When people hear what Why Am I Dead At Sea is about and how you play it, they generally have a similar reaction: that’s like Ghost Trick! Or some people will less frequently say, oh, it’s similar to Murdered!
Looking at those games, the parallels are obvious. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even aware of Ghost Trick when I started on the original Why Am I Dead in 2012. And Murdered came out two whole years after Why Am I Dead, so that clearly wasn’t an influence. In truth, the real sources of inspiration that led me to make this game came from entirely different places.
What are those places? Well no one really asked, but I’m about to tell you anyway, so get ready!
Free Flash Games
You were murdered, and you’re a ghost trying to solve their own death. Hmm. That must be from Ghost Trick, right? Or Murdered: Soul Suspect! What about that Ghost movie with Patrick Swayze? Or is it The Crow?
About two-ish years ago I wanted to practice programming in Flash and put something small online, so I was thinking up a little project to motivate myself. The idea was to make something in a week that would teach me the basics. Something really simple, but still interesting and unique.
So you know what I looked at for inspiration? Other simple, interesting and unique free flash games! These were the games that taught me you can create a truly memorable experience with hardly any visuals or assets – that you can leave an impression on people even if the playtime for your game is as short as 5-10 minutes. And there are a couple such games in particular that gave me the little idea that led to today.
I Wish I Were The Moon
This is a small experimental game made by Daniel Benmergui in 2010, more well known for his games Today I Die and his upcoming Storyteller. In it, you have a camera of sorts that allows you to take snapshots of certain objects in the game and move them around. Depending on what you move and where, you can change the little story the game has.
So in this case, there’s a girl on a boat looking up at a boy on a moon. The girl likes the boy; the boy likes the moon. This strange love triangle can be played out in all sorts of ways, and the game will respond to pretty much all interactions you give it. For example, you can immediately dump both the girl and the boy in the ocean. You monster. Or you can swap their places, so the boy is on the boat and the girl is on the moon, so she is now also the object of his affection! Yay! (don’t think about it too hard)
If you’re quick, it takes maybe five minutes to discover all the possible permutations in the game. So why am I still talking about it four years after it was made? Because it was a completely different system than anything I had ever seen before. I was able to manipulate pieces in the story and directly change it in a way no other game let me, and as short-lived as that experience was, it was very impressionable.
Another experimental flash game made by Increpare and Terry Cavanagh, the latter of which is well known for VVVVVV and Super Hexagon. You control a small girl who, well…I’ll link to the actual game before I really get into it.
You can play it here, but be warned that it contains adult language and themes and is very very dark.
Simply put, you control a small girl who is charged with the task of putting the minds (souls?) of her mother, father, doll, and dog back into their respective bodies. The game doesn’t really make it clear which is which, and you have to figure things out by trial and error. The cool thing is that the game has an outcome for every permutation – put the mind of the dog into your father’s body, and one thing will happen. Put the doll’s mind into your father’s body, something else will happen.
Similar to I Wish I Were the Moon, this game allows you to manipulate things in the game in a strange new way. In the former, you could actually move them around – in the latter, it’s much more abstract. And both games allow for experimentation – you are encouraged to move things around in certain ways just to see what the result will be, even if it isn’t the “correct” interaction.
The defining thing in these cases is that you feel like you are creating meaning in the game. You aren’t simply picking up and moving blocks – you are manipulating actors in a story, and creating what feel like emergent scenarios.
So I thought, giving the player the ability to manipulate story objects was cool…what if I allowed the player to do so by directly assuming control of things in the game? Like in I Wish I Were the Moon, you could move them around to do different stuff. And like in Oiche Mhaith, different combinations of characters could lead to different results.
Except in this case, it wouldn’t be a combination of mind/body pairs – it would be a combination between the character the player is currently controlling, and the character they choose to interact with.
This was the core that I started with, and at this point there was still no ghost stuff going on. Instead, I was thinking of just arbitrarily giving the player this power to control people, without having a narrative explanation for it. I also wasn’t entirely sure that you would interact with people by really talking to them – the interactions might be more abstract or exaggerated than that.
I believe it was my sister who came up with the narrative idea first. I had voiced an incredibly vague and ethereal concept to her, and she thought it would make sense if the player was a ghost. And since they have to solve some sort of puzzle, they could be a ghost detective, charged with solving a mystery. I then made what now seems a somewhat inevitable last step – how about you’re a ghost solving the mystery of your death?
And the rest is history.