Patrick McGrath is a solo developer who has been working on his second game (first big one) for the past couple of years. Called Why Am I Dead At Sea, it’s a mystery adventure that tasks you with solving your own murder while on a boat in the middle of the sea.
You do this by possessing other characters – you’re able to as you’re a ghost, of course – and finding out information that will hopefully lead you towards the truth. As Why Am I Dead At Sea is due to come out very soon, Siliconera caught up with McGrath to find out more about it, which includes a quick chat regarding the game’s visual similarities to Earthbound.
Could you tell us a little about yourself first? Are you a full-time game developer? How long have you been making games?
Patrick McGrath, developer: I started my first real game just after graduating college, in the summer of 2012 – that was the original Why Am I Dead. Since then, I lived in China teaching English, and did game development on the side. Well, I say on the side, but my schedule there allowed me to work nearly full-time hours. I was essentially treating it as a full-time job. For the last stretch of development, however, I’ve been back in the US developing full-time, paying out of pocket to get the game finished.
How did you come up with the idea for the original Why Am I Dead? It’s…different.
I’ll take that as a compliment! Making something different was definitely the plan. For ideas, I looked at other free Flash games that were around at the time, which I thought were doing really interesting things. One game in particular was “I wish I were the Moon”, made in 2008. In it, you were able to use a camera frame to move characters around, and by doing so, change the story. It was a very effective way to make a story interactive.
I saw games like that, and thought it would be interesting to make a game where you could change the story by assuming direct control of characters and moving them around. The premise of being a ghost solving the mystery of their own death was decided on afterward, as a way to explain this mechanic.
How did the reception of the first game go? Were you pleased with how it turned out?
Since Why Am I Dead was the first game I ever released, I expected nothing out of it. My main goal was to familiarize myself with programming in Flash – actually having a game that people enjoyed playing was just a bonus! But it got high ratings, received the daily and weekly features on Newgrounds, and was picked up by several websites, all of which caught me by surprise. What blew me away though was the player feedback I got – people were very passionate about the game, in a way I never expected.
Why did you decide to work on a spiritual successor in Why Am I Dead At Sea? What direction did you want to take that idea?
I felt there was a lot of space that the original game left unexplored. To be honest, I didn’t take Why Am I Dead very seriously when I was making it, and I think that limited it in some ways. So when people expressed interest in a sequel that followed through with the concept more, I was eager to see what I could do when I fully applied myself.
In particular, the mechanic of possession lends itself to character interaction and story-telling, but the original was too short to do that justice. For Why Am I Dead At Sea, I wanted to come up with a story and a cast that could utilize the game’s central mechanic more.
What have you since added to Why Am I Dead At Sea that puts it above the original game?
The game is sporting a bunch of new mechanics. Instead of being able to control everyone from the outset, you unlock characters by learning more about them, which gives the game more structure and progression. Each character has a special ability which reflects their personality, and can be used to solve puzzles or gain new hints/information. There is also the ability to read peoples’ minds, which gives clues on what you need to do, provides foreshadowing, and creates some, uh…interesting moments.
But for me, the biggest thing is simply that the characters and story are much, much more fleshed out. The game is many times longer than the original and there’s a massive amount of writing, re-writing, and re-re-writing that has gone into it. For comparison, I made the original game over three months of part time work, and I’ve worked on Why Am I Dead At Sea for over two years now.
How much breadth is there to the game in terms of different scenarios and possible outcomes?
I don’t particularly enjoy locking characters out of content based on decisions they made earlier in the game, so a lot of the game’s core is linear in nature. However, there are several drastically different endings based on how much you uncover, and a lot of optional dialogue that can be unlocked based on who you talk to and the decisions you make.
The game story may not do a huge amount of branching, but it does reward exploration. There’s a lot of crucial detail that can be found throughout the game, which the player can easily walk right past if they’re not looking.
What tone would you say the game has? Is there humor in there, more serious discussions, maybe some weird-out material?
Yes, yes, and yes. One thing people have noticed is that for a game about a grisly murder, it sure looks bright and cheerful! That’s intentional. The game covers both light and trivial issues as well as some really dark themes, and I think they feed off of each other. And yeah, there’s some pretty off-kilter humor at times. So the game has a lot to say, but it doesn’t take itself incredibly seriously. Except when it does.
There have been a few people that have compared the art style to Earthbound. Is there any truth in this?
The game as a whole draws some inspiration from the Mother series, and the art style is a reflection of that. Beyond the nostalgia factor, I think the art behind Earthbound was very effective at conveying personality. It was cartoony and relatable, and as a completely character driven game Why Am I Dead At Sea benefits from that style. At the same time I’ve tried to give it its own identity.
To finish up, could you give us a low-down of the release details (platforms, date, etc)?
Why Am I Dead At Sea will be launching on Steam on May 11, for PC and Mac, starting at $9.99. I’m hoping to release on other digital stores at the same time as well.