Veronica Villensey is many things: a former actress, a wife to a wealthy husband, and now, her biggest role of all: a murderer.
But, to be fair, the bastard deserved it. When Veronica pitches her dear husband Malcolm over the side of the cruise ship, she sets in motion events that she could neither have predicted nor evaded — unless, of course, she were able to relive them a second time. And a third. And a fourth, and a fifth...
Overboard! is the latest game from narrative-focused studio Inkle — makers of Heaven's Vault, 80 Days, and Sorcery!, all of which are fantastic — but this one's different. It was made in just a few months, with the team beginning production at the start of 2021 and releasing at the start of June. And you really can't even tell. Inkle has its way of doing things perfected, and they even created their own word-engine, Inky, to do it, making them masters of a craft they pretty much invented.
The premise is simple, but the practicalities aren't. You killed your husband, and now you must cover it up — either as an accident or a murder that someone else committed, if you want to get the life insurance payout. Rather than a "whodunnit", it is most definitely a "youdunnit", and rather than discovering clues and unravelling lies, you're the one planting clues and weaving the lies in the first place.
The trick is not to overdo it, Veronica. You'll look suspicious. Instead, it's all about subtlety: placing evidence of your husband in someone else's room without getting caught, or slyly, casually pointing out someone else's motive.
For the first few rounds you will royally cock it all up. Veronica is stuck in a loop until she gets it right, much like 80 Days, so perhaps you'll push someone else off the boat in a moment of panic, forgetting that the captain can see you from the bridge; maybe you'll be overzealous about planting evidence and someone else will catch you red-handed.
But the joy in Overboard! is actually all about the cocking up, as Veronica repeatedly tries to distract people with the same "look! A dolphin! No, lean out a little further and you'll see it..." line that worked on her husband. Likewise, the failed starlet will also attempt to flirt, blackmail, and play innocent to get what she wants, but time and time again she'll be foiled by some little detail she didn't know about. Ah well. There's always next time.
All of Veronica's machinations are further complicated by an ever-progressing clock. You only have eight hours before the ship reaches land to get it all right; if you spend five minutes fixing your hair, you may miss a vital deadline elsewhere on the boat. There's even a clever and complicated "locked-in" time mechanic to make sure that the passengers are always moving around from room to room at the same time as Veronica, so things change every time you play — but we won't pretend to exactly understand how it works.
At the end of every playthrough, everyone will be gathered in the dining room, Poirot-style, where the passengers that you didn't inexpertly murder discuss what they saw... or think they saw. Depending on your actions, things will be revealed, motives will be questioned, blackmails will be blackmailed, and the group will come to a decision, which most often is an inconvenience to Veronica.
What you learned in that playthrough, though, can inform your next go around — perhaps you know exactly where to look for that incriminating photo, or perhaps you know someone's pressure points a little better. However, Veronica herself doesn't retain that knowledge, so you'll have to guide her into discovering it again. Luckily, you can fast-forward through dialogue and choices that you've made before.
It would be remiss of us not to mention other classy little details that Inkle has added to the whole affair to give it a certain aesthetic, too. The soundtrack is entirely recorded on wax cylinder, using some of Thomas Edison's own recordings to lend the game that crackly early-20th Century feel. There's an entirely playable Pontoon minigame that'll pit you against a man with secrets, using stolen money. Every day, you'll get new objectives, which will spur you on to trying new things, like getting someone to actually confess to the crime.
Oh, and if you get stuck, your 'hintline' is literally God. And he's not particularly impressed with you, by the way.
Because of the complexity of the web Inkle has woven in just a matter of months, there are the occasional loose ends — characters mentioning things that haven't happened, or knowing things they shouldn't — but it's honestly remarkable that the game works at all. These minor issues don't break the story, and the story is still this beautiful, complex, responsive thing that, for the most part, seems organic and real, as the characters orbit around each other being malicious and secretive. It's a masterpiece of smart and efficient narrative fabricwork that must have been an absolute nightmare to build, but it's beautiful nonetheless.
If you've ever watched The Talented Mr Ripley or Murder on the Orient Express, and thought to yourself, "Pah! I could have gotten away with it", then this is your chance. Inkle has achieved something pretty bloody brilliant in an impressively short space of time. The question is: can you do the same?
Where 80 Days was about the broad implications of travelling the entire globe, Overboard! focuses instead on the minutiae of a single day, and the intricacies of interaction. It's a glorious study in how to create a delicate Rube Goldberg machine of dialogue and dependencies, as a cast of mostly terrible people waltz around each other with ulterior motives and pre-existing feelings about everything, including our Veronica and dear, departed Malcolm. It's excellent: play it.