Overboard! brings a question to mind: is there anything game designers fear more than malleable narratives? I’m not talking of inconsequential side quests tacked on to prolong engagement with sprawling open worlds, or the alternative cutscenes you might get to watch as an epilogue based on a couple of Big Decisions made during glaringly signposted moments along the way. No, this is about the real thing, entire plot lines that bend, twist, and shatter under the pressure of player choice, meaning that for every permutation of the story you shaped, myriad shocking twists, one-liners, and emotionally charged revelations still lie submerged. This is a medium loath to produce any substantial chunk of ‘content’ that risks being left unseen.
It’s a dictum followed across the industry, but inkle has carved a special niche for itself by gleefully ignoring it. The studio’s been tinkering with unconventional narrative structures for the better part of a decade, whether by updating classic Choose Your Own Adventure books in Sorcery! or saving the galaxy one translation at a time in Heaven’s Vault. Overboard! is the latest in that series of playful experiments, a reverse murder mystery in which you must deduce the agendas, interests, and personal weaknesses of a maddeningly nosy troupe of fellow passengers, so as to allay suspicions you had a hand in the disappearance of your unfaithful, debt-ridden, and – worst of all – excruciatingly boring husband. Or, better still, pin the heinous deed on any member of that insufferable supporting cast of upper-class swindlers, drunken socialites, and harrumphing army officers.
Sometime between the two World Wars, mere hours before the transatlantic ocean liner SS Hook docks at New York’s Chelsea Piers, former actress and newly widowed Veronica Villensey is startled by an early-morning knock on her door. Only the cabin boy, announcing breakfast, but already, that first, innocuous interaction on behalf of the unscrupulous protagonist will have players on the defensive: you’ll need to calmly assess the situation, avoid blurting out anything incriminating, and make sure the eager youth doesn’t enter to see you’ve just awakened in last night’s dinner dress – the one you wore as you pushed Malcolm over the railing.
As you start planning your next steps, that feeling of paranoia intensifies. Was somebody watching when you took your husband for one final stroll on the upper deck? Can a missing earring link you to the fatal shove? And how will people react when they notice he’s missing, especially those with personal stakes in the man’s fate: a poetess somehow infatuated with the dullard or the card players he accrued a debt to during the voyage? It’s a captivating premise that inverts Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’s structure.
Instead of looking for clues and exposing logical gaps in the prosecution’s arguments to acquit those unjustly accused, here the aim is to muddy the waters, tamper with evidence, and construct a fake but plausible story that literally lets you get away with murder. The fundamental difference between the two, however, lies in Overboard!’s urgency. The ship functions as a stage but, unlike most games, none of its actors are frozen in time waiting for your arrival before they spring to life. While you’re chatting up the captain, a maid might enter your cabin and take notice of a strangely unruffled bed; opting for a late breakfast means there’s every chance a passenger that has already finished will wander near the spot where Malcolm fell – who knows what they’ll discover there? Aboard the SS Hook’s chessboard, every piece moves simultaneously, some unwittingly stumbling on compromising information, others actively seeking to frame you.
An eminently replayable maze of possibilities where one unused dialogue option may reveal a silent grudge and another trigger an uneasy truce built on promises of mutual destruction, Overboard! keeps adding twists long after you think you have it all figured out. There’s a pleasure in the awareness that a minor decision may derail the story, but inkle doesn’t solely rely on complex narrative structure for impact. Bold colours and evocative, comic-style panelling complement the unrepentant wickedness, while Tom Kail’s excellent sound design adds an extra layer of theatricality, from the angelic choir that ironically punctuates the consummation of an illicit affair, to the frenzied strings accompanying Malcolm’s fateful plunge.
However, unlike earlier attempts at emergent storytelling, letting players loose in a world whose various subplots move in real-time (or simulation thereof) and where every action can have far-reaching consequences, Veronica’s laser-focused machinations feel at odds with what is an inherently exploratory structure. Golden Glitch’s Elsinore, for example, encourages your wandering in the titular castle by refusing to task you with saving Ophelia and, though Cinemaware’s much older It Came from the Desert leads inexorably toward a final showdown with the giant ants closing in on the town of Lizard Breath, every path taken there feels equally legitimate.
On the contrary, Overboard! is obsessed with exonerating its protagonist, a single-mindedness that helps establish a gripping sense of paranoia in the first few playthroughs but eventually imposes an ill-fitting hierarchy of choices. A checklist of suggestions in the top left-hand corner helps sustain tension by hinting at what you should be looking for next but, by highlighting certain paths, it devalues others as you’re gradually corralled towards an ideal narrative trajectory. In this way, Overboard! matches the outlook of its capricious villain: quick to delight but easy to tire of.
The pithy dialogues are never less than engaging and, while only a limited number of lines are voice-acted, Amelia Tyler’s performance as Veronica makes for an irresistible villain, dripping with disdain for everyone around her yet curiously sympathetic – a Jazz Age Cersei.
Another engaging narrative experiment by inkle, even if Overboard!’s single-mindedness clashes with its open-ended structure.
Genre: Dialogue-’em-up | Format: PC (tested) / Mac / iOS / Switch | Developer: inkle | Price: £11.39 | Release: Out now