I Am Dead (2020)
Annapurna Interactive | Nintendo Switch
This review originally appeared on Arcade Theory.
A spirited game of I Spy
Despite its spooky-sounding title, I Am Dead is neither scary, nor especially concerned with the plight of our mortality. Rather, this new puzzle-adventure game from Annapurna Interactive is all about the impact we have on the world around us – both in the people who remember us, and the objects that remind our loved ones of dear memories. I Am Dead follows recently deceased museum curator, Morris Lupton, (guided by spirit-dog, Sparky) as he attempts to find a new ghostly Custodian to take over the duty of keeping the Shelmerston island volcano dormant. Problem is, the Custodian has to have been dead for at least 1,000 days (because bureaucracy, I guess?) so Morris’ candidates are narrowed down to five potential guardians. Thus begins your quest to commune with these spirits, and find a new Custodian before the volcano erupts, dooming Shelmerston and all its inhabitants.
In order to communicate with these spirits, you’ll need to collect five mementos that ‘anchor’ them to this mortal coil – these important objects are presented to Morris via the memories of local characters that you can engage with. In each section, (including a lighthouse, boardwalk, and campsite) you’ll explore as a free-floating ghost, capable of seeing into, and interacting with nearly every object you fancy. The main crux of I Am Dead‘s puzzling system comes from this premise: in order to find these objects crucial to the ghosts who treasured them, you’ll need to slice, splice, rotate, and investigate every corner of their old stomping grounds. Most mementos are hidden inside other items, but using a combination of logic, and creative sleuthing, you’ll be able, to suss out their locations. In doing so, you’ll learn more about each of the ghosts, and their histories with the living who remember them. Most memories are heartfelt, but some are quite silly – a few animals scattered throughout Shelmerston have fond memories of stealing things from our potential Custodians.
The only issue with this gameplay structure is that it never evolves beyond its simplistic roots. Meaning, any given object that anchors a memory is never outside the immediate locale of the character thinking about it. For instance, in the first section, the lighthouse-turned-yoga-studio, there is a character on nearly every floor, and the key item that relates to their memories of Pete Noach is always in the same room. I expected this hide-and-seek style to become harder as the game progressed, to build on the players knowledge of how the game worked. However, it never did. Once you understand what you’re looking for, it’s extremely easy to locate the object in question – if the memory doesn’t outright tell you where it is. The premise of having what amounts to X-ray vision for exploration is brilliant, but the game underutilizes it; while it’s fine to peek into all the nooks and crannies of the different sections just for the fun of it, the main story could have incorporated these puzzle elements better.
If you are looking for more of a challenge, there is the secondary goal of locating the so-called Grenkins: tiny spirit creatures that live in certain objects. In order to reveal the Grenkin (Sparky will alert you to their presence) you’ll need to clip into, and rotate the object in a very specific way. While more difficult than the main questline, I found collecting the Grenkins to be quite fiddly, and didn’t feel especially compelled to track them all down. There are also riddles that involve finding a series of collectibles, if you interact with the posters scattered about Shelmerston, which add an additional layer to the gameplay. It’s another facet of I Am Dead that tries to encourage you to thoroughly explore each section of the island, and take the time to enjoy your ghostly abilities.
Small town secrets
The setting of Shelmerston is by far the best part of I Am Dead – it’s easy to see why the resident ghosts are so fond of the island. The way different elements of the town and its stories build upon each other – if you take the time to look around – is quite clever. You might catch a glimpse of a newspaper article sitting in the lighthouse that details the exploits of one ‘Slippery Derek,’ the troublemaking octopus (still at large). Fast forward to the boardwalk section of the game, and you might be able to find Derek’s hideaway. In the same section, you’ll be able to peruse the local business, Time 4 Toast. Cute, but slightly confusing. Why is there an entire business dedicated to toast? Are the English that obsessed with crispy bread? No, as it turns out, the resident fish-people are. Hold the butter though (also, don’t ask questions). You’ll learn more about these fish folk, and their love of toast, in the final section of the game. In this way, I Am Dead cultivates the feeling of nested narratives, of an island with depth and history, just like the people who live (or, have lived) on it. It’s a unique and subtle way to reinforce the themes of history and memory that are built into the story.
However, this is not a narrative that dwells too much on the gravity of the subject matter it presents. I Am Dead never lingers too long on the concepts of death, and loss, even when things seem dire. The lighthearted approach that the game takes toward these heavy topics works well with the whimsical art style, and fantasy aspects of the town itself. Its relaxed pace and undemanding gameplay are nice for a rainy day, to curl up with and while away a few hours. However, if you’re looking for more substantive gameplay, and a story that you can really sink your teeth into, this title might leave you wanting. Though I Am Dead makes us ponder the things we leave behind when we pass on, its relatively cheery nature keeps this narrative from being as affecting as it could.
Into the West
Though colourful and charming, this title ultimately lacked a certain something that would have made it a stand-out experience. Its overly simplistic puzzle design can lead to gameplay feeling bland, and somewhat repetitive. While its premise was strong, and the central gimmick of slicing into objects to explore was novel, the concept never quite goes the distance. This is a game that excels when its leaning into its portrayal of history, and the series of stories that shape the world in which we live. Like Morris Lupton, we become curators of the mementos we seek; objects that represent the impact people have had on this small town, and the things they’ve left behind. Not just in the physical sense, either, but in the effect they’ve had on the people who knew them, and how they’ve changed Shelmerston for the better. The real heart of this title lives in the way that Pete Noach’s yoga retreat has helped people find peace. Or, in the way that Samphire’s protests of the annual Morlo culling lead to lasting change. This is where I Am Dead truly shines.