Image courtesy of Richard Hogg and Hollow Ponds

Gorgeous indie game I Am Dead depicts the afterlife in a delightful way

Jimmy Thang |
February 15, 2021
Richard Hogg is an artist and designer who also makes video games. He lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex. After years working mainly as an illustrator, he began collaborating with Hollow Ponds’ Ricky Haggett about 10 years ago and has worked on several games.
Developed for Nintendo Switch and PC by a core team of roughly a dozen developers, I Am Dead is a puzzle-adventure game centered around the afterlife. Rather than lean on horror elements, the charming title is full of warmth and explores people’s lives. In I Am Dead, you take control of Morris Lupton, a recently-deceased individual who discovers that a disaster is about to destroy his island. To prevent this destruction, he must peer deep inside objects and look into people’s memories. GamesRadar+ called the game “a delightful puzzle adventure full of charm, personality, and satisfying ghostly X-ray vision mechanics” in its review.
 
To see how the relatively small team was able to develop such an indie darling, we interviewed Artist and Designer Richard Hogg. He talks about how they achieved the game’s colorful art style that blends 2D and 3D aesthetics and elaborates on how they created the game’s whimsical world. 
 

I Am Dead is a puzzle game that explores the afterlife in an often touching, lighthearted, and whimsical way. What inspired you to make this type of game?
 
We had long wanted to make a game that somehow deals with the subject of death in a way that was positive, humanist, and not morbid. Various ideas along these lines had been knocking around for a while, and we had explored some of them in a previous game prototype. Then, when we started working with the mechanic for I Am Dead, it seemed like a naturally good fit for the player to be some kind of ghost. It all came together nicely.
 
The game features a very novel gameplay loop that allows players to peer deep inside objects to find lost memories and clues. How did you come up with this concept?
 
I guess it just came up in conversation. I remember sending Ricky [Haggett] some animated GIFs where various fruit and vegetables had been passed through an MRI scanner, and that started us talking about possible game mechanics where you might be able to “slice” away part of a three-dimensional object in real-time. We spent a bit of time figuring out the technical side of this and made a prototype.
Image courtesy of Richard Hogg and Hollow Ponds
I Am Dead features a charming and colorful low-poly art style that compliments the gameplay wonderfully. Was there a lot of iteration involved in nailing the look of the game?
 
Erm, I wouldn't say iteration; more of a long process of refinement. I had never worked on a game with three-dimensional art assets before, so it had to be something that I could art-direct. Unlit low-poly art lends itself to this, and I can basically make near-perfect looking 2D concept art using vector art software. For instance, the “key art” for the game that you see on Steam, etc. (an image of a lighthouse with the sun setting behind it) is a drawing I did, not in-engine. Also, the technical challenge of making a game where we had to model the inside of everything as well as the outside meant that a simple low-poly art style with no lighting made a lot of sense.
 
I Am Dead blends 2D and 3D beautifully. Can you elaborate on how you were able to blend the two styles for the game?
 
Thanks! We spent a lot of time developing a 2D art-style that compliments the 3D art but at the same time is very different. It's quite a coarse, graphic drawing style that uses as few colors as possible. So, in a way, we don't try to blend the 2D art with the rest of the game at all. We go for contrast. There is one exception here, which is the animated moments when you get to meet the other ghosts at the end of each level. These are closer in style to the vector concept art I mentioned before but animated by the amazing Angus Dick.
Image courtesy of Richard Hogg and Hollow Ponds
The game takes place on the fantastical island of Shelmerston and is filled with a colorful cast of characters and anthropomorphic creatures. How did you approach designing I Am Dead's world?
 
I think Ricky [Haggett] and I have a very roundabout way of “world-building.” We are interested in lots of stuff and are always talking about things we’ve seen or read about, and by a long process of osmosis, this tends to coalesce into a video game. This time around, we collaborated with writer Catherine Johnson, who basically just fell into this process with us. We hung out, talked about books, anthropology, and history. We visited museums; that kind of thing.
 
Then there is a secondary, more practical process of me just drawing everything. I have been sharing a bunch of these drawings on Twitter.
 
The game has been praised for telling a story that only a video game could tell. Was that a conscious design decision going into the project?
 
Not really. It was always only ever going to be a game because that's all we really know how to make. It's a nice idea. Thinking about it, I think most games that I enjoy would probably fit this description, so it's nice that people think that about I Am Dead.
 
Considering I Am Dead was a joint collaboration between Hollow Ponds and Richard Hogg, can you share how that development dynamic worked? 
 
Well, it isn't our first collaboration. Hollow Ponds’ head Ricky Haggett and I have been making games together for about 12 years now. So, we kind of know what we are doing. I find it interesting how most games are made by companies, and everyone who works on them are all full time at those companies. The way we work is structurally a bit more like how movies and TV are made.
Image courtesy of Richard Hogg and Hollow Ponds
I Am Dead seems like a great example of a small team executing on a streamlined vision for a game. Did the scope of the project change much throughout development?
 
Yes, it did! Especially early on. While we knew what the core mechanic was right from the start, we were quite open about the exact nuts and bolts of how the game would play. For instance, it took us a while to nail the way the player moves around in the game. It's a kind of “on rails” thing that works really well, but we spent a lot of time trying different paradigms for this and, as you might expect, changing such a fundamental thing as how you move around the world is bound to influence the scope of the game.
 
I Am Dead features impressive animations, particularly when players "slice" deep into objects to reveal hidden items. Were these technically challenging to pull off?
 
Those actually aren’t animations. Nothing is animating as you slice into an object. (Although I totally get that the end result often feels like animation, in a cool and mesmerizing way). Rather, you are making a portion of the object disappear in real-time as the player manipulates it. And yes, it was challenging to pull off!
Image courtesy of Richard Hogg and Hollow Ponds
Do you have any advice for other small teams trying to develop a game?
 
Develop a game. There are no barriers. Literally no barriers. The tools are incredibly accessible and often free. Have fun.
 
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about I Am Dead?
 
Thanks for having me. Make sure to check out the game on our official website.

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