Much like the previous two games from Richard Hogg and Ricky Haggett (Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehouse), I Am Dead oozes offbeat, chill charm with a familiar, relaxing and unique art style. Unlike their last two games, however, it’s much more grounded in reality. And unlike the trailers make it looks like, it’s not some gritty, hyper-realistic vision of the world. The game knows this fact and more importantly, it owns it.
Sporting a softer, deliberately low-poly style, akin to Katamari Damacy or Donut County, I Am Dead is a game about people who just happen to be dead. It doesn’t promise to tell a dramatic, riveting story about loss, nor does it seek to provide punishing, precise gameplay. However, it does aim to tell heartfelt, engaging stories and provide a pleasant, approachable puzzle experience. Based on what I saw in a remote demo with the game’s creators, it should deliver.
You play as the late Morris Lupton, the curator of a museum on the island of Shelmestorm, and his dog Sparky, who is also dead. You both work together to stop the island’s volcano from erupting by enlisting the help of other deceased islanders.
The main objective of the game centers around finding items and artifacts that were important to the spirit you’re trying to contact. That’s where the game’s central mechanic comes in. Morris and his fellow spirits are all omnipotent, so there’s no need to worry about location; the game puts you wherever you need to be to figure out puzzles, which centers around the player freely controlling the camera.
You can get as close as you want to various objects in the game and can even look inside most of them. Just about every object in Shelmestorm is a puzzle. They nearly all have something to hide, whether its the fully modeled vegetables (seeds included) or a toaster complete with heating rods, many (if not most) objects have a surprise inside.
This mechanic of controlling the camera and moving in and out is not only hypnotic and satisfying, but it’s genuinely impressive, especially considering the developers had never worked on a three-dimensional game. I watched about a half-hour of gameplay and throughout the entire time, I never grew tired of seeing what different things looked like on the inside and from different angles.
On top of looking inside objects, you can look inside the minds of some inhabitants and tourists of Shelmestorm and see their memories. This is the game’s way of providing hints, fleshing out narratives, and developing characters. It’s a hidden strong point of the demo I experienced.
The memories are effectively comic strip-like microdoses of exposition or narratives that feature still images with voice acting over them. They include fluid, mesmerizing motion to serve as a transition from panel to panel. They tell a story about the character who’s attached to the item the player is looking for and why they value it.
Of the few memories I saw, two that stuck out to me were from the lighthouse area, the first level in the game. One was a charming story about a woman who came to the island for a yoga getaway at the yoga retreat in the lighthouse, and went golfing with the deceased character. The other one was a story about the character effectively learning to cope with a traumatic experience.
I won’t go into details because it was just so endearing and made me feel for the characters in the way that few games have accomplished. Rather than using the names of deceased characters to make a moment sad, it feels like a celebration of the character’s life and who they were. It felt at peace with the realities of life and death; the characters felt like real people that just happened to be dead rather than an exaggerated memory.
I saw two different levels in the game. The first one was the initial level of I Am Dead in the aforementioned lighthouse. Converted into a yoga retreat by the man who lived there, it featured a number of yoga enthusiasts. Enjoying the scenery of the somehow equally vibrant and pastel decor aesthetic of the interior of a relatively nondescript-seeming lighthouse.
It felt dense and lively and was chock full of items to examine and play with. The second level I saw felt equally deep. The port and presumably downtown area of the small island showcased just how much this game had to offer in a distinctly different way from the lighthouse. Tourists walked around in awe of the quaint, cute town. Islanders enjoyed a beer at the pub, and fish people from the surrounding sea lined up for a slice of toast.
Every object and character has a backstory and it feels like an amalgamation of Hogg and Haggett’s everyday lives. For example, the toast shop is made out of half of a ship turned upside-down, which is something that can be found in real life in the seaside town that Hogg is from.
The town is riddled with small references to things that are common for Brits who live in port towns, from community gardens, to disarmed mines that have been converted into collection boxes. The developers clearly put time and effort into bringing the game’s world to life by incorporating details from their lives.
The best part about these little nuggets of knowledge and trivia is that they’re not just included in the game and forgotten. They’re included in an intimate way that feels like bringing the player into the developers’ lives and homes.
I Am Dead will live or die by its storytelling — environmental or otherwise — and how satisfying its central puzzle mechanics are not just minutes, but hours into the game. It shows extreme promise in its heart, uniqueness, and serene nature and I have faith that it will likely deliver on a satisfying experience. However, I have a feeling it’ll be better as a shorter game that can be completed in a sitting or two given its constraints.
I was already excited about this game after its trailer debuted a few months ago and after this demo, I can’t wait to hear more about I Am Dead, like when it’ll get a firm release date aside from the vague “2020” that’s on its Steam page.