My first playthrough of Overboard! went terribly wrong. Having just killed my husband, there was mounting evidence against me, including a slew of witnesses. Playing through the game several more times, I finally managed to turn the tables. You could still say things went wrong, but this time, disaster fell on everyone but me.
Overboard! is an excellent reverse murder mystery by developer Inkle, the creator of narrative-driven adventure games like 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault. You play as a devilish young British woman in the 1930s aboard a ship headed to America. She’s ready for a fresh start, and she makes sure of it by killing her husband aboard that very ship. Getting away with murder is the goal, but you may only pull it off with an inventive series of kills, bribes and seduction, making for an enticing experience that doesn’t always go as planned.
This darkly humorous twist on the classic murder mystery is an impeccable work of narrative design; it’s astonishing that the development team managed to make the game in only 100 days during a pandemic. It’s meant to be replayed numerous times — think of it as a deadly Groundhog Day — reliving the hours after your husband’s death over and over. Despite that repetition, it’s a riveting concept that never gets old because each 10 to 20 minute run can be drastically different than the last.
The story is affected not just by decisions in dialogue, but also smaller choices like how long you spend in different areas of the ship. Every moment is crucial. Spending too long in your cabin in the morning and arriving late to breakfast can arouse suspicion and leave you in a jail cell by the game’s end. Alternatively, talking to someone for too long can mean another character may have moved elsewhere. I wanted to tamper with an old lady’s drink, for example, but with all characters following their own tight schedules (think Stardew Valley), she was long gone by the time I got there. That’s part of the brilliance of Overboard!: It’s all about deciphering how to be in the right place at the right time and using everyone’s schedules to your murdering advantage.
A timer counts down to the end of the trip, too, so you need to tie up loose ends before the ship reaches its destination. Despite the tight schedule, this never feels too stressful; Overboard! is inherently a game about failure and learning from that failure. With every minute that ticks by, you learn something new for your next run. For example, you might figure out how to cover your tracks only through a fumbled mistake. Other mistakes are darkly comical, like realizing that maybe it’s not the best idea to seduce the captain when there’s, uh, a dead body stuffed under the bed.
Small quality-of-life features help bolster that clever design, such as fast-forwarding dialogue you’ve already seen, and the ability to rewind once every scene if you want to see different choices. The latter may sound like cheating, but in practice, it doesn’t feel that way. Attempting to see all there is to see in Overboard! is the point, for it happily gives you breadcrumbs of clues along the way to crack the narrative puzzle. You may realize that a batch of sleeping pills left in your bathroom could be used to kill something other than your insomnia.
Probably the most fun I had with Overboard! was ticking off an in-game list of objectives, particularly those that helped in my self-imposed goal of trying to kill everyone, which is as chaotic as it sounds. Here, the game becomes less about how the sharply written story unfolds and more about solving every possible puzzle, which I’d argue is Overboard! at its most satisfying. You begin to feel like a game designer yourself, exploiting mechanics and getting around constraints to discover all the hidden paths and possible outcomes as you play the game repeatedly.
As a studio, Inkle already has a strong track record for interactive storytelling (seriously, go play 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault). But Overboard! feels different in that the narrative is the puzzle itself, making it one of Inkle’s most experimental titles. It’s a story experienced in short periods of time, and one that was similarly built in very little time. The result is nothing short of brilliant. It makes me wonder what more Inkle could do with this style in a longer development cycle. Whatever it may be, I’ll be sure to play it.