As far as game titles go, I Am Dead is one of the most stark and on-the-nose, and also perfectly describes your protagonist Morris Lupton, a museum curator dealing with the fact that he is deceased.
Death and mortality have been recurring themes for indie publisher Annapurna Interactive, most notably their debut release What Remains of Edith Finch as well as last year’s Outer Wilds that had you trapped in a time loop just before a supernova engulfs the solar system. I Am Dead is a little different, not so interested in morbidity – you never even learn how Morris or indeed anyone else died – rather a whimsical story that places you in the colourful island town of Shelmerston, waiting for you to explore its peculiarities.
The way you go about exploring is the fascinating aspect, as developers Hollow Ponds demonstrated to me during our preview session. As a ghost, Morris is able to zoom in on objects, slicing through them, even drilling down and uncovering objects within objects. While it was hard to discern how this works without holding the controller myself, interacting with objects is done just by squeezing the triggers while the stick lets you rotate the angle of the object, which is meant to be very playful and intuitive.
For instance, in the opening section in a lighthouse, we go to one of its many floors, a kitchen, and the spectral cursor hovers over the fridge, which you can then zoom in and find different foods like a cheese wheel or tomatoes. These in turn can also be sliced through, exposing more of their interior textures, the way you can sort of slide in and out almost like a kind of X-ray vision – the developers specifically liken it to an MRI scan.
In another amusing touch, we come across a couch and your scanner vision reveals there’s coins beneath it as well as a remote that got stuck down the side, though you can drill even further down to see the batteries on one end or slide over and see the circuitry on the other. It’s really quite wondrous just how detailed the game is despite appearing seemingly simple in its Richard Hogg-designed Mr Men aesthetics.
Of course, not every single object in the game can be interacted with like this, but you’re also not just randomly rummaging across everything in sight since interactive objects have a white outline. You also have some direction as there’s kind of a point to all this. See, it’s not just Morris who’s dead, he can also see other ghosts of people who once lived in Shelmerston. The goal is to meet up with them as they may just be able to help you solve a mystery that can save your home from the island’s once dormant volcano that’s beginning to wake up.
To find these ghosts, you first need to find mementoes; hidden objects that belonged to them or had some kind of significance to them. One way of finding out just what these mementoes are is by interrogating their loved ones who are still living. By interrogating, I don’t mean talking, since you’re dead, but you can actually scan a person’s brain and uncover a memory. These are like narrated cutscenes, albeit still playfully interactive ones, as you can shift in bizarre ways revealing a certain object you’ll want to then find.
Later in the session, we jump to another location, Shelmerston’s seaside shopping front bustling with people, including some not-so-human folk. This includes a race of aquatic fish-folk, a world away from the ones conjured up by H.P. Lovecraft, who have recently been coming to the island as they’ve discovered an insatiable appetite for dry food like toast and crisps and needed to start making some money in order to buy it.
Then you’ve also got these anthropomorphised birds who used to visit the island as part of their annual migration but have now evolved to the point where they come as tourists. Instead of flying they now come by boat since they have to carry heavy luggage with them like camera equipment. As you do. I enjoyed how the developers explained this to me all very matter-of-factly, and while the cartoony visuals probably does make it easier to imagine humans coexisting with fish and bird people without batting an eyelid, it just adds to the game’s wholesome charm.
The nature of being a hidden object game however means you also get to uncover secrets bubbling beneath the surface, such as a boat being displayed on the port that, when you slice into it, turns out to be housing an illegal whisky brewing operation. There’s all kinds of strange and fascinating little stories to uncover in the world of the living as well as for those who have departed.
There’s a linear kind of progression to the game, even in the way you float through each of these diorama-like surroundings which feels like a cross between a point-and-click adventure and being on a ghostly rail. Morris is in a peculiar situation, still grappling with his non-existence as it were, while often speaking as if he was still alive. I’m not sure how his dog Sparky also came to be dead but the good news is in this state you can talk to her and she acts as your guide, loyal even in death.
While on the surface I Am Dead is a kind of first-person puzzle adventure we’re all quite familiar with, it’s executed in such a playful and wonderfully weird way that can only come from the minds behind Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehouse. It’s arriving in September on PC and Switch, so we don’t have long to wait to slice through more of Shelmerston.