Please note that this blog post contains spoilers for the game “I Am Dead”.
So, one of the things I was most excited to get to post-PhD was my ever-increasing backlog of video games (damn you, Nintendo Switch sales!), and I was particularly excited about tackling the long list of indie games. One of these was, of course, the subject of this blog post: I Am Dead, a game made by Hollow Grounds and originally released in 2020. I had known that it was, by all accounts, one of those cute little indie games with a fun “hidden item”-type of puzzle mechanic.
You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was secretly one of the best archaeology games I’ve ever played!
The game is centered on Morris Lupton, a recently deceased inhabitant of the fictional island town of Shelmerston and previously the curator of the local museum. He is tasked with finding a new guardian for the town in order to stop its imminent destruction by a long-dormant volcano. To do this, Morris must travel around the town and invoke its local spirits by finding items hidden away connected to various memories of the deceased held by their still-living friends and family.
It’s a very sweet and short game that really touches upon the idea of legacy – both in what we leave behind in our work and passions, as well as within our interpersonal relationships. This is further emphasised in where the game takes place – we do not join Morris right after death, but some time later. He is quite content with his afterlife, and much more concerned with the fate of the living who still remain in Shelmerston. But Morris also gets the unique opportunity to see how much of a difference he has made as the island’s lone curator, particularly in the way in which his work has helped shaped the memory of the island itself.
So, yes, there is an obvious archaeology component here with the museum, particularly with the final level which is split between the exhibitions of the local museum and Prehistoric Shelmerston. But what I find more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of memory here, particularly the way in which memory interacts with material culture.
The archaeology of memory isn’t a new concept, with a variety of sub-types that have been thoroughly discussed in previous literature; this includes collective memory, public memory, and social memory (Van Dyke 2019, p. 208-209). But what is perhaps closer to what is being illustrated in this gameplay is the idea of “problematic stuff” (Buster 2021a and 2021b), which describes the sort of everyday “mundane” object that is ultimately the focus of much emotion and sentimentality. Buster originally explored this idea through discussions with healthcare professionals and end-of-life caregivers as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, as it became apparent that many people placed particular emphasis on the material objects that were left behind by the deceased. When viewed from a more archaeological perspective, this concept sheds a different light on some of the artefacts that are often found in what may seem to be “random” places, particularly within the Iron Age of Britain. Funerary traditions during this period of time continue to be difficult to determine due to the “invisibility” of the dead within the archaeological record (Harding 2016). And yet many Iron Age sites exhibit deposits of rather mundane items. Perhaps we have been missing part of the puzzle by overlooking these objects, which may be representative of personal objects that, unbeknownst to modern day archaeologists, embody many memories and emotions.
I Am Dead can be seen as a demonstration of the power of memory, as well as the ways in which memory become embodied into these “problematic stuff” – we see first-hand how these random objects become important through association of past events and interactions by the living. What to us is just a lost glove, or a buried box of beer, or a badge, are to others memories of finding a beloved treasure, or teenage antics, or the start of a beautiful friendship. It asks us, as archaeologists, to consider the things – that perhaps seem so small at first glance – that are inaccessible to us in the present day, but may transform rubbish into something much more meaningful and important.
Buster, L. (2021a) ‘Problematic Stuff’: Death, Memory, and the Interpretation of Cached Objects. Antiquity 95(382), pp. 973-985.
Buster, L. (2021b) Why Couldn’t Iron Age People Throw Some Stuff Away? Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/iron-age-britain-houses/
Harding, D.W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.
Van Dyke, R.M. (2019) Archaeology and Social Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 48, pp. 207-225.
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