It’s tough to write a compelling whodunit.
There’s a reason why authors like Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raymond Chandler are considered masters of the genre. Their narratives are painstakingly constructed with trails of breadcrumbs readers need to determine the killer’s identity without being obvious or hackneyed. At the end of each story, we feel like we have gone through the same journey as their protagonists, seeing through the lies and deceit to the indisputable truth. At their best, video games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa try to emulate this feeling, casting the player into the role of the detective with varying degrees of success.
But what about the genre of the reverse-whodunit? Rather than track down the clues, it’s up to you to avoid leaving them (except for ones you leave intentionally to misdirect the shamus). That’s much harder to pull off in fiction, but it’s a perfect fit for video games!
In Overboard!, you play as the recently widowed Veronica Villensey. How recent? Well, ever since you threw him overboard the SS Hood the previous evening. You wake up in your cabin in the afterglow of your crime, only to realize that you left a trail of clues behind you. To inherit your ex-husband’s fortune and get away scot-free, you must successfully frame another passenger for the crime while hiding your own guilt. A tricky situation, but thankfully, you can relive the day over and over, learning the routines and secrets of fellow passengers and crew members. How many different ways can you find to frame those innocent fools and walk away with your “well-deserved” inheritance?
Overboard! is a time-loop game, a genre that has become very popular in recent years. Whether or not you succeed in getting away with the crime, you always return to the moment after you push your husband into the icy cold waters of the Atlantic. However, unlike many time-loop games, there are no plot contrivances here, as the loop isn’t part of the game’s overall narrative. Instead, it’s more of a “choose-your-own-adventure,” where you restart every time with the knowledge of your previous attempts. Think of it as a period-piece/visual-novel version of Hitman.
Unlike Hitman with its lavish set pieces and hundreds of NPCs/disposable meat puppets, Overboard! is an exercise in minimalism. The cartoony graphics lack animation, but the characters are still wonderfully expressive. The music is period-specific and catchy, and the voice acting is minimal yet effective. There’s little to distract you from the real draw of the game: the writing.
The writing in Overboard! is simply exceptional. It perfectly emulates the style of classic mystery novels set in the 40s while forging ahead with a distinct identity. Ms. Villensey, though remorseless in her crime, is so charming that you can’t help but love her. Frankly, I kind of wanted her to get away with it (especially given what an utter heel her husband was). She is a classic femme fatale, and pity the poor man (or men) falling for her, as they might be the next one swimming with the dolphins.
The supporting cast are far more than brief character sketches, each of them harboring layer upon layer of secrets. Characters who appear to be complete strangers might in fact be old acquaintances at each other’s throats. Learning their habits and schedules is vital for uncovering information and manipulating events to your advantage. For example, if you want to sneak into someone’s room, it’s crucial they are occupied somewhere else on the ship when you come a-knocking. There is a remarkable amount of freedom for a game that is primarily a visual novel. I could easily imagine a fully-3D version of Overboard! where you navigate the ship in real-time. But honestly, I don’t think it would beat the wonderful economy of gameplay that the developers built into this title. It’s said that limitations inspire creativity, and a game like this exemplifies that philosophy.
After a set time period, every run culminates in the classic murder mystery “grand finale,” where the investigator gathers the suspects and breaks down his findings. The detective in this tale, Major Singh, is your main adversary. He’s a worldly man who is not easily fooled, so if you missed even a single clue or displayed suspicious behavior to the crew, he will be on you in a second, leading to a less-than-desirable ending. Pulling the wool over his eyes will require many loops, leading to the best possible conclusion where you walk away with your freedom AND your fortune. Even after that point, there are other potential endings to discover, with many other patsies you can use as your alibi.
Like many other time-loop games, Overboard!‘s design encourages multiple playthroughs as you strip away its layers. After you have seen everything, however, there is little reason to return. The reverse mystery is the big draw here. After that is “solved,” there is little reason to play again. Maybe in a few years, when my memories of the characters and situations have faded.
Overboard! is simply an incredible puzzle-box of a game. The ship’s small size and the limited timeframe for events hide tremendous content and depth. Uncovering all the secrets of the passengers for your own ends will require careful observation, repetition, and smart choices. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you stumble upon another possible way to get away with the crime. Your first few runs are likely to be fruitless, but the writing is at such a high level that even failure leaves you entertained. Set sail with Overboard! It’s a murderously good time!