An eclectic blend of puzzle game and visual novel that is a delight to play.
The way that I Am Dead—the new game from the creator of Wilmot’s Warehouse—combines two different styles of games into one makes it a joy to experience. At its core, this is a charming visual novel, but it also has the designs of an experimental puzzle game. You play as Morris Lupton, a recently deceased museum curator on the island of Shelmerston. Along with his late dog Sparky, he has to journey to different parts of the island to talk with other ghosts about the impending volcanic doom that might befall the area. While I can appreciate a good heartwarming story, if this was just a cut-and-dry visual novel, it wouldn’t have worked for me.
The secret sauce in I Am Dead is how you interact with the world. As a ghost, Morris has a sort of x-ray vision. This translates into the game as you go from room to room with the ability to select an object and zoom in on it in a way that lets you see inside of it. For example, you can point and click your way to a house, then focus on the kitchen, then hone in on a cup of juice, and then zoom in so you can see the interior of the cup and find out that inside of the juice is actually a rare penny or something. The depth of how many objects you can play with in this manner is frankly absurd. The level of detail makes the quaint village a blast to explore because even aside from the main story, there’s so many little details to discover.
Each region of the island you go to, whether it’s a lighthouse, a campsite, or a main street, is focused on figuring out how to contact one specific ghost. This is done by seeking out five people who have stories to tell about the individual. When you find one of them—it could be a human, a bird, or a slightly off-putting fish person—you then listen to a memory they had with the deceased. This and all of the dialogue is expertly voiced with great heart and personality. The way you engage with these memories is artistic in its own right even if it’s not difficult to do. You “zoom” in on their memory the same way you do with an object, but in this case, you have to linger on distinct images for a little bit to trigger the next part of their story. This dialogue easily could have just been spoken with no interaction, but the little bit of engagement there just brings this great holistic feel to the entire game.
After hearing the memories, you have to find objects related to them in the world. The memories themselves can offer hints, like when a bird talks of stealing a Rubik’s Cube for its nest so you know to look for the cube in a bird’s nest. Some objects are laughably easy to find while others are more tricky. In my estimation, a lot of these aren’t meant to be a challenge; it’s all about the experience of hearing the stories and interacting with this vibrant world. Finding all five objects in an area then kicks off the most action-packed part of I Am Dead, where you control Sparky the dog and float around the area trying to find ghostly wisps so you can complete whatever ritual you have to do to contact the ghost. These parts are probably the low point, but I appreciate the bit of gameplay variety. It’s more that, unlike the other interactions, these don’t have the same whimsical consistency of the memories and overall exploration and their focus on the novel zooming-in-to-objects mechanic. Finding all the wisps leads to Morris and Sparky talking to the ghost and furthering the story. Rinse and repeat a few times, and that’s I Am Dead.
Optional Grenkins are hidden throughout every area. These bizarre little cartoon gremlins can be found by looking at a hint image and figuring out what object zoomed in at a particular angle represents the image. Some of the hints are vague and devious, but brute forcing your way to a solution is possible. You’re told when you engage with the right object and well-tuned HD rumble teases you when you’re close to the right answer. Additionally, when you get very close to correct, the whole thing starts to automatically click into place. Finding Grenkins still isn’t a breeze, but at worst, it’s a gentle challenge.
That sums up the puzzle difficulty of I Am Dead. It’s all mostly a light challenge. In addition to the Grenkins, there are some optional riddles, but regardless, the flow of gameplay here is a pleasant ride. The story, while well written, is relatively predictable, but that isn’t the point. The point is the joy is found in interacting with the world and seeing how different objects are shown off, displayed, and hidden. This is a quirky, slice-of-life narrative with endearing design.
I loved my time with I Am Dead so much I wish there was a little bit more of it. Hanging with Morris and Sparky is a chill, relaxing time, even if there’s an undercurrent of the sad afterlife coursing through the world. It might be that juxtaposition between the reality of death mixed with the playfulness of the world that makes I Am Dead so memorable and fun.