What happens when you die? It’s a bit of an existential question for the start of a review, but we raise it because I Am Dead has an unusual answer. It suggests that you become an invisible Peeping Tom, capable of pushing your head through walls and observing the innards of things. It’s not quite eternal peace and pearly gates, but we’ll take it.
For reasons of propriety or otherwise, you can’t see through clothes or bodies, but you DO get free rein to stick your ectoplasmic head into lockers, tupperware, toilets and toolboxes. Better still, you can view everything as a cross-section, converting the world into a copy of ‘How Things Work’. If you’ve ever wondered what the inner workings of a pool table looks like, then I Am Dead has your back.
It makes for a cracking hidden object game. Scanning the world for items is taken to a whole new level when you can push your head through walls. Indie super-producer Annapurna Interactive realise the simple joy in the concept, and have made it the basis of I Am Dead.
You play Morris Lupton, museum curator and newly deceased. You’re not distressed about your death, which is refreshing: you’re serenely walking down the beach and absorbing it all. But then the ghost of your old dog, Sparky, turns up, ruining the moment by suggesting that the volcano on your island is about to erupt, and the only way to halt it is to convince one of the island’s ghosts to become its ‘Custodian’. While the title of Custodian sounds grand and impressive, it means that the ghost would be tied to the island forever, never able to travel to The West, a non-denominational paradise. Yep, sucks to be the Custodian.
So, you’re travelling to the homes of dead peeps to convince them to be locked to the island forevermore. This is where I Am Dead’s gameplay kicks in, as the ghosts aren’t just wandering about, possessing townsfolk or stomping around as giant marshmallow-people. The spirits are in pieces, and you need to reclaim those pieces by first finding people who remember the deceased. You explore the living’s memories of the dead, which solidifies into a memento which can be found in the environment. It might be a token of love, or something once lost. Once you’ve found five or six of these mementos, then the ghost can be made whole again.
Finding people who remember the departed isn’t the difficult part. They’ve got thought bubbles drifting from their heads so are easy to spot. The next step isn’t too challenging either: their memories are distorted, so you use the LT and RT buttons to do a kind of visual safecracking, as you turn a dial to create a clear picture. These sections have got some small wrinkles, as you can actually create perfect pictures without them being the solution, but generally this is a gentle piece of gameplay that doesn’t take more than a few seconds.
It’s the text stories they reveal, stacking up with each turn of the dial, that are perhaps the strongest part of I Am Dead. They remind a little of Lost Odyssey’s vignettes: emotional gut-punches that build up a fantastic portrait of the dead characters. There’s the misunderstood Greg Litherland, who has a tragic moment with an owl, and a musician called Ogden Breckett who leaves his childhood sweetheart over a misunderstanding. They’re fantastically wrought, varied and create a cast of characters that feel real, even though you barely meet them.
With that bit done, you’re on the hunt for a memento from the story, which means doing the Peeping Tom thing. You are ’locking in’ a piece of environment, like it’s a ship in a bottle (a sequence focuses on a ship in a bottle, so Annapurna Interactive are well aware of the comparison), and you’re turning it in your hands, finding the right angles to swoop in and dissect. Eventually, you will find the memento – a cricket ball, a coin – and it’s onto the next memory.
This kind of snooping feels great. I Am Dead loves to drop in details as rewards for being exhaustive. You might find a hidden key in someone’s shoe heel, for example, or alcohol stashed away where it shouldn’t be. The details give little character insights. I Am Dead’s message is that our belongings tell stories about us, that we’ve changed the world even though we’ve left it, and the message is a reassuring one.
To offer more things to find in these dioramas, I Am Dead serves up several completely optional tasks. There are grenkins, little gobliny things that remind of Breath of the Wild’s kuroks, which can be found if you make a very particular shape with a cross-section. These can be pretty challenging, actually, but I Am Dead assists you by rumbling the controller when you’re viewing the right item, and offering a kind of auto-aim, which nudges you to the solution if you’re close.
A sock-puppet thing called Mr Whitstable also turns up occasionally with a list of riddles (alongside a terrible circus-y jingle that gnashes our bones). These have clues like “A Hidden Diamond”, which will refer to some stashed cards under a hat in a game of poker, for example. The achievements reward you for finding all the toy wrestlers in a level, or all the cats. They’re like the list of extra items to find at the back of a Where’s Wally? book, and they’re welcome.
Even with them, I Am Dead occasionally feels sparse and repetitious. It’s hard to imagine how Annapurna might have solved it, but there’s only so many suitcases, thermos flasks and lunchboxes that you can be bothered to slice through. The objects repeat, and ninety percent of them have nothing of value – no revealing detail, no collectible. You could ignore them all, of course, but then you’d be skipping the collectible hunting and that’s, well, the whole game really. I Am Dead can’t find a solution for the second half of the game, where fatigue absolutely starts setting in.
Once all the memorabilia has been found, you get the option to end the level by sending Sparky off to gather the fragments of the dead person’s soul. This is a bit of non-gameplay, really, and not a patch on what came before. You’re drifting around as Sparky on a 2D track, barking at ghostly blobs when you come near them. There’s no real interest in it, and it passes you by.
Then you’re chatting to the ghosts about becoming the Custodian, and I Am Dead’s second flaw rears its head, but it’s nowhere as big as the first. The main characters, Morris and Sparky, are nothing-characters, really. Morris’s defining characteristics are that he is nice, and – well – that’s it. He’s only got good things to say about everyone and everything, and it’s one-note. Perhaps we’re jaded and cynical, but if there was something genuine and interesting about him, then the ending would have hit a little harder than it did.
But it’s far from enough to overturn I Am Dead’s little boat. This is a serene, laid-back little trip, and there’s no time limits, no pressure as you search the town of Shelmerston at your own pace and find – eventually – the Custodian. We would have loved a replay feature with the ability to skip to previous levels, but otherwise I Am Dead delivers an experience that – like Donut County, for example – manages to be artful and interesting for adults, and a fun toy to tinker with for younger players. It’s as universal as they come.
I Am Dead may falter and become tiresome in places, but it has a huge heart. It’s impossible not to be affected by its stories. It’s the people of Shelmerston who stick with you, far longer than the dissecting and zooming, and there’s a heartening message at its core: when you pass, the world will be immeasurably changed.
You can buy I Am Dead for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S