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Annapurna Interactive's publishing portfolio is impressive, indeed. From What Remains of Edith Finch to Outer Wilds, via Telling Lies and Florence, the company has a host of award-winning and critically acclaimed titles to its name - and I Am Dead, from Loot Rascals makers Hollow Ponds and Hohokum artist Richard Hogg, absolutely feels at home in such impressive company. It's a game quite unlike anything else you'll play in 2020, with a warm-hearted but bittersweet story at the core of some smartly simple puzzle mechanics.
Unlike many video games, where the aim is to avoid death, I Am Dead begins with its protagonist already in the afterlife. As Morris Lupton, former curator of a tiny museum on the barely-any-bigger island of Shelmerston (fictional, but geographically a short ferry ride from the Isles of Scilly, going further away from mainland Britain, from what's suggested), the player is charged with saving this delightfully picture-postcard speck in the North Atlantic from a disastrous fate.
You see, the island's assumed-dormant volcano is rumbling, and that's not a good thing. And so begins a frantic search (well, it's actually very leisurely, in practice) for a new so-called Custodian spirit to commune with the island and its beneath-the-surface bubbliness, and prevent Shelmerston from becoming a tragic molten mess. To do this, Morris teams up with his equally ghostly dog, Sparky, and the pair move between locations - from a yoga retreat lighthouse to the museum itself, taking in a cute harbourside town and an acquired-taste sculpture park along the way - in pursuit of another ghost to assume the position of Custodian. And thankfully, Shelmerston has a few options when it comes to deceased sorts who might suit the role.
In order to communicate with these other spirits, the player - as both Morris initially, and then Sparky - must seek out memories of the passed-on character, which necessitates finding very-much-alive people who remember them, and literally swimming around in their brains for a bit.
From a grouchy campsite owner, who's actually very sweet when you get to know him, to a member of the fishfolk who's a mean karaoke singer (not every character is actually a human, here), Morris slowly reveals enough details to reform the ex-person in question. And it's not just the sloshing back and forth in the gooey grey matter that achieves this: memories-imprinted objects must be found, and this is where I Am Dead's most interesting mechanic comes into play.
As a ghost, Morris can kind of slice into items around Shelmerston - not in the sense that he parts them in two, or more, but he can peer inside of them. So if you come across a flask of tea, you can see through to the brew inside. Shops in town can have their facades stripped away to get at the goods within; and cupboards and filing cabinets don't need unlocking when you can just stick your ghostly face into them.
Sometimes the objects you need to proceed are easily found by following the stories from the unlocked memories; but you'll have to really rummage around to uncover a few of them, peeking deeper and deeper, through several layers, to get to the treasure. Confiscated goods? Don't expect to find those just sitting around on a tabletop.
The main game's story - a heart-warmer with a bittersweet aftertaste, about what we can and can't take with us when we go, and how we're remembered by those we've touched in our lives - is completed through a pretty simple formula, with only slight deviations as you near the end. Morris and Sparky travel to a new part of the island to find a spirit. They reassemble the spirit by hearing a number of memories and then locating the items references in them, with Sparky rounding up, I guess, pieces of the ghost in question. They then speak with this spirit - and then it's on to the next.
It's a pleasant process, and there's initially a lot of fun to be had looking into any and all objects you're allowed to interact with (there's no peeping inside clothes, you naughty peeper, you); but when it comes to the gameplay side of I Am Dead, what you see in the first ten minutes is largely the same as what you'll do in the final ten. The game's got a loop, and it knows how to use it.
Thankfully, the story is a compelling one that becomes more interesting the more characters become a part of it, and the game's relatively brisk run time - you can finish it in an afternoon, or across a week of instead-of-a-bedtime-book play, as I did - ensures that all of Morris's slicing and dicing never gets old. There's a strange satisfaction to zooming in and out of a jar of eggs, or six-pack of beer, or a shop counter full of pick-and-mix sweets, just because you can. Most of what you'll play around with, turning over and peering into, is just there because it's what you'd find at a harbour, or on a boat, or inside a backpack, or at a museum. It has no purpose other than to be playful.
But every now and then, there's more - optional, against-the-clock pressure that Morris never actually experiences in his main-story efforts to sooth Shelmerston's volcano. You can find challenges on the island, where another spirit - the goat-like and always-laughing Mr Whitstable, a more mischievous ghost than either Morris or Sparky - will give you a clue to an object in the vicinity and then you must find it in a limited amount of time. You don't need to accept his challenges, but they're there, if you want them.
So too are a vast number of tiny Grenkins. These goofily bulbous creatures could have stepped straight off the Hohokum screen, and they are found by matching sliced objects against a silhouette that's barked into existence by Sparky. Line up the pattern correctly and out pops a Grenkin. Again, you don't need to do it, to find even one Grenkin, but each part of the island hides several of these critters, should you be a completist player who just needs to catch 'em all.
At a time where a 'Britain divided', in the near-future and distant past respectively, is the setting of at least two new AAA games - namely Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin's Creed Valhalla - it's refreshing and comforting to play through a game where this place I call home isn't, well, a load of sh*t. The bucolic, pastoral Britishness of I Am Dead is weaved throughout its gentle humour and its heart-squeezing moments of emotional lurch, likewise its old-time seaside quaintness and whimsical soundtrack. It's a nice game to spend time with, in the same way that Detectorists (for example) was a nice TV show to spend time with; and for a title that's ostensibly about preventing a cataclysmic eruption, it's incredibly relaxed. It's definitely not for everyone, but to return to that Annapurna catalogue of paragraph one: if those games do it for you, I Am Dead will scratch the same itches with all the agreeable satisfaction of a Morris Lupton bellyrub. Woof.
Pros: innovative puzzle mechanic; appealingly bittersweet story; delightful art style
Cons: some of the voice acting fails to make the material shine; if you don't connect with the puzzle mechanic you're going to get bored
For fans of: Florence, Hidden Folks, Dear Esther
I Am Dead is released on October 8th 2020 for PC and Nintendo Switch. Nintendo Switch version tested. Code provided by the publisher. Find a full guide to GAMINGbible's scores here.
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