If there’s one thing that’s always interested me, it’s depictions of death that aren’t focused on the macabre. Conversations that aren’t consumed by the grief and finality of death. I Am Dead is just that.
With a gentle soundtrack and soothing, but poppy, backgrounds, it’s a game about death that never forces sadness or presents death as misfortune. It’s about the items that tied us to the world. The memories that don’t fade once we’ve died.
I Am Dead introduces its premise through Morris Lupton, the recently-dead museum curator for the quaint beach town you explore throughout the game. Over the course of his life, Morris dedicated his time to collecting and preserving artifacts from the town’s history and the residents themselves. There’s something almost romantic about the ways in which Morris’ museum places equal importance on historical artifacts and seemingly simple everyday items that kept the town alive. I Am Dead is essentially a puzzle game, but it doesn’t necessarily feel as though finding items and moving on is the point.
Finding the kind of everyday items that would be seen in Morris’s museum is the main gameplay mechanic in the game. As a new ghost, Morris doesn’t have the power to become a Custodian (or guardian of the island), but he can find one and it’s of the utmost importance. The island he loves so much and spent his life memorializing is close to natural disaster if a new custodian isn’t found. This quest becomes the driving force behind the game. Morris and the ghost of his dog Sparky travel to find other ghosts on the island that are Custodian candidates.
By going to areas the ghosts frequented while they were living, you can go into memories of people who knew them. Sometimes the connections are deep, and sometimes it’s a memory left after the briefest encounter. Eventually, the memory will reveal an item – a thing that sort of tethers the dead person, not to the world, but to the lives of others. It’s what they’re remembered by and it’s what you have to find in order to find and talk to the ghost. Finding these items ranged from easy and fun to a bit of a chore. Splicing through the work with Morris’s x-ray vision, sometimes an object was simply under a table or maybe you had to find a toaster hidden in the lining of a chair. It was the repetitiveness of each search mission that left me feeling somewhat drained. Luckily, Morris is a gentle soul and each ghost he talks to is full of personality with a robust life.
Where it really shines is in the sentimentality that’s woven throughout each “quest” Morris takes on. Moving through the areas that are important to the other ghosts and going into the memories of the people that knew them was such a joy. Narration was unique to each character, and seeing the many ways one person can affect the people in their lives and the ways they are perceived felt real. Not every person left a good impression on the people they met, but I still had a clear idea of who each person was and what they stood for. The writing for these memories felt lived-in and cared for. It was honest.
Playing through I Am Dead was a gentle experience. Controls are a little off at times, but the x-ray mechanic is fun and I found myself peering into objects just to see what they would look like. It brought out that childlike curiosity I felt the first time I looked into a microscope. I generally dislike calling things quirky, but there was something whimsical about the flat, abstract shapes in each area’s background and the mishmash set of characters.
Overall, this is an easy game to consume, although I found it best to play in short sessions, and it tackles death in a way I wasn’t expecting. I Am Dead is a lighthearted look at the transitional space we all occupy at some point in our lives (and afterlives). It lets us know that there’s always going to be a moment where we question our importance, what we’ll leave when we move on from something, and how those around us will choose to remember us. Even in his death, Morris struggled with acknowledging his importance. I thought I was going to get a deep rumination on what it meant to be dead, what constituted as living or even the regret that comes with not being in a world but still seeing how you’ve affected it. All those things can exist in I Am Dead if you want them to, but really it’s a game about memories and finding yourself even after death.
I Am Dead is available now on the Nintendo Switch and Steam.