How about playing as a museum curator of a tiny island while looking for little mementos? That does not sound too exciting for a game, does it? But what if said curator is actually dead, and you have to unravel the mysteries behind those mementos to learn more about scattered ghosts and prevent the island’s volcano from erupting?
That sounds much better, right? This is the premise of I Am Dead, a puzzle game developed by Hollow Ponds, a small studio that was also responsible for bringing Wilmot’s Warehouse to Xbox last year. But how does a story involving dead people and volcanoes fit into a puzzle game?
Embracing the afterlife
You are Morris Lupton, the recently deceased curator of the Shelmerston Museum. Since his passing Morris has continued his quiet routine of walking down the beach and spending time at the now-abandoned museum — the only difference is that he is now able to peer inside objects and people to reveal their content and memories, like a supernatural X-ray of sorts.
By using his newfound power Morris gets in touch with a memento that reunites him with the ghost of his old dog, Sparky. After a warming reunion, Sparky explains they need to work together to prevent Shelmerston’s dormant volcano from erupting.
In short, Shelmerston is volcanic — it is supposed to erupt every once in a while. The only reason it has not is the Custodian, a ghost who has been keeping the island calm. But the current Custodian is weakening, and you have to find a new one before the time runs out.
There are five Prospects, five ghosts still hanging around the island that have been dead for at least a thousand days. Your goal is to go after each one of them and channel their ghosts by finding their mementos, which is done by looking into the memories of those who loved them best.
What follows next is a sequence of heartwarming stories. You dive deep into the memories of those who had to keep living while maintaining fond feelings towards those who are no longer among us. You learn more about the life of those you have known for a long time without truly knowing them. You learn more about life as a whole, now that you can no longer live.
I Am Dead might be seen as a simple puzzle game by many, but it is surprisingly deep as it offers a gentle take on the prospect of death — which only gets even more heartwarming thanks to the fantastic work by David Shaughnessy, the voice of Morris.
Slicing things up
Technically, I Am Dead is a puzzle game. In practice, this is more of a narrative-driven game with light puzzle elements, while the more challenging bits come from the exploration parts of it. You rarely move your character; what you do instead is to freely move between sceneries while looking for mementos, similar to many treasure hunting games out there.
As mentioned before, since you have become a ghost you gained the ability to look inside everything. You do so by pressing A to focus on something and then pressing RT to “Slice In” or LT to “Slice Out” — which is basically zooming in and out. By doing this you can find many objects in the world while learning more about the local and the people.
Although simple, the controls feel a bit junky. For some reason, you move the camera with the left stick while moving the pointer with the right stick — which is extremely frustrating at the start since you are probably used to moving the camera with the right stick instead.
But not every object is relevant to your goal. You learn exactly what you have to look for by using another of your powers: you can access the memories of specific people that used to live with the ghost you are currently pursuing. This will trigger a very light puzzle sequence where you hear a heartwarming story the two have shared, revealing a specific memento that will help you progress through the story.
The puzzle segments offer no challenge at all. In the end, the game is all about story and exploration and will not take much of your time if you focus on the main objectives. If you want a bit more of a challenge, though, you can try to find each one of the 62 Grenkins hidden throughout the areas.
Grenkins are tiny spirits that are said to bring good luck. Whenever one is close by Sparky will pop up on the screen and let you know, and it will be up to you to find out where those little ones are hidden.
But the true challenge in the game lies behind Mr. Whitstable’s riddles. There is one hidden poster in each area of the game in which you can find Mr. Whitstable, who will then provide a list of riddles you have limited time to solve with basically no tips at all. In Yapp’s Head Lighthouse, for example, he is found in a yoga poster illustrating different positions — for the Hungry Caterpillar position, you should find a bug that is hidden in lettuce on the lowest shelf of the fridge on the second floor’s kitchen. Good luck with that!
I Am Dead is a special game because it gets you thinking. Not about the characters themselves, but about life as a whole and everything that surrounds it. Its puzzles are nowhere near challenging and the exploration is limited to small areas, but they are still enjoyable thanks to the heartwarming story that unfolds after each section. When combining it all with the vivid visuals and remarkable voice work, you cannot help but feel right at home.