I Am Dead Review – IGNOctober 8, 2020
Morris Lupton is like no lead character I’ve played before. It’s not because he’s dead (because if you think about it, a surprising number of video game characters are dead), it’s his voice. Played by David Shaughnessy – whose velvetine English West Country tones are thoroughly unusual for any game character other than ‘fantasy yokel’ – Morris’ voice is your vehicle through I Am Dead’s short story, a narrator who basically knows as much as you do at any given time. He’s charmingly useless enough as to become an absolute delight, floating through the plot on a cloud of good vibes and light befuddlement, without ever really knowing what’s going on.
In a way, Morris is a bizarre reflection of decades of video gaming’s amnesiac antiheroes – he too is on a quest to find out what’s really going on around here, possibly even to save the world (or at least a piece of it). Except, instead of some spurious revenge motive, he’s doing it because he was a curious old museum owner who’s quite surprised to find out there’s an afterlife, and his dead dog is now telling him to do stuff.
And Morris is I Am Dead in microcosm – a game as fluffy and warm as its hero’s jumpers (British parlance very much intended), and just as interested in aimlessly wandering as it is actually getting to the business end of its story. But, again like Morris, there’s also a layer of deep intelligence just under its warm exterior.
I Am Dead Screenshots
Core to I Am Dead is the idea of ‘slicing’. Morris, having died offscreen, reappears on his fictional North Atlantic island home of Shelmerston as an invisible ghost. In short order, his spectral dog, Sparky, tells him that the island’s dormant volcano is about to erupt, and he needs to convince a fellow ghost to become the island’s spirit and hold back the disaster – he just needs to track them down first. He might be unable to interact directly with the world, but Morris can now examine anything on it in minute, normally impossible detail. Slicing is the representation of that detail – you can zoom into locations, then zoom into items in those locations, and then zoom physically inside those items. Think of it as those moments in L.A. Noire where you pivot an item around in your hand looking for clues, except now Detective Phelps can plunge his eyes directly through the molecular structure of those objects.
Travelling across multiple brightly-coloured areas of the island in turn – from a lighthouse-turned-yoga-retreat to the ragtag group of vessels that fills its harbour – you’ll be able to slice through hundreds of individual items. Some are inconsequential, but gorgeous: dull rocks reveal beautiful internal crystalline patterns, a ship’s computer shows off intricate circuitry, a toilet cistern contains a stowaway lobster. Others feel more redolent of stories to be told: a pocket holds a keepsake from a long-lost friend, a bush with a shovel stuck in it might hide secrets beneath ground level, a person’s mind reveals their memories. Slicing becomes the core of practically every interaction you have with I Am Dead’s world, and it’s a deeply enjoyable one, offering a feeling of constantly being on the verge of finding another secret.
Primarily, that mechanic is translated into a treasure hunt. In each stage, you’re given a (very dead) individual to learn about. You do that by finding still-living Shelmerston residents who knew them, and peering through their memories to learn of objects that may have been significant to them in the past – a veteran’s war medal, an old coin – then tracking those items down in the present day. Some of them will be exactly where you’re told they were, and others may have moved in the intervening years, requiring a combination of light deduction and ghost-magic to find. Track down five of those objects and you’ll be able to summon and speak to your fellow phantom. That complete, you’ll move onto the next, as Morris surveys the island’s deceased population for a suitable candidate, and finds out more about Shelmerston’s history in the process. It leads you through a truly lovely story, warm-hearted but rarely twee, and with more than a little to say about death, love, and the meaning of home.
It’s all very elegant, and also extremely easy. Those with memories of the dead are clearly marked, and there’s no puzzle involved in working out what the items you need are. Each set of memories is a narrative told in what amounts to a series of comic book panels, that need to be unscrambled by simply holding the right arrow key until the picture becomes clear. The item in question is always highlighted to show you what’s next on the list. Once that’s through, the treasure hunt itself always takes place in the small area immediately surrounding the person whose memory you’ve witnessed, meaning there’s very limited scope for where the items might be hidden.
I can’t pretend that, by I Am Dead’s latter stages, I wasn’t yearning for a little more from all of this – whether that was a more riddle-like set of memories, or a multi-stage quest that sent me discovering multiple items to lead me to the last one. In a game world littered with not just explorable spaces, but explorable items, it feels slightly strange to not be asked to, you know, explore very much to pass through it.
This isn’t to say I Am Dead doesn’t offer challenges beyond the core story, however. The second objective of any area is to track down Grenkins – island spirits that are released by finding an object that, when sliced through at a certain angle, matches a given pattern. It’s a little difficult to explain without a visual aid, so here’s a gif to show you what I mean:
Grenkins offer a little more interaction with that core slicing mechanic – and with dozens to find throughout Shelmerston they’re certainly more numerous than the core story puzzles – but they’re still tied to a small, explicitly marked location, and can often be solved by accident. More than once, I sliced through an object just to check it out and accidentally solved a Grenkin puzzle along the way. But there is one more challenge up I Am Dead’s intangible sleeves, and his name is Mr. Whitstable.
Mr. Whitstable is a cackling, Scottish goat-clown who appears when you find specific posters in each area. Those posters are covered in what Mr. Whitstable repeatedly calls riddles, but are probably closer to cryptic clues, each one slyly indicating an item hidden in the wider world. They’re undoubtedly the toughest game element I Am Dead offers, each one asking you to find (sometimes deeply) camouflaged items somewhere in the entire level you’re in, within a short time limit. They made up by far the most enjoyably tricky aspect of I Am Dead for me, but are definitively a side-quest, rewarded with very little more than a few scant voice lines and, admittedly, an enjoyably strange final payoff.
The separation of the core story and those tougher challenges feels like something of a compromise from developer Hollow Ponds to me, an attempt to offer both an easygoing narrative and something for those who want to be tested, when both sides could perhaps be made more satisfying by combining them. But, to be fair, there is more here than a simple start-to-end tale and the mechanics that power it along.
I Am Dead’s creators, Richard Hogg and Ricky Haggett previously helped birth Hohokum, the PlayStation exclusive about… well, it’s hard to say what Hohokum is about per se, but it definitely involved being a sort of cosmic spermatozoa that helped people in abstract landscapes. I Am Dead is more traditionally ‘game-y’ than Hohokum – it has a set storyline, a traditional world map, well-defined objectives, and clearly explained mechanics – but it shares a pleasure in relaxed, aimless exploration.
For every player yearning for a touch more challenge, there will be another who’s happy simply to float through the sea-sprayed shops of Shelmerston Harbour, peeking inside their less-travelled corners simply to see if the shopkeeper’s hiding booze in their cupboards, or if there’s anything tucked in the pile of rubbish out back. There are surprises everywhere, helped along by a light surreality that sees the extremely British setting sharing space with a race of talking fishpeople, a famous artist with an apple for a head, and a recurring subplot about bootlegging whisky. Look around enough and you’ll realise that there are other stories appearing alongside the one you’re helping Morris unravel, told across the scenes you explore along the way. Like the slicing mechanic itself, the deeper you look, the more interesting I Am Dead tends to become.
You’ll probably know already if this more freeform kind of experience will appeal to you. Some will rush through the four-hour story and feel hard done by. For myself, I loved the feeling of being rewarded with extra knowledge, backstory, and good old-fashioned jokes simply for being curious. That doesn’t mean I stopped wishing for more of the traditional game at the heart of I Am Dead, but being offered a competing interest made that far less of a problem.