I Am Dead

Developed by: Hollow Ponds

Published by: Annapurna Interactive

Available on: PC and Switch

In the early twentieth century, Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky pioneered a wonderful concept in literary theory. In English it is translated as defamiliarization. The idea is simple: art works to re-enchant things that everyday life has made overly familiar. Thus, a painting of a worn pair of shoes, if executed well enough, might evoke a feeling that our scruffy shoes left by the door never do. The video game “I Am Dead” tries to achieve something similar by tasking players with looking through everyday objects to find traces of emotional resonance.

At the start of the game we are introduced to Morris Lupton, a mild-mannered fellow — bespectacled, bearded and mostly bald — who is adjusting to his new life as a ghost. When he was alive Morris was the curator of the local museum on the small fictional island of Shelmerston situated in the North Atlantic. Soon after an early morning walk along the beach and a quick stop at his old workplace to savor its ambiance, Morris is reunited with the ghost of his old dog Sparky who, to his great delight, can talk. She is pleased to see her old owner, but impresses upon him the need not to dither around catching up because the island’s long quiet volcano will erupt unless Morris can find a new custodial spirit to placate the area’s tumultuous energy. Apparently, the strength of the present custodian is wavering.

Morris immediately offers to take on the role of the island’s custodian until Sparky informs him that, according to “ghost code 3-42b,” a ghost can only assume the role of the custodian if it has been dead 1000 days. Therefore, it is incumbent on Morris to try to persuade one of five potential prospects to forgo journeying to “the West”-- presumably a more settled part of the afterlife — to assume the role of the custodian, an entity who merges its form with the island.

To assist Morris in his endeavor, players must travel to different locations on the island and attempt to enlist the various prospects by locating five different objects (for each prospect) that were dear to them in life. As Morris passes through each area, he sees a small number of people mixed in among the general populace with thought bubbles above their heads. With the press of a button Morris can enter their heads and gaze at pictorial representations of their thoughts which slosh around like liquid. By pressing the triggers of a control pad, players can coax thoughts into coherence, transforming the liquid muddle into a stable picture that prompts the subject to recall something about the deceased. After listening to their recollections, it’s up to Morris to find the signature item in each of the cogitators’ memories — e.g., a small Buddha statue, the nose from a sculpture, a foreign coin, etc. — by scrutinizing the neighboring area in a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” fashion. Often, the objects Morris needs to find will be nestled in something else such as an animal burrow.

Objects can be closely inspected and manipulated, rotated around or peered into, X-ray style. In addition to looking for the items that will allow Morris to commune with the prospects, players can also search for things that will reveal “grenkins,” little wide-eyed spirits who are “distant relations of the island spirit.” A small pattern will appear in the corner of the screen indicating an object is nearby that contains a grenkin. From there, you need to find that specific vessel and fuss with it just-so until it matches up with the pattern.

Its supernatural trappings notwithstanding, “I Am Dead” is a celebration of daily life. I’ve enjoyed each of the stories about the prospects I’ve encountered thus far: A taciturn yoga instructor who, in life, suffered from survivor's guilt; The rebellious daughter of an artist who bristled at her old man’s example; A multitalented man whose easygoing charm endeared him to those around him. There is a quaintness to their stories that aligns well with the game’s focus on the simple action of turning over mundane objects to reveal mild surprises.

I would not recommend rushing through “I Am Dead” since, if you get stuck, it can be frustrating (and, for me, headache-inducing) to comb over areas at length searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The fact that there isn’t much variety to the game’s music certainly doesn’t help. Dipping in and out of this humble puzzler is the way to go since it can otherwise be easy to lose sight of the charms of a fairly ordinary environment.

Note: I initially tried to play “I Am Dead” on an Alienware computer with a Nvidia RTX 2080 graphics card and was unable to get past the initial load screen following the start menu. I experienced no issues with the Nintendo Switch version of the game.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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