I am dead. I am dead. I am dead. At the risk of getting a bit dark, that has quite a ring to it, doesn’t it? A lovely little get-out for those unwanted conversations, invitations and generally being approached by anyone at all. “What do you think of this political climate?” “I am dead.” “Oh, sorry mate. Didn’t realise. Never mind.” It’s a license to do nothing.
Unfortunately, the protagonist of I Am Dead – deceased museum curator Morris Lupton – isn’t even able to enjoy the void-like stillness of the cold, cold grave, instead seemingly doomed to walk the island of Shelmerston forever as a ghost while spying on peoples’ thoughts, slicing into their brains like a macabre psychic cross-section. Morris is tasked with this cerebral voyeurism by his dead dog, Sparky, who informs him that a formerly-dormant volcano is about to explode and destroy the island you’re haunting unless a new ghostly “Custodian” is found. So no pressure, then. They’ll put you to work even after you’re dead!
It feels almost perverse, digging into peoples’ memories trying to channel the ghost of a mortally-challenged individual just to condemn them to an eternal volcano-guarding fate, but that’s the game. Of course, we’re being flippant. I Am Dead is an at times touching and generally thoughtful exploration of loss, grief and lasting memories that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it could due to some occasionally-too-twee writing and gameplay that doesn’t quite disguise the fact that it’s a glorified hidden object game. But there’s still plenty of merit to dig up. Exhume, you see. Like a dead person.
The meat-and-potatoes gameplay of I Am Dead actually reminded us Neil Buchanan’s Finders Keepers game show, but without the cheerful Liverpudlian host. Each “investigation” takes place in a sort of diorama, a cross-section of a living space that you can move around in and rotate in a limited manner. You’re effectively just a cursor selecting things, “locking on” to objects and zooming in to “slice” them, allowing you a type of incremental X-ray vision.
Slice into a tomato, for example, and you’ll see the segments, the pips, the pulp. Doing the same thing to a person, however, will send you into their memories of the candidate for “Custodian” in question, having the individual you’re mentally probing relate a story about their time with the deceased. These stories are roundly interesting, generally emotional and boast strong character work.
The sense of community on Shelmerston is made very apparent and elevated rather brilliantly by these little vignettes, but their gameplay leaves a little to be desired. You’re shown a distorted image and must use the ZR and ZL buttons to simply move the pieces into place like a kaleidoscope – not challenging at all, but an effective way to represent the notion of a jumbled, tangled memory. Each of these sections centres around a particular object, which you’ll then have to go and find in the main stage – sometimes they’ll be in plain sight, but more likely you’ll need to slice your way into something else to find your target. Get them all and it’s on with the storyline, with more potential Custodians to offer the position to.
I Am Dead is attractive throughout, with a colourful style that is guilty of being a little too “indie game” at times. Admittedly, that’s not the most defined of criticisms, but there are quite a few titles with this sort of aesthetic style now (Donut County springs to mind most quickly), so there isn’t much of a “wow” factor. Still, the visuals complement the gameplay and it all runs nice and smoothly on the Switch.
The controls can feel a little twitchy, but there are no time constraints outside of some optional riddles, so it’s not much of an issue with any given playthrough. It isn’t a long game – we capped at around five hours, and that was with quite a lot of meandering, but there is plenty of stuff to search and hidden “Grenkins” in every scene which require fairly specific slices to locate.
While the game’s writing in the memory scenes is lovely, we found the interplay between Morris and Sparky to be a little on the bijou side. Sparky’s hyper-earnest voice acting didn’t help matters – though, if dogs, could talk, we suspect they’d be as chipper and forthright as her. Admittedly, this is nitpicking, but this writer was a little irritated by the script where Morris – a British character – is given copious amounts of Americanisms, something that’s a little bit jarring at times, and it snapped us out of immersion a little. But we can hardly let a few trans-Atlantic language oddities spoil the fun of I Am Dead, can we?
A very interesting game indeed, I Am Dead isn’t top-tier indie magic but it’s a hide-and-seek sandbox that will reward you the deeper you go. It’s refreshingly content-rich, what with the Grenkins to find and riddles to solve for committed players. An appealing sense of place and strong visuals are only spoiled by some misplaced attempts at quirkiness and some minor control issues. Overall, though, I Am Dead makes us long for the sweet embrace of the reaper. Wait, no. It’s just a rather enjoyable game. That’s it. Not that other thing. Good god.