At today’s Summer Game Fest Developer Showcase, Director Ricky Haggett of Hollow Ponds and Artist & Designer Richard Hogg debuted new gameplay footage of their charming upcoming adventure puzzler, I Am Dead. It’s a serene game about being dead but, with the help of your ghost dog, meeting other ghosts who can help you save your island from potential volcanic disaster. I Am Dead was freshly revealed today to be releasing in September for Nintendo Switch and Steam. To coincide with that announcement, we had the opportunity to chat with Haggett and Hogg about all aspects of the game’s development. The origins of that perfect title, the challenges of making a game that has never been done before, the game’s innovative real-time object dissection mechanics, and the casual acceptance of death were all discussed!
Nintendo Enthusiast: How long have you been working on I Am Dead now, and roughly how large is the development team in total? And to follow up on that, how did the partnership between Hollow Ponds and Richard Hogg begin?
Ricky Haggett: Richard and I met in a pub in Hackney, East London, in 2002 — he was a friend of a friend who was giving away an old Amiga 2000, which I wanted for some reason. (It sat in my loft for five years before I passed it along.) Then we were in a band together for years, and during this time we started talking about making a video game together, which would turn out to be a game called Hohokum.
The development team for I Am Dead is about 15 people — about the same as Hohokum — and we’ve been working on it for almost three years! Video games take a long time — especially when you’re making something quite experimental.
I Am Dead seems like a significantly more complex project than Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehouse. Generally speaking, what inspired you to develop this distinct game concept?
Ricky Haggett: It’s our first 3D game — made in Unreal Engine. We came up with the idea of being able to slice into objects in real time, to reveal their interiors. It seemed like a really magical concept that we hadn’t seen in a video game before, and as we explored it, we quickly realized it would have to be made in 3D. This really pushed us out of our comfort zone — we’d got really good at making 2D games I think — but at this point, we’re really enjoying all the new toys that 3D gives you to work with.
Richard Hogg: On top of that we were keen to make a game with stories in it — more of a humanist game. A game about people. This brought another, very different kind of complexity to the project.
Ricky Haggett: Yeah, there are lots of stories in this game, lots of voice acting, loads of writing. We’ve learned a lot in three years and worked with some really amazing people who helped us with the various aspects that we were completely unfamiliar with at the start.
How did you come up with the spectacular title of this game?
Richard Hogg: I’m glad you think it is spectacular! It came about fairly early in the project. We liked it because it is quite honest and functional and in three words captures the idea that, although the guy in the game is dead, it isn’t such a big deal. He’s not a spooky ghost — just a normal person who happens to be dead. I’m not sure how directly influenced we were by it, but we are big fans of the Jim Crace book Being Dead, which deals with death in a similarly down-to-earth way.
The first thing people notice about this game is its striking art style, colorful characters, and serene setting. How did you approach crafting the game’s visual aesthetic? And were there any particular influences — from video games, real life, etc. — you drew from to develop that aesthetic?
Richard Hogg: I’m not very good at talking about influences in the context of my work. Developing the visual aesthetic for a game is a really complex, subtle thing, where you are drawing a whole career’s experience as an artist (and as a person) including myriad influences — some you are conscious of, some you are not.
This game was an interesting experience for me, because it is the first game I have worked on with three-dimensional art assets, and I don’t really have many skills in that area. I have art-directed 3D animation before and I am pretty good at making concept art that looks pretty close to the finished thing, but to art-direct a whole 3D game felt a bit like writing a novel in a language that isn’t your first — like Kazuo Ishiguro or Samuel Beckett. Which I think is kind of refreshing, and maybe I brought something to it that someone more fluent might not have. In practical terms it meant developing a fantastic asymmetrical collaboration with the other artists on the game, and that was really fun.
The core gameplay loop of I Am Dead appears to be locating other ghosts via assorted clues. Can you speak into greater depth about how that process will work and why it is important to the narrative?
Ricky Haggett: The idea is that the island of Shelmerston is volcanic — but the volcano is dormant. Or rather, it has been dormant, but now it’s starting to wake up. This is because the Custodian of the island — a ghost who mingled with it, to keep the volcano calm and safe — is now very old, and her grip on things is weakening…
The player is cast as Morris Lupton, the curator of the museum on Shelmerston (and someone who loves the island and knows its history intimately) to find a replacement for the Custodian. He must travel the island and in each place find a ghost of someone who died recently enough to still be hanging around. His ghost-dog Sparky can sniff the ghosts out, but in order to do so, Morris must find a number of mementos — objects which were special to the person when they were alive. And to do that, he must jump inside the heads of people who knew them, to discover stories from their life. The game is full of stories (all narrated) and full of objects, which you can explore both inside and out.
Will Sparky the dog assist in gameplay in any way, or is he just there to be cute? (Also — can you pet the dog?)
Ricky Haggett: We’re not going to talk about it, because we want people to discover this for themselves, but yes, there are sections of the game where players get to be Sparky. She’s a female dog, but you can’t pet her — because she is a ghost.
Are there any particular games you would say inspired the gameplay of I Am Dead, and if so, how did they influence the title?
Ricky Haggett: Not really. Our process of making games is based around trying to make things which haven’t existed before: hacking off into the wilderness with a machete, trying to discover something new and cool. It’s a really exciting way to work, but also quite scary sometimes, because you don’t have these reassuring examples of other games to give you the confidence that the direction you’re taking is going to work out.
Roughly speaking, how long do you expect a playthrough of the game to take?
Ricky Haggett: It depends how long people spend in each place exploring, slicing into objects and finding secrets. We reckon if you just do the main things that take you through the game, it should take around four hours, but there are tons of side puzzles and extra things to discover, so we’d expect people to play for a lot longer than that.
What do you believe is the unique selling point or exciting feature that will make I Am Dead stand out from all the other adventure and puzzle titles on Nintendo Switch?
Ricky Haggett: Being able to slice away objects in real time is probably the most obvious one: It’s really beautiful and mesmerizing — you’re making a kind of animation that gives you a subtle appreciation for the 3D forms by slicing through them.
Hopefully people will also enjoy the quality of the writing, storytelling, and voice acting.
What core message or theme(s) are you trying to convey with I Am Dead?
Richard Hogg: Clearly we are talking about death in this game. We wanted to take the notion of dead people or ghosts and completely decouple that from anything scary or macabre. And also to make a story about dead people that is not at all about how they died: In nearly every case you never discover how each ghost in the game died — it just isn’t relevant.
Hopefully this is refreshing: Video games are full of death; specifically the moment that people die is something you see over and over again in games. Whereas our game is about a bunch of dead people, but about how they lived. I like to think that this is a courageous, but also more realistic thing to do. After all, when people we love die, we rarely dwell on it — I think about my dad all the time, but I think about how he lived, never how he died.
What release date are you currently targeting for the game on Nintendo Switch? And do you have specific additional platforms in mind for when timed Switch exclusivity ends?
Richard Hogg: It’s coming in September, and we’ll be looking at other platforms after release.
Have you given any thought to the type of game you might want to develop next after I Am Dead is all finished?
Ricky Haggett: Richard and I are always talking about “next games,” and we do have a current front-runner, but it’s far too early to say anything about it, because who knows what it will end up being, by the time we finish it?
Richard Hogg: I really want to make a game where you drive canal barges. Kind of like Spintires or Truck Simulator but with narrowboats plying the waterways of the British countryside.
We thank Ricky Haggett and Richard Hogg for their time. Stay tuned for further updates on I Am Dead.
[This interview has been edited for clarity.]