Revealed as part of the Nintendo Indie World Showcase back in March, colourful puzzle adventure I Am Dead will be landing on Switch in September this year, courtesy of publisher Annapurna Interactive.
In it, you take control of museum curator Morris Lupton, a deceased resident of the island of Shelmerston who examines the location’s history and folklore with the help of his trusty dog Sparky, also deceased.
This quirky game certainly caught our attention earlier in the year, although from the initial reveal it was tough to know exactly what this puzzler entails. Fortunately, the game featured in the July Day of the Devs broadcast and the developers have put out the trailer below explaining a little about Shelmerston and what you’ll be getting up to on the volcanic island.
To find out more, we recently caught up with Ricky Haggett of Hollow Ponds and Richard Hogg to discuss memories, mementos, ghosts and talking dogs…
Nintendo Life: First up can you tell us about the team behind I Am Dead? Who’s responsible for what aspects of the game?
Ricky: This game is another collaboration between myself and Richard Hogg – previously we worked on Wilmot’s Warehouse, Hohokum, Frobisher Says and Poto & Cabenga together. Richard is the art director and drew all the 2D art in the game. I directed the game, as well as programming it, and we both worked on the world, characters, stories and writing.
But as with most of our other games, we worked with a bunch of excellent folks on various aspects of the game – some who we’ve worked with before, and others who brought new skills we’ve never needed before. The team is about fifteen people.
I Am Dead is our first 3D game – made in Unreal Engine – so we had a lot to learn about that
I Am Dead is our first 3D game – made in Unreal Engine – so we had a lot to learn about that, and then figure out who we’d need to hire to help us, and how to work with them as we went along. It’s also our first game with significant amounts of writing – which meant working with writers, voice actors, casting agents and performance directors. It’s been a huge learning curve, but we’ve always been really lucky with the folks we’ve worked with – they taught as a lot and we all had a lot of fun making this game together.
The announcement trailer for the game looked great and set the scene nicely, but it didn’t give much away with regards to its puzzle adventure gameplay. How will players be exploring Shelmerston? First-person? Point and click-style?
Ricky: Thanks! It’s kind of a ‘first-person point and click, hidden-object game’. You start locked to a camera track that runs around each level – sometimes moving in a loop, sometimes not, and you have a cursor that you can put over objects, which makes text appear telling you what they are (and sometimes quite a lot of background information about them). Then you can ‘lock onto’ them, which means that they get isolated, you can rotate around them freely, and then use your ‘special ghostly power’, to slice things away in realtime. So to go inside a building or a wardrobe, you don’t open the door – you’re a ghost! – but instead you slice away the outside to reveal the contents. And then you can cursor over the contents, and lock onto things inside, and then things inside new things… Often you are moving from things at the scale of a building, right down to things the size of a matchbox.
And what you’re doing the whole time is looking for things – first for people with memories – you look inside their heads and experience these little stories: Each one is a memory about the ghost you’re hunting for in each level, which involves a ‘memento’ – an object special to that person when they were alive. And then you need to find those mementos, using your slicing powers.
And when you’ve found them all, there’s another part of the game that’s quite different, but we’re going to leave that as a surprise for players…
Following on from Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehouse, I Am Dead feels like a bit of a departure despite sharing some of those games’ colourful design language. Tell us a little about it and how the concept came about.
Ricky: The original inspiration was twofold: the idea of slicing things away to reveal the contents felt like an interesting mechanic that we hadn’t seen in a game before. And then we also wanted to make a game full of interesting stories – the kind of stuff that Richard and I often talk about in our creative meetings.
We started off by figuring out the technical aspects of how slicing things would work, and as we went along we built the world of Shelmerston out, whilst continually experimenting with different control mechanics and gameplay, until we whittled it down to what we’ve ended up [with]. Like most of our games, it’s been a very organic process, and very much influenced by things our various team members brought to the table.
Richard: The ‘world-building’ side of things – which I would say is at the heart of what this game is about – came in a very natural unforced way. Stuff we have read about, places we have been, stories we’ve come across, historical stuff and urban myths, as well as a good helping of our own made-up nonsense, all cobbled together in a pleasing, if not that rigorous way.
I’d like to think that every game we make would be a bit of a departure, both from other things we have made and from videogames in general.
How long has the game been in development?
Ricky: Almost three years! Video games take a long time to make – especially when you’re learning lots of new things, and making something which isn’t really like anything else out there.
The setting for I am Dead borrows ideas from a bunch of places: Small islands off the coast of the UK like Guernsey, Sark and the Isles of Scilly, and British maritime communities
We read that the inspiration for Wilmot’s Warehouse came from your days working in warehouses. Does I Am Dead owe its setting to a real life home town, museum or life experience?
Richard: Yes that’s true. The setting for I am Dead borrows ideas from a bunch of places: Small islands off the coast of the UK like Guernsey, Sark and the Isles of Scilly, and British maritime communities in general. I did a lot of the early writing for the game while staying in the Devon town of Topsham and the town I live in – Hastings, East Sussex has made it into the game a fair amount. We also love museums and various museums inspired the one in I Am Dead, most notably the Horniman Museum in South London.
Ricky: There are lots of stories in this game, and they often take their inspiration from funny or interesting stories from real life that we’ve heard over the years…
Richard: Like the Bramble Bank Cricket match which takes place once a year on a sandbank that is only there at very low tides. Or the stranded albatross who was stuck on a Scottish island for 40 years – they made a concrete female albatross to keep him company. Our game is full of stuff like this, often in a very tangential way.
Are there any particular adventure games (or otherwise) that you had in mind during development?
Ricky: Something we’ve tried to achieve with I am Dead is to make Shelmerston feel like a real place – with its own history, local characters, and interwoven stories. Things that are happening, or have happened in the past which don’t have anything directly to do with the story, but contribute to a sense of being immersed in a real place. There are a number of games which try to achieve this in various ways, and I don’t think we’ve been hugely influenced by any specific one, but a few that I like are Night in the Woods, Return of the Obra Dinn, and Gone Home.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far working on the game? How do you find the Switch to develop for compared to the more powerful platforms?
Ricky: The biggest challenge in making I Am Dead has been the scope of it. Hohokum is the largest comparable game we’ve made, and that had a lot of different places, toys, art and animation, but its world was a very fantastical place, and its stories very much in the background, so there was less pressure on the narrative elements needing to gel together.
Whereas I Am Dead has a ton of places, objects, stories, characters, writing, music – but all set in the real world we’re familiar with, which makes it more challenging to weave these things together in an authentic, believable way. Polishing all the 3D objects, environment layout, writing, audio-design, illustrations and voice-acting performances, to carry this illusion of Shelmerston being a real world place has taken a lot of work!
Richard: Because it is a game about looking at objects (and, of course, looking inside those objects) it has a lot of things in it… and all those things needed to have their insides designed and modelled too. That was really challenging, but in a very satisfying and rewarding way.
Ricky: The Switch version has required some optimisation work, to get the game running well in the busiest areas, but it’s worked out okay.
The game is planned for launch later this year as a timed Switch exclusive. Is a ‘Switch first’ approach handy from an optimisation perspective or is timed-exclusivity more of a publishing strategy?
We’re a small team, and need to focus our energy a bit – it would be overwhelming for us to try to launch on all possible platforms at once. And the Switch audience has shown they are receptive to new types of game: it feels like smaller, independent games regularly do really well there. We’ve been really happy with the reception to Wilmot’s Warehouse Switch!
the Switch audience has shown they are receptive to new types of game: it feels like smaller, independent games regularly do really well there.
Has lockdown affected the game and the team much during development?
Ricky: In terms of our team setup, it’s not had a huge impact. We’re a distributed team – mostly throughout the UK, with a couple of team members in Europe – and many of the team work from home anyway. Of course, the situation has affected us all individually, but, speaking for myself, once I adjusted to working from home, it’s actually been good to have something tangible to focus on, and nice to be able to see my kids a bit more than I would if I were going to the studio every day. Compared to a lot of my friends – especially those in the performing arts, whose jobs feel more precarious – I feel very lucky.
Richard: I was already working from home for years anyway, so for me it has literally been no different. We are very fortunate. Many people I know have had their lives turned upside down in the last four months.
What other games—on any platform–have you been enjoying recently?
Ricky: In these strange and uncertain times, I’ve retreated to comfort games – where you repeat a sequence of relaxing, well-understood tasks that you’ve done hundreds of times before: I’ve been playing Animal Crossing, and replaying all the Dark Souls games.
I’ve also been playing a bunch of online multiplayer with friends. Raft is our current favourite.
Richard: I recently played Wide Ocean Big Jacket, which really struck a chord with me. Instantly one of my favorite games ever. I have also rediscovered Cribbage With Grandpas, which I guess is a kind of comfort thing and also, in a way, a response to covid. To simply sit and play cards with some old dude is now an unreachable fantasy.
I have been dabbling with Hardspace Shipbreaker too. I love the premise – it is a really cool and unusual thing to be doing in a videogame. Plus it reminds me a bit of I Am Dead, in that they have also had to consider the player getting to see the insides of everything.
I Am Dead involves ghostly goings-on, so it seems prudent to ask: Have you ever seen a ghost? (question ©Richard Herring)
Ricky: A few years back I was in our downstairs bathroom with my kids – one of them had crawled in there and we were sitting on the floor playing. The door was open, and I looked up and watched the door close. It didn’t blow shut – there weren’t any windows open and not a breath of wind – but definitely closed – gently but firmly. My wife was upstairs and insisted it wasn’t her. It felt very strange for hours afterwards – an eerie sort of tingly sensation – but I couldn’t get anyone else to believe or care that anything interesting had happened. Yeah sure, a door closed. Whatever. So, in answer to the question, no I have never seen a ghost.
Richard: I don’t believe in ghosts.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
Ricky: I’d like to mention the soundtrack: we’re delighted to have worked with Vic Mars on I Am Dead – the recording project of a musician called Matt Davies. His music is inspired by English pastoral music – Vaughan Williams and Holst – and made by making live recordings of snippets of various string and keyboard instruments, then sequencing them using old school tracker software. It’s like electronica inspired by classical music, but with an organic, homespun sound.
Richard: Yeah I love it. You could imagine his music being used on a documentary film about herring fishermen or some obscure harvest festival that only happens in Huntingdonshire. It is great videogame music too, though.
Did we mention that this game has a talking dog in it?
Our thanks to Ricky and Richard. I Am Dead is coming to Switch in September and we encourage you to take a look at the trailer at the top of the page to see some of the ideas discussed in action.
Look out for our review nearer the time and let us know your thoughts below.