How Overland makes you care about its disposable characters
"Parents hated his boyfriend. He's allergic to everything now."
There's a concept in comics known as 'closure,' which is the brain's natural tendency to fill in the gaps of a narrative. If we read that a person is on the ground floor of a building, and then later they arrive on the seventh floor sweating and panting, we assume that person just ran up six flights of stairs -- even though we didn't actually see it.
Or consider Ernest Hemmingway's famous six-word novel: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Overland works on a similar principle. Players begin the game as a randomly generated character with exactly four visible details: their portrait, their name, and a two-sentence biography detailing their life before and since the ambiguously-defined apocalyptic event that propels their current journey across a devastated United States. The quote which opens this article is one of those biographies -- in fact, the first one I saw, when lead programmer Adam Saltsman opened up the game to me for the first time.
"All of these variables are independent of each other," says Saltsman. "Things like 'boyfriend,' 'girlfriend,' those are randomized... There are three genders, although the third is switched off right now -- our playertesters mistook the 'they' and 'them' pronouns as laziness, rather than something we were doing deliberately."
Character genders and backstories are a comparatively tiny part of Overland, the core gameplay of which consists mainly of navigating small isometric grids to forage for resources and evade hostile critters. Your goal is to reach the west coast, the source of whatever calamity which befell mankind, but getting there requires constantly scavanging for fuel and risking death. Comparisons to XCOM or Oregon Trail are all but inevitable here -- Saltsman quotes games educator Frank Lantz as once calling Overland 'XCOM for hipsters.' But I feel a more apt description might be 'The Last of Us for minimalists.'
"We went back and forth on the amount of detail to give with these biographies; whether to keep them simple or more detailed," says Saltsman. "Ultimately it's a survival game, so people aren't going to want to read a wall of text."
Despite this, Overland's quick brushstroke characterization is intensely effective. What happened to my randomly-generated character's boyfriend; the parents who disapproved? Are his current allergies the result of the devastated climate or something psychosomatic? What about the two women in my other file, in another lifetime, who deliberately passed on saving a stranded man in favor of picking up a dog?
This kind of reading into things is not remotely new in videogames, but it's handled consciously and deftly here. While Overland is still in alpha, and Saltsman predicts he and his small team at Finji are still about a year out from a final release, the emotional layer of its tiny stories helps bridge an important gap between player and character, in a game that could in other circumstances just be an uninteresting game of post-apocalyptic chess.
Overland is available for purchase on itch.io while in alpha, and Finji hopes to bring it to Steam Early Access at a later date. It's currently on display at the IndieCade booth at E3.
(Full disclosure: I have served as a juror for IndieCade's past festivals and E3 showcases. I was not involved with Overland's selection or, indeed, any of the titles at the showcase this year, so I can recommend them wholeheartedly!)