Contrary to what its morose title might suggest, I Am Dead is a genuinely touching and pleasant puzzle game that has you uncovering the history of the small port village of Shelmerston in an effort to secure its future.
In I Am Dead you take on the role of Morris Lupton, a recently deceased citizen of the village of Shelmerston. In his life, Morris was the curator of the Shelmerston Museum, a role that he took great pride in as a lover of his hometown. In death however, Morris teams up with the ghost of his dog Sparky to uncover the true nature of why the dormant volcano that the village is perched around has begun to rumble for the first time in centuries.
Shelmerston has long been kept safe from a fiery demise thanks to a spirit who sacrificed going to heaven in order to watch over the village, taking on the role of the Custodian of Shelmerston. Aggi, the Custodian in question, had her remains dug up and put in the museum by none other than Morris himself, which is what seems to have caused her power to wain. So Morris and Sparky set out on a journey to find a new spirit to take up the mantle and keep the village safe for years to come.
You do this by diving into the memories of people who came in contact with a potential replacement Custodian, learning about who they were and what their impact was on the town. One of the first spirits that you’ll investigate is the daughter of a prominent artist in the village who had no interest in following in her father’s creative footprints.
You’re then presented with this tableau of an outdoor art installation filled with various tourists and artists. You’ll eventually come across someone with a thought bubble above their head which signifies that they’ve got a story about this potential new Custodian. Upon entering their mind, they’ll begin to narrate a story about their encounter with whomever you’re investigating at the time. You’ll also play this not-so-great mini-game where you drag your mouse up and down until you make a blurry image that encapsulates their narration into a clear one. The story being told, while very interesting and enjoyable, is in service of revealing an object that held meaning to the potential Custodian.
This is where the “puzzle” aspect of I Am Dead comes into play. You’re never really solving anything when it comes to the main plot-line of the game, instead you’re trying to locate the object that was discussed in the memories you invade. It seems simple at first, but the way you go about finding these objects is pretty fun, but might be better explained through example.
One of the objects on my list was a Frisbee with some stars on it that was confiscated by a real uppity campground manager. In each level, there are these smaller inspection areas where you can focus on individual objects and structures. In this example, the manager’s RV was one of these inspection zones that I could zoom into and peel back the layers of. As you zoom into the RV the walls melt away to uncover a messy interior littered with various flotsam and jetsam to look at. You can click on cupboards, bottles, coolers, toys, plants and much more to see what’s inside of them by zooming in. Eventually I zoomed in on a chair that had a storage space underneath it and found the Frisbee, crossing it off the list of items in the level I needed to discover.
The idea behind finding these objects is to awaken the spirit of said influential person that once inhabited the island in order to ask them to take on the mantle of the new Custodian. And that’s kind of the core loop of I Am Dead. There are other challenges in every level that you can accomplish that fall into two categories.
The first comes in the form of these tiny little spirits called Grenkins. Unlike the plot relevant objects you need to find in I Am Dead, the Grenkins are tougher to find and even tougher to collect when you do find them. Whenever you click on a tableau with a Grenkin hidden in it, Sparky will bark a bit and show you an icon that most of time, looks like nothing. In reality, what you’re being shown is the cross-section of an object that is at a particular angle and level of zoom. Luckily the game gives you an indication if the object you’re highlighting has a Grenkin in it, but finding the correct angle can sometimes take longer than any other objective on the island.
The other challenge comes in the form of riddles. Some bizarre spirit will list off some objects that are pretty well hidden and provide you a riddle to their location. I found these to be the hardest challenges in the game, because they’re phrased fairly vaguely and usually point to objects hidden inside of other objects. An example that sticks out to me was a clue that alluded to a steeped art supply, which turned out to be an eraser that was dropped into a cup of tea. You’d never even find it unless you were inspecting this one particular cup of tea very closely for some reason. That, or you’re really good at riddles.
To me, the story of Shelmerston, its history and inhabitants were the real star of the show. Learning about the village and the stalwarts who lived in it very quickly out-shined the hidden-object part of the game. The characters are all pretty interesting and seeing the impact they had on the lives of those around them was delightful and quite frankly, heartwarming. I also thought that I Am Dead ended very strongly, delivering on the emotional weight that had been built up over the five hours or so it took me to complete it.
I Am Dead is a great story wrapped up in a low impact game that touches on so many aspects of coming to grips with mortality in a surprisingly hopeful way. It’s funny that a game that’s quite literally about death and being dead can be such a pleasant experience, but I think that was the point. If you’re looking for something lightweight and cheerful, oddly enough, you should check out I Am Dead.