I think I’m turning into an old man. The thrill and joy I had as a child for high speeds, loud noises, and action are well into my past. Now I desire a cool, relaxing remedy to the anxieties of the world. Sure, I love a good action-adventure game every once in a while, but it feels life is already giving me enough for my senses. Luckily, the last year has been full of cozy games for my subconscious, and I AM DEAD on the Nintendo Switch is no exception.
This new game from developer Hollow Ponds follows Morris, the local museum curator on a seaside island who’s now deceased. After dying, he finds his companion, old dog, and best friend, Sparky. Sparky explains to Morris that she needs his help. The safety of the living on the island relies solely on a dead spirit called the “Custodian.” The Custodian’s job is to prevent the island’s volcano from erupting, and the current Custodian is retiring. Sparky has found five potential replacements, but they’ve all gone into hiding. To bring them out, Morris has to find artifacts from these people’s lives.
While the story of the game sounds very high-stakes, it’s actually one of the most stress-relieving games I’ve played in some time. This is in part due to the great level design. In the first stage, you look for Pete, the old lighthouse keeper that converted his lighthouse into a yoga studio he ran with his robot assistant. There’s no violence or destruction to be found searching this lighthouse, yet it still feels adventurous. There’s a sense of discovery and, of course, the reward of actually finding something. It’s extremely satisfying to find the exact thing you’re looking for. It gave me the same sense of accomplishment as when I found my second grade yearbook after thinking it had been missing for years. Fulfilled, but with an extra layer of meaning.
This sense of accomplishment is nothing without the characters of this game. I AM DEAD does a great job of showing you these characters, instead of just telling you who they are. Some of that comes from the personal items you rifle through, but also just the wide variety of people you meet. This is one of the more unique and eclectic casts I’ve ever seen in a video game. Pete has a robot assistant known as EM-243b, or EM for short, that helps him with his lighthouse/yoga business. There’s also Val, an animal lover who has a whole park full of animals and sculptures of other people’s art. The beauty of this game is how these characters and their locations are tied so closely together.
Playing I AM DEAD, it’s easy to feel like a detective, each character’s personal artifact becoming almost like a clue to who they actually are; even if you don’t need to solve any kind of grand mystery, you still get to snoop on these interesting people’s lives and, for better or worse, snooping is my absolute favorite experience the game offers. I miss being nosy. I love to hear about people’s days or any gossip they have. Those bits of personal storytelling have really faded away during the pandemic, so a whole game where I get to just dig through someone’s personal belongings? That’s the game for me. And fortunately it’s much easier to want to search through these spirit’s items than items in real life—the game is so beautiful to look at, with art design that is colorful and cartoon-like, with a real sense of playfulness and humor.
I AM DEAD is a thoroughly nice game. What it lacks in thrills it makes up for in fun. If there was a way for me to taste the game, I imagine it would taste like the salty sea air. It would be able to satisfy all five senses (although the sense of touch is already taken care of given how at home this feels playing on a Switch in handheld mode). When I start to get depressed after looking at my bank account or notice my perceived imperfections in the mirror, I AM DEAD offers a cheery counteracting feeling—it’s a warm robe and soft blanket of a game. I AM DEAD, through its charms, reminds me of the simple joys of life.