, seemingly at odds with each other? And how did Felix get those moves?
That's why we got in contact with Kong Orange's founder and CEO Esben Kjær Ravn to hear about the game, and we just had to ask where the fresh and innovative concept of dancing death game from.
"It actually turns out it's not that unique," Ravn said. "It's like a thousand-year-old art history motif. Yeah, it's been around, and seven or eight years ago we sat down and looked the Death from Lübeck - it was a church painting that was destroyed during the Second World War - and it depicts the dancing Death going through a line of people that all have to die, the empress as well as the beggar, the monk; everyone."
"And those kinds of pictures, they exist in thousands of varieties and churches and death dance books and modern adaptations as well, and we just thought there should be a game in this, this art tradition."
"And then we spent a while - to put it mildly - to figure out what the game should be, and went through several prototypes, and eventually we landed on this concept that less the chain dance but more the actual orchestration of death and hiding in the shadows theme, gameplay. And as soon as we hit upon that we thought that we'll force the story to fit the gameplay because the gameplay sort of felt fresh, in a sense, and original."
So while Lübeck might not have pictured the agent of death jiggling round and shaking his booty with headphones on, the concept itself has been around for longer than we imagined, but given new life with this very modern medium. It turns out that's not all that has been taken from this long history of Death in art either.
"That whole tradition was a big thing to us, the dance of death. And the love story is from a tradition of depictions of Death and the Maiden, so we have Betty the Maiden opposite Felix the Reaper, as a sort of paraphrase of that tradition," Ravn continued.
"Then we have stillleben, or still life, which is sort of life in decay, and a lot of the world - especially the animals - are decaying, and the world itself is kind of falling apart to a certain extent. So there's that, and of course we have what is called an [hourglass] in English, the Memento Mori hourglass all around too, so we tried to fit in, cram in, all the important traditions around death and art."
"And then - quite one-to-one almost - we were also inspired by [Pieter] Bruegel the Elder, a Medieval painter [...] and actually a lot of his characters are sort of interpreted to become our characters in the Medieval levels. And then I know Mikkel [Maltesen, 2D and 3D artist] used a death dance book from the '80s when he created the levels that take place in 1980s New York."
"So we try not to be a slave to the tradition or the history but just use it as a giant treasure chest and build from there, making our own piece in this tradition, without having our hands tied. But we kind of love to have the inspiration there, and of course we also paraphrasing Grim Fandango, for instance, or more modern stuff some places."
Despite Death not always being a traditionally evil figure, the concept of death as a whole is still quite a sensitive one for many, so we asked Ravn about how they gauge whether the humour if appropriate considering the content, to which he said:
"Yeah, I think it's kind of obvious when you hit a barrier. For instance, so in real life everyone dies and some die in a nice way and some die the most gruesome of deaths, and our game is definitely [not about whatever horrible deaths you could imagine]."
"So I think there's not a clear line, but whenever we came across something like that it just felt natural to stay away, because we didn't want to poke fun at people going through like serious, real-life misery. We want to play around with the tradition and also allow us to... especially in Scandinavia where we don't talk too much about death, it's also nice to talk about the colourful aspects, the tradition, the sexiness, the dancing, and still it's sort of like a gateway drug to be able to talk about death at all."
"But we're not claiming we're trying to solve the issue or anything, of people being a little bit shy around death and lowering their voice and all that, but at least we feel that human culture has proved very much that we can do this in a light-hearted way, a colourful way, so let's keep that tradition alive. That's at least what we were trying for as a minimum."
When Ravn was talking about this, we couldn't help but think of A Mortician's Tale, another game that lifts the curtain on the realities of death by showcasing the various types of grief, the reality around how corpses are treated, and what's called a "death positive" attitude. Both games are shining a light on death in different ways, opening the topic up for conversation and attempting to make the topic a touch less awkwards.
Another way that Kong Orange avoids death becoming too serious a topic is by the very clear humour Felix the Reaper deploys. Felix busting moves on the way to cause someone's demise is absurd enough, but all of the other elements like the cutscenes help to make this a weirdly jolly game, despite the end goal of death and destruction.
"I think, of course the narrative, or the little bit of narrative that's in the game, is very much around the gameplay and not part of it, as such, because you play as these frozen split seconds of destiny in some humans' lives, so when you play I think most of the comedy comes from him dancing and the posing of the characters and the world in general being over-the-top in all kinds of ways," Ravn explains.
"But then again the greater comedic moments are in the cutscenes and the intro and the voiceover that appears every once in a while, but especially in the intro and the outro. And we tried to cram as much comedy in there as possible."
"To a certain extent we mostly pulled off the fun part, but sometimes people also get a little like emotional impact from people dying in the game."
While some might think that Felix's moves are a side note to the core experience, a lot of work went into nailing these. Dancers Gunilla Lind and Raphaël Ferdinand Eder-Kastling helped create the moves that we see in game, with several dancers actually producing the final products that we see in the finished thing.
"That part with the dancers and also with the music artists, it sort of stuck there, and it felt quite rewarding to have that," Ravn told us. "One thing is to have an animator who is good at animating and can do hilarious dance moves, but that thing where he brought in people who have spent maybe 15 years of their life perfecting moves and having all that bodily memory and muscle memory, I guess it's called, in them - have them interpret it and reward the animator with all this reference video of them; it felt like it added something extra."
"Of course it's a peripheral thing. In the end it's surface, pure surface actually, but we still feel like, the more depth you can add to any element, basically, the more long-lasting joy people will have from it."
"My favourite example is Mad Men. It's a very simple TV show, basically, almost like a soap opera, but you still feel there's something deep to it because they researched the right cigarette or cloth for the tie or whatever it is. It sort of gives you an extra dimension that stays with you even though you're not necessarily sure what it is, and we sort of felt there was a value in pursuing some of the same things."
"It's not like we took away credit from the animator [...] but still, we hopefully infused it with some inspiration from the dancers."
But what is dance without music? Unlike the version Medieval artists depicted, this version of Death is listening to modern electronic music, and it turns out that there's quite a lot on here for Felix to dance to:
"Yeah, there's a lot. There are 11 different artists on it, and apparently Felix has a thing for upcoming or indie artists from Denmark, that we know kind of. And we decided from that angle, we said 'you can be in our game, you get to be yourself as an artist. We're not trying to force you to do Medieval death music or whatever - you just have to be yourself and interpret how you sound within a game that has a character that is death dancing'."
"And that also made for, I hope, some very personal contributions where they take pride in having their name on it, and it's also so that, when you go into the menu, you can read about the actual artists and what they're called in real life. It's not spun into some side story where they try to sound like New York in the 1980s or Belgium in the Medieval times. They're rather very much themselves, which is also why you start out in the Medieval but you listen to modern-day electronic right away."
"It's up to the players to determine whether we pulled that one off, but I like the fact that we just went with that, even if it was a darling. To a certain extent, it reminds me of the joy of riding cars in Grand Theft Auto, where you can put on the radio and you feel like suddenly you're listening to something real inside a game."
This focus on dancing and music meant that the team originally wanted to do something revolving around music, like a rhythm game, but as time went on it actually developed into what we see now; a unique and intriguing puzzle concept featuring light and darkness.
"We were stuck for a while on really wanting to do rhythm puzzles, and then we realised that we were all having kids and special stuff wasn't really for us," Ravn revealed. "We wanted like a calm puzzle experience that doesn't push you, and we did away with that and then eventually, when we were sort of going through different prototypes, somebody suggested that sneaking around in the shadows thing, and that's actually inspired by Hitman, which I think's still kind of funny because they are like the older sibling - way older sibling - in Danish game development, to us. And Felix still has the red tie from that inspiration, so that's a nod to them."
"And because somebody said 'basically Felix is Hitman', like an agent in the field making sure people die the way they are supposed to. So that was the shadow side of it, and then we actually started doing prototypes that had completely natural shadows, and that also just became stressful and hard to read, so we attached the grid logic to it, so you had this very turn-based experience where you always had to foresee where could the shadows be utilised some steps ahead? And for you to do that you need the grid logic to keep the game entertaining."
"As soon as we got those two parts together we actually realised we had something that at least we felt was fresh and we hadn't seen before, and a very small, core loop that can actually be expanded on endless levels if they weren't so costly to make. And we still have a sort of casual puzzle game quality to it."
"Of course I'm not arguing that this game is a casual game, but it sort of has a very, very small and tight core to it that we elaborate on. But actually I think, to a certain extent, much like Sudoku, it has a sort of 'Shadow Sudoku' quality to it. You could actually keep playing it with only the simple features that you count at the beginning, and still design quite interesting levels without adding all of the things we add in this game."
"So I hope someday we will have the ability to do the Ministry of Death Shadow Sudoku app accompanying the mother game here."
One of the things we most appreciated was the fact that the game was accessible and forgiving, allowing for hints on where to go next and where the objective was, and Ravn said that this was all about compromise for the players:
"We are fans of old and hardcore puzzles that are very unforgiving, but it's also the unforgiving part that we hate the most, so we tried to see if we could bridge the gap and have something that you can choose to have it hard and unforgiving - you have the hardcore levels and you can also play the main campaign levels and not use the hint system - and hopefully you will not be stuck so long that you can't enjoy the story as it grows through these different test scenarios."
"I guess that was one big compromise, like with most games I guess that try to address several audiences at once. I guess some could argue that's the plague of game development in general, and we of course also tried our version of accommodating more than one audience, to a certain extent."
Without knowing the long tradition behind it, we enjoyed Felix the Reaper's concept as an original one that felt fresh and new, but even knowing all the inspirations behind the dance of death, it still feels like Kong Orange has taken this and modernised the concept in a new way, producing a comedic puzzle game that really tickles us. We can't get enough of Felix's dancing, and long may it continue.
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