Veronica Villensey has murdered her husband in cold blood, and you're going to help her get away with it. This is the devilish premise of Overboard, a superb new slice of interactive fiction from 80 Days studio Inkle. Cleverly, it's a detective game in reverse. Rather than solving a murder, you're covering one up. The morning after dunking her spouse in the Atlantic, Veronica wakes up in her cabin aboard the S.S. Hook, a ship making its way from England to New York in 1935. You have a few hours to make it to port without being exposed, a task made difficult by the nosy passengers you're sharing the voyage with.
Overboard's story is short and self-contained, but with countless different permutations based on the things you have Veronica say and do, and where you go on the ship. It's a remarkably dense, intricate narrative, and joyous to experiment with across repeat playthroughs. Being a murderer, Veronica's morals are pretty loose, meaning you can indulge in all manner of unsavoury behaviour to help her evade the law. She won't think twice about drugging people, stealing money, or planting evidence to frame someone else for the murder. In fact, she seems to enjoy it, which is quite refreshing. Few games are this willing to let you really relish being the villain. Veronica is absolutely, unashamedly horrible, and I love her for it.
It's a text-based game, with a wonderfully crisp, snappy interface of the kind Inkle has gotten extremely good at over the years. Much of the game involves conversing with (and lying to) your fellow passengers, a colourful, eccentric bunch who wouldn't feel out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. The conversations are brilliantly written, and I love how the game forces you to really pay attention to what you say. If you contradict yourself, someone will notice. Overboard is essentially a game about spinning an elaborate web of lies to cover up your guilt, but also making sure your story is consistent so it doesn't fall apart under scrutiny when people realise something is afoot.
Between conversations, you choose where to spend your time on the ship. You could visit the captain on the bridge (and seduce him if you like), take a promenade along the upper deck with a gentleman, or play cards in the smoking room. In doing so you'll bump into the other passengers and find opportunities to cover up the murder—say, finding a piece of damning evidence, then dumping it in the ocean to get rid of it. But what's magnificent about the game is that you're never really certain what the consequences of these actions will be, and you can easily make mistakes that will expose you. It's an impressively malleable narrative, with many different, surprising outcomes—which makes reaching New York without being captured doubly satisfying.
It took me about five attempts, amounting to just over an hour, to successfully get away with the murder for the first time. But even then, I'd only seen a fraction of the many possible routes through the story. I'd also left a frustrating loose end, receiving a creepy anonymous letter from someone saying they know what I did. Similar to 80 Days, failure is actually part of the Overboard experience. It's only when you go back and try again (and again, and again) that the real depth of the narrative emerges. And I'm thankful for the quality of life features Inkle has implemented with this in mind, particularly being able to automate decisions you've already made to speed up replays.
And judging by the achievement list, I still have a lot to see. One seems to suggest it's possible to kill all seven passengers in one playthrough, which is certainly one way to get away with a murder. I managed to commit three additional murders in a single run, which I thought was impressive at the time. I guess not. Overboard is another slam dunk from Inkle, and one of the most imaginative (and evil) narrative games I've played in years. It's brilliantly presented too, with a classy period setting, a soundtrack of scratchy gramophone music, and vibrant, stylish character art. It's out now, and if you love a good detective game, it's basically a must play.