The latest indie release from the publisher of What Remains of Edith Finch and Outer Wilds is a charming tale of ghostly responsibility.
Video game publishers, like film distributors, don’t always get involved in making the product they sell to the public. In some cases though, they’re so careful about the kinds of games they add to their roster that despite not being creators themselves, they become synonymous with a particular genre or style of game. While Annapurna Interactive’s games don’t have a genre in common, most have an agreeably offbeat tone and emotionally affecting storytelling. I Am Dead certainly has both.
You’re Morris Lupton, former museum creator, now deceased. Unusually for a dead person, Morris is able to see, talk, and move around Shelmerston, the volcanic island that was previously his home. As well as moving around, Morris has acquired the ability to ‘slice’ objects, enabling him to see their cross sections, locking onto and rotating a vast range of things to see what’s hidden in or under them.
Whilst still adjusting to the afterlife, Morris also discovers a grave threat to Shelmerston. The island’s custodian, a millennia-old ghost, can no longer continue in his job, leaving you to find a replacement. The criteria for the role is that applicants need to have lived on the island and have been dead for more than 1,000 days, which rules out Morris who died too recently. Failure to find a new custodian will mean the volcano erupts, incinerating the island and its remaining inhabitants.
So your job is to find and speak to five potential candidates, which is a task complicated by the fact that they’ve all been dead for at least three years. Finding them means visiting their old stamping grounds and looking for people who remember them, indicated by thought bubbles emerging from their heads.
Once you find someone with useful memories you can listen to them, gradually sifting through layers of memory in order to discover a physical memento of their existence, which you then need to locate amongst the brightly coloured scenery.
As you listen to old memories and work your way through the game’s beautifully drawn and often cluttered little dioramas, you’ll also peel back layers of the character you’re looking for, gradually diving beneath their public persona and showing more of what really made them tick. It’s a process that’s both intriguing and intimate, a sense enhanced by voice actor David Shaugnessy’s wonderfully warm and sincere portrayal of Morris.
Along with the set of mementos you need to locate in each scene, there are also tiny hidden goblins called Grenkins that your faithful (and also dead) hound, Sparky sniffs out. Each one is hidden inside an object, which you need to slice at just the right angle to winkle it out.
While most of the game is not especially challenging, just charming and thought-provoking, many of the Grenkins require a fair bit of experimental tilting and zooming of your slice ability before you can claim them.
As you progress through the five potential candidates for custodian, each eventually dismissing him or herself from the search, you’ll find the hunt for their mementos getting a little more complex. No longer is every object visible from your starting perspective, with many hidden in smaller scenes within scenes, which need to be found, selected, and then rotated before you find the piece or person you’re looking for. You’ll also need to do a whole lot of slicing to find all of them, let alone the pesky Grenkins.
You interact with such delightfully jumbled scenes that you’ll find yourself analysing plenty of non-essential bric-a-brac on your way to uncovering the items you need. It’s a continual source of joy to discover that the innards of everything from bowling balls, to electronic gadgets, to toy robots have been modelled, their nests of capacitors, cogs and inner workings becoming visible in cross section as your viewpoint slides straight through them in your search.
Graphically, the bright colours and hand drawn style complement the game’s gentle lightheartedness; as do the voices, which feature some lovely English regional accents along with more exotic ones as you meet characters and listen to their amusingly recounted memories. It makes for an unusually wholesome video game experience and helps calm you during moments when it’s proving a little tricky locking onto the exact tiny object you’re aiming at, or trying to find the precise angle needed to rattle loose a recalcitrant Grenkin.
As an antidote to a universe of shooting, fighting, and driving fast cars, I Am Dead is a heart-warming sojourn into a gentle colourful fantasy world. Its characters feel like real people though, and this anchor to reality brings it all vividly to life. Finding the elements hidden in each scene isn’t hard, but it does take time, and the sense of unhurried exploration is one that you’ll start to miss as soon as you put it down.
I Am Dead review summary
In Short: A charmingly offbeat exploration and object finding game which is at least as much about its characters and their stories as it is the mechanics of your search.
Pros: Beautiful hand drawn art style, superbly acted narration, a huge range of objects to look at in cross section, and a joyously unhurried atmosphere that rewards curiosity and quiet tinkering.
Cons: None of the puzzles are particularly taxing, and it can occasionally be tricky selecting smaller or more distant objects. Those who prefer games featuring firearms will leave disappointed.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Richard Hogg
Release Date: 8th October 2020
Age Rating: 7
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