Inkle, the developer of nuanced, writerly games like 80 Days, Heaven’s Vault and Pendragon, has not only surprise-announced a new game, but released it. The game is Overboard! and as I’ve been finding out this week, it’s a lot of fun to play.
It’s a murder mystery but in reverse. You, in other words, are the murderer. You are Veronica Villensey, a fading starlet in the 1930s, and you’re sailing from England to New York with your husband in search of a new life. Money has deserted you back home. But the thing is, you don’t particularly like your husband, so you do the only reasonable thing and sling him overboard. Splosh! This is how the game begins.
How it unfolds from there, though, is up to you. You have roughly eight hours until the boat pulls into New York harbour in which to cover your tracks, stop people talking, and get away with murder.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are several passengers and they’ve all seen or heard different things, and so need handling in different ways. Do you expose their secrets or blackmail them somehow? Or, simply, do you shut them up?
Whatever you decide, it takes time: time to research and time to experiment. And time, sadly, is the one thing you’re always running out of it. Every action drains it. Talk to someone and time ticks away; move around the ship and time ticks away; fall asleep on your bed and time obviously ticks away. It’s the great limiter, time, and there simply isn’t enough of it to do everything in one go.
The idea, then, is to have many goes. To hone your strategy voyage by voyage, attempt by attempt. Think of it like Groundhog day: you will fail but then you will loop around knowing more than you did last time, and eventually you will not put a foot wrong.
It’s a wonderfully compelling idea for a game, and it’s immediately cheerful and fun. The moment you wake up in your cabin, for instance, to a Steward knocking at the door, you can choose to do things like impersonate your husband or make up lies about him being in the bath. Or you can sling all of his clothes out of the porthole for no apparent reason, or steal a paper weight. Or you can just lie on the bed and fall asleep.
Why you’re doing a lot of that, you don’t really know. Some things will be useful, some things not. But the point is: you can. You can satisfy the voice in your head going, ‘I wonder if I can do this…’ Yes, you can drug someone. Yes, you can have a bit of a fling with someone. Yes, you can sling someone else overboard. It’s a joyful game to push the boundaries in.
But it wears a bit thin after a while. The jokes dampen each time around, and on the sixth time through it can start to feel laborious seeing broadly the same interactions again. There is a delight in suddenly discovering a new outcome, though. And I should mention that every effort has been made to make replays painless. Previous choices are remembered and highlighted, and you can lean on a fast-forward button to quickly flick through scenes you don’t want to tamper with.
Plus, the only reason you’re playing for a sixth time is because the game is surprisingly complex. The goal you initially have of getting away with murder will evolve into something harder when you reach it, and there’s apparently a third evolution I haven’t seen yet. There are probably several hours of gameplay here, maybe more.
Maybe some of this is due to Overboard! being a relatively quickly-made game. Development only began in January this year, so it came together in just a few months. Really, it was never intended to be something this big. It went from being a game jam-style break from the ongoing Scottish Highland project – a game about the magic of walking, and the stories that emerge from it – to a full game. And it was a way to lift the team’s spirits as we moved into a Covid-bleak new year. And it has done that: re-energise the team. You can feel it in the game.
“The core thing about this surprise launch is it’s about joy,” Overboard! writer and director, and Inkle co-founder, Jon Ingold, tells me. “We’ve all had a miserable year and everyone, including us, could just do with a moment of joy. And there’s something really joyful about just saying, ‘You know what? [here’s our game].'” No marketing, no wishlists, just a game you can enjoy right now. And I hope you do. Overboard! may be just the plunge you’re looking for.