Aboard an ocean liner travelling from Britain to New York in the late 1930s, a famous actor murders her husband by throwing him from the upper deck into the raging sea. If this were a piece of golden age detective fiction, the fate of the drowned man would form the basis of an intriguing whodunnit, but in the hands of narrative game specialist Inkle – a team that skilfully turned Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days into a luscious interactive adventure – it was never going to be so straightforward.
Instead, Overboard! is told from the killer’s perspective, the player taking on the role of faded screen idol Veronica Villensey who launches her spouse Malcolm into the Atlantic in order to claim his life insurance. From this point on, your job is to create an alibi for Veronica as well as perhaps implicating another passenger in Malcolm’s watery demise. This is achieved by touring the ship and chatting to other characters – some of whom can be useful allies, while others may have secrets to hide that can be exploited to divert attention or even set up ulterior suspects. The game has an internal clock that ticks towards your arrival in New York, so any plan you formulate has to be tidily and swiftly enacted, relying on certain characters being in the right place at the right time, and important objects such as keys, sleeping pills and damning documents being discovered and utilised.
Cleverly, there’s little chance of you getting away with murder and claiming the insurance cash in your first attempt. Instead, the game constantly restarts, giving you a fresh chance to bend events and suspicions to your will. As with the Hitman series, the game also presents you with a series of side objectives to tick off, so you always feel like you’re making progress. This also ensures that each time you get to the game’s perennially repeated climax – which sees retired military figure Major Singh gathering all the passengers into the dining room to investigate Malcolm’s disappearance – you have a new titbit to exploit.
Everything is performed through a beautifully simple interface that contains nothing more than a 2D representation of the ship and a series of simple dialogue windows. However, through the sparklingly witty dialogue and occasional sound effects and music, you’re completely transported into the fiction. From the dashing yet rather suspicious boat captain, to the cocktail-swilling widow, to the obsequious, all-seeing steward, Overboard! brilliantly reproduces all the archetypal characters and intrigues of a Dorothy L Sayers novel, with a dash of modern irony and self-parody that keeps each playthrough fresh and entertaining.
Developed in two months by a small team, Overboard! makes the absolute most of its compactness and focus to produce a riveting narrative puzzle box. It is of course a visual novel, of sorts, but within it there is the essence of experimental adventure titles from the 1980s and 90s – the likes of Lure of the Temptress and The Last Express – which explored and combined game styles to produce new experiences beyond the somewhat static conventions of the genre. From its modest graphics, confined world and small cast, Overboard! conjures something that feels expansive and alive, something reassuringly familiar but also strange and surprising.
Overboard! allows us to imagine what would have happened had Agatha Christie seen Groundhog Day and written a whole new type of mystery novel as a result. Its mobile format also works in its favour – as a Switch or smartphone game, it feels like carrying a little detective paperback around with you, except here you are the lead character, author and reader. As an experiment in fast, story-based game development it is – unlike most of my own mariticidal plots and alibis – a quite scintillating success.
• Overboard! is available now; £10