I Am Dead review
If you think playing a game themed around dying doesn’t sound like an appealing idea in 2020, I don’t blame you—but I Am Dead is a wonderful example of an adventure that treats the concept of death with intelligence, honesty, and compassion. Rather than addressing mortality as something to be feared, this indie title focuses on celebrating existence, finding peace with the life you’ve led, and understanding the ways a person’s memory can live on in those they’ve touched. While the simple gameplay is not quite as fresh and exciting as the story and beautiful audio-visual presentation, I Am Dead is a game about death that is more likely to make you smile than cry—though it’ll do some of that, too.
I Am Dead opens with you, Morris Lupton, walking along a beautiful beach on the island of Shelmerston, enjoying the sunny day and the sound of crashing waves. The island’s volcano has been smoking lately, you note, an odd thing for one that is supposed to be dormant. At the end of your path, you reach a bench dedicated to you and your work as the island’s museum curator. It is then that the realization slowly dawns on you: you are dead.
This knowledge isn’t met with fear, but rather a sense of surprise and calm acceptance. You hardly have time to process it before you appear in your old museum near a small table containing some personal items—one of which is an urn containing the ashes of your dog Sparky. Looking inside the urn (a core mechanic I’ll discuss shortly), you find her dog tag. Suddenly, Sparky’s ghost rises from the urn with an urgent warning: the volcano will erupt soon unless the Island Spirit is soothed, a job normally left to the Custodian, a ghost whose sole duty is to preserve the peace on Shelmerston. Unfortunately, the current Custodian is weakened, and it’s up to you to select a new candidate to take on the important job.
It can’t be you (spectral code requires the ghost to have been dead on the island for at least a thousand days), but Sparky already has some options in mind, which you'll pursue one at a time, each of them located in a certain self-contained part of the island. To summon these spirits and ask if they will take on the role, you must find mementos that were special to them in their lifetimes. As for knowing what those mementos are, you will need to take a look into the memories of those who loved them.
Certain characters will have a thought bubble floating above their heads, which indicates that they have a memory you can interact with, depicted as a series of still images that you will need to adjust until they come into focus. This slideshow is accompanied by narration from the person whose memory you’re watching, sharing a story about a potential Custodian. This isn’t a puzzle, really, just timing as you hold down the mouse button until a blurry swirl forms an image, after which you can move to the next image and hear the next part of the memory in a storybook-esque fashion. It’s here that you’ll learn which objects are important, alerting you to the need to go look for them elsewhere, many of them hidden inside other things.
As a ghost you are unable to manipulate worldly objects, but you have the ability to “slice,” which means looking right through various items to see what they contain—a sort of supernatural X-ray vision. You’ll zoom in and rotate objects to see what secrets they may be hiding, all done by dragging the mouse on the item or using a controller’s joystick. You’ll be seeking specific objects; everything else you find is just a sort of window dressing, giving you some insight into an individual’s personality.
The bulk of the gameplay consists of such memory exploration and slicing, and if I were to pinpoint one weakness in I Am Dead, it would be this gameplay loop. It can be slightly tedious and just isn’t all that interesting in general, but this isn’t a game focused on mechanics.
Instead, I Am Dead wants to tell you a story—or, more accurately, a number of stories that make up each of the ghosts’ lives. You’ll meet Pete, host of the island’s yoga retreat, and slowly watch as the memories of those he met reveal the kindness beneath his hardened exterior. Then you’ll be introduced to Valerie, the daughter of a much-beloved painter and creator of the island’s artist commune, and see her grow up by exploring the memories of those who knew her. These are just the first two people you’ll encounter in the game, but each of the individuals—six in total—whose lives you’ll explore are interesting and full of personality.
The charming characters are brought to life by the excellent voice acting. I was impressed by how well-cast I Am Dead is, with each actor bringing warmth, humor, and poignancy to their roles. While we only spend a short amount of time with most of them, the performances help to create distinctive personalities that leave their mark. I particularly enjoyed the voices of our two protagonists, Morris and Sparky—there is a terrific sense of chemistry and personal history that comes through when they interact with each other, and their actors deserve much of the credit for making them instantly likeable and charming.
Complementing the lovely cartoony visuals is a beautiful background score made up of woodwinds, piano, acoustic guitar, strings, and other instruments playing lilting melodies as you explore. The music in I Am Dead is, as with most things in this game, gentle and enjoyable. Sound effects are well-employed too, and the audio-visual presentation as a whole is terrific.
The artwork uses a combination of stylized 2D illustrations for character portraits during dialogue and for the memories you explore, and cel-shaded 3D graphics for everything else. Both forms are playful and fun to look at, like a picture book come to life, and they suit the game’s relaxed, lighthearted tone very well. The environments are colorful, with entertaining details if you take the time to poke around. I had fun investigating a yoga retreat inside the old lighthouse, whose plant room is now cared for by a possibly sentient robot, as well as seeing what the toast store (operated and frequented almost entirely by fishfolk) was serving, and snooping through what people kept in their homes, enjoying the silly, oftentimes pun-filled descriptions of various objects or even characters when you highlight them.
The local inhabitants have their own routines that they go about while you explore the island, and all of their animations are smooth and enjoyable to watch. The character designs themselves are wonderfully whimsical and sometimes surreal, such as the sentient bird-people and those with fruit for heads, among other odd designs that exist on this island without any special mention.
As an additional challenge when wandering around, Sparky will sometimes bark to notify you of the presence of a Grenkin, a tiny spirit distantly related to the larger Island Spirit. When a Grenkin is nearby, you’ll see a silhouette of where it’s hiding in the bottom right of the screen. Your job will then be to find the object containing that silhouette—usually by zooming, rotating, and slicing various items around the environment. There’s no reward for finding all of the Grenkins; they are simply fun collectibles to gather as you play.
One other gameplay “extra” is the occasional appearance of Mr. Whitstable, a silly character that will pop up and give you riddles to solve. As with the Grenkins, the only reward you get for solving these riddles (which also asks you to slice objects you think might fit the riddle) is satisfaction, but they can serve as an additional bit of fun as you progress through the story.
The main narrative took me about four hours to complete, and by the time the credits rolled I felt very satisfied with the journey. That a game centered around death could be so warm, uplifting, and sweet is unexpected, but I Am Dead is a truly pleasant surprise. The focus on kindness, empathy, and the way that people live on in the memories of others feels especially necessary at this point in time, but there’s never a bad time for an experience as wise and moving as this one. It’s a bit of a shame that the gameplay itself can be dull at times, but it’s wrapped up in such a terrific journey that I Am Dead is well worth your time.