It’s common in games for death to go unexplored. When it’s not used as a narrative device to motivate living characters, it’s brushed aside as collateral for a game’s mechanics, with few interrogating the effects of your actions. I Am Dead is nothing like that. Not only do you play as a recently deceased protagonist, but its warm and welcoming tale explores themes of what it means to leave a legacy–however big or small–on the people you shared your brief time with while alive.
Playing as former museum curator Morris Lupton and guided by his equally dead pet dog, Sparky, you explore the recent history of the fictional island of Shelmerston in search of a new guardian for the tranquil settlement. The island’s dormant volcano is being kept at bay by the waning spirit of a former inhabitant, forcing Lupton to search for a replacement from a handful of other Shelmerston inhabitants that have recently found themselves in the afterlife. With the ability to explore some of the island’s picturesque locations and interact with objects in ways unique to your spectral form, you slowly unearth the island’s history and touching vignettes of some of its residents.
Before being able to ask a friendly resident ghost if they’re up to the task of watching over Shelmerston, you need to first learn about their lasting impact on those who are still alive. This manifests in distinct levels where you explore stories of each character through the lens of those who remember them. The devout followers of a yoga instructor who reside in a repurposed lighthouse recall the calming nature of their late leader, coloring in his complex relationship with past trauma and how it shaped his pursuit for inner peace. Another tale set in the island’s bustling port town tells the tale of a blossoming romance between two youths who both discovered more about themselves when apart, which cemented their relationship further when reunited. These stories help introduce you to the would-be caretakers before you get to meet them, giving you all the context you need to understand their decision to either accept or decline the position of island custodian.
Stages feature five memories to recall, each of which you solve by bringing into focus images like how you would twist a kaleidoscope. It’s a simple but effective way of giving form to the stories being told over your actions, while also giving life to characters you can’t explicitly interact with in your spectral form. Each of these memories recalls keepsakes you need to find in order to find the deceased resident they belong to, turning each distinct stage into a treasure hunt of sorts.
I Am Dead is a brief trip to a distinct and gorgeous island, with personal tales that balance sad anecdotes with heartwarming tales of love.
As a spirit, you can inspect objects around you in a unique way: by slicing into its geometry to peel back each of its layers and tunnel into its inner workings. For example, you can zoom into a large docked ship to expose a brewery contained inside, which can be further drilled into to reveal the contents of shelves on its walls or its stills. Zooming into objects is reminiscent of clipping geometry, except that it is used as a gameplay mechanic as opposed to being a visual bug. Being able to inspect objects and each of their cross-section layers is an interesting way to hunt for the objects described in each memory, especially when they lead to surprising discoveries. For example, investigating a seemingly uninteresting hole exposed a network of fox dens hiding beneath a grassy park, showing how life above and below its surface continued in ignorant harmony.
Finding the keepsakes you need to progress is rarely challenging, which keeps in step with the relaxed pacing of I Am Dead’s story. They’re usually exactly where described in their associated memories or otherwise near the character recalling the stories, making the treasure hunts more a conclusion to each vignette rather than a taxing puzzle. While it is straightforward and welcoming, the lack of evolution from one stage to the next does make each new object hunt a little less exciting than the last. The new areas you get to explore provide their own sense of wonder as you slice through their construction, but it can be easy to ignore any window dressing when the core objectives aren’t pushing you to explore them even briefly.
There are optional objectives in each stage that involve a little more sleuthing to solve. Your canine companion will signal when grenkins–small, scattered spirits–are nearby, and finding them requires you to decipher a vague visual clue. These clues are a 2D representation of a cross-section of an object nearby, tasking you with not only determining which one but also zooming in and occluding its geometry in a way that matches. I Am Dead is forgiving enough that the closer you are to solving the puzzle, the more it tries to automatically align itself with the end goal, avoiding any of the potential frustrations of having to align a specific object perfectly to match the clue. But the rewards for solving these puzzles are nothing more than checks on a list for each stage, which is disappointing compared to the effort they involve, even if it’s the only form of challenge that I Am Dead offers.
Although the way you move from stage to stage in I Am Dead eventually loses some steam, the locales themselves never disappoint. From the multi-floored lighthouse to a dimly lit campsite, each of the stages is an eye-catching treat. The striking watercolors that wash over the tranquil hills of Shelmerston complement the inviting blue hues of its surrounding oceans, reflecting the warm orange sunset that welcomes the evenings in latter parts of the story. These stark colors work well with the outlandish designs of Shelmerston’s inhabitants, who are convinced that camels are works of fiction but don’t seem to bat an eye at citizens with apples for heads or bipedal fish sailors. I Am Dead never seeks to explain how these characters came to be, but also presents them in a way that matches the almost mythical nature of the island, making it all seamlessly fit in an endearing way.
I Am Dead is a brief trip to a distinct and gorgeous island, with personal tales that balance sad anecdotes with heartwarming tales of love. These small stories characterize Shelmerston’s inhabitants in a strong way, giving you reason to care for the land’s history as you pursue a means to ensure its future. But through its stories it also explores death in a different light, focusing on the ways its characters have affected those around them positively in their passing instead of just honing in on mourning. Even if the treasure-hunting gameplay underpinning the narrative progression doesn’t evolve beyond its simple beginnings, it’s hard not to be entranced by I Am Dead’s colorful characters and engaging tales and come away from your getaway to Shelmerston with a smile on your face.