You wake up to the creaking sound of a ship’s hull, bowing under intense pressure. In front of you, a bloodstain emanating from a lifeless cadaver. This poor fool has met his untimely end. But who is this fool? As your eyes move towards the face, a ghastly recognition shoots through you. It’s you.
While this may sound like the start of a murder mystery novel, this is the basic premise of Why Am I Dead At Sea, a title that also serves as a descriptor. Back in December, we interviewed developer Patrick McGrath while the game was still jostling for approval through Greenlight. It has since passed this milestone, and the game has gone on to a successful release. But has the final release lived up to the promise? In many ways it has, but the overall package is something of a mixed bag.
Why Am I Dead At Sea is a retro-inspired detective game in which you are both the criminal investigator, and the victim. The game starts with your untimely murder aboard a cruise ship, and via the fortuitous intervention of a psychic child who brings you back from the spirit world, you are able to return as ghost to investigate whodunnit. While this is an unusual start to a game, it sets up the premise, story and mechanics nicely.
As a spectral sleuth, you have the ability to possess members of the crew and take control of their bodies. This allows you to talk to other crew members through your possessed subject, and allows you to conduct your investigations from beyond the grave. This is the main premise of Why Am I Dead At Sea, and switching bodies is required if you want to finger the culprit. This unique mechanic presents the ability to explore the crime from different perspectives. In practice, you will only be able to get certain pieces of information out of other people while you possess a certain crew member. It’s worth being thorough and trying different combinations, as some characters will only open up when they talk to particular people.
While the gameplay mainly involves possessing people and talking to everyone you find, the game sets up an intriguing atmosphere that deserves to be explored. Being on a cruise ship means that the murderer cannot escape, so he or she is definitely on board somewhere. The ship itself is something of a character, featuring dilapidated cabins and a certain sense of wistful melancholy. This sense is helped by a rough, 8-bit art style that contains more jagged edges than a chainsaw convention.
While this retro style is utilised to effect here, Why I Am Dead At Sea is ultimately not a pretty game. It lacks a certain graphical charm that is almost expected from these type of games, which does hold the game back on the presentation side. The same can also be said for the game’s soundtrack, which consists mainly of the typical low-fi effects you would expect from a retro-themed title. It never quite fully achieves the mood that it intends to convey, but fortunately, the story and conversational elements are in place to pick up the slack.
Initially, you’ll be put in touch with Paulo, the aforementioned psychic boy who brings your spirit back from the dead. Paulo acts as an in-game tutorial, giving you hints for when you are stuck early on in the game. However, your investigations will put you in touch with a diverse and intriguing cast of characters, none of whom seem to be telling the full truth. Each of these guests has a backstory and a distinct personality that comes through pretty well in the writing. Adding to this aspect, you can also read people’s minds, providing a glimmer of insight into their thoughts and emotions. Delving into these characters further is easily the best part of the game, and some of the themes that Why I Am Dead At Sea explores are tackled well. To say much more would quickly move into spoiler territory and ruin the main draw behind this narrative-heavy title, suffice to say that the overall plot is interesting and worthy of your time. While there are small inconsistencies in the narrative, overall, the writing is exemplary.
Given this, it is almost painful to admit that Why Am I Dead At Sea isn’t a lot of fun. Most puzzles can be resolved by attempting the same action while in possession of each character. Advancing the story is usually as simple as making sure that every character talks to every other character, which doesn’t translate into an overly enthralling game. The gameplay mechanic of controlling other guests is simply not compelling enough to carry the game through a whole playthrough, and the novelty wears off by the time you uncover the mystery.
Sadly, once you’ve beaten the game and experienced all the story beats, Why Am I Dead At Sea is spent. There are no dynamic story elements, no randomly generated characters or maps, and no rewards for playing again. This feels like a missed opportunity. The game would be a lot more compelling if it gave you a reason to come back to it, even if it was just a rotating cast of characters each time you started the game. With the inclusion of such elements, there would have been a reason to return to this intriguing premise. As it is, once you’ve explored the background behind the game’s 9 characters, replaying the game is about as thrilling as being a modern day cartographer.
It’s painful to see such an intriguing premise fail to live up to its potential. Being the product of a one-man development studio, the game does a lot of things with its narrative that are highly commendable. This makes it difficult to criticise the game, given the humble background behind its creation. However, with a more polished presentation and a reason to return, Why Am I Dead At Sea could have been a highlight of the Greenlight programme. Instead, the game is left floundering at sea somewhat, but there are many interesting treasures to be found among the flotsam and jetsam, if you look carefully enough.
Plenty of treasures, if you're willing to look hard enough.