The creatures in Finji’s Overland are, from the outset, unknowable. They’re not adversaries or purposeful antagonists. They just exist, without telegraphing their motives or desires. They don’t even have recognisable faces, reinforcing the alien-ness of their existence and actions. As opposed to the typical invading alien that descends from a darkened sky, they tunnel up through the ground. Have they been here all along and are just returning to reclaim their home? Perhaps there’s a hint of the climate crisis in this dusty landscape. As temperatures rise, creatures that lived, unknown or unnoticed for centuries, are forced to migrate to the surface where they clash with the current fauna, of which we are a part. Whatever is actually happening, you’re not given any explicit answer. You have to infer as you go along, and that guesswork might be your undoing. This encapsulates what Overland is about from start to finish: Unknowing. And regret.
These are in turn two sides of the same slightly atemporal coin, that is ‘loss’. The unknowing is the loss of your understanding of the world around you. Your player characters traverse a world that looks familiar, but is so far from home. Nothing is safe or welcoming, yet you are forced to push on. As well as the creatures you face, the map itself epitomises this continual and weighty unknowing. Each map you enter onto is a distinct and disconnected square. The only constant you can rely on is the road cutting through the middle. The characters are never afforded the hope of seeing the horizon before them, and this is extended for us as the players in that we can catch glimpses of the craggy underlayer. Our party, and every move they take, is separated from the rest of the earth.
Perpetually following behind is regret, which swipes at you through the loss of your actions, characters and agency as you progress. Every wrong move triggers a cascade of adverse effects. Getting hit means you can’t move as freely and have to give up a turn to heal yourself. Run out of gas and you can’t progress, you’re stuck as night falls and the enemies close in. Kill a creature and it triggers more to emerge. While these are definitely punishing consequences, it doesn’t feel like you’re being punished by the game for making bad actions. There are no good moves, just survival, and no matter what you do it’ll turn sour sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time before your luck runs out. The repercussion of killing the creatures is a clear sign of this in that, even after the journey West, whether you survive it or not, the creatures will still keep coming. This is their world now. All you can do is keep moving and keep surviving.
The idea of punishment in videogame terms would imply that you are the centre of this story. A hero facing constantly growing odds that are directly pointing right back at them. Think of Mario, who gets hit by a goomba or falls down a hole and dies, only to come back almost immediately. The exact same hero as before as if nothing ever happened. Punished for not being good enough, but now with the extra boon of knowing what’s ahead. Overland’s whole purpose is to reiterate that you are not the hero, and to think that things are working specifically against you is a holdover from other games. In each and every playthrough you as the player operate somewhere between the pilot and the observer of one more snapshot of the story of humanity’s last gasps against an inevitable cataclysm. This is both a clever twist on, and totally antithetical to, the typical rogue-like game.
Generally (Into the Breach, Enter the Gungeon for example) you have to be the hero, and each failed attempt is a learning experience and another hurdle triumphantly conquered on the road to your eventual victory. Most games give you a single character that you know by name — even if that name is just Solder or Cultist like in Enter the Gungeon — and if you die, you start again. You, the player, retain the knowledge gained from your last run, and your character starts from the beginning of their quest none the wiser. Into the Breach takes this one step further and gives your named character the opportunity to travel back in time when things go south. Neatly tying up that dissonance between player and avatar. Both the player and the character are returning with all the insight of the last playthrough.
Overland, however, is a long string of permadeaths. You learn snippets about your team, but once they’re gone, they’re never coming back. Each character has a tiny humanising fact about them. Just enough to get a sense of their personality so you can fill in the rest for yourself. Like “Got busted for street racing once” or “Went to boarding school and liked it”. Even the dog characters have them, like “Loves to roll in dead things”. None of these snippets changes the game in any tangible way, but it serves to make the defeats all the more intimate. It changes how you see the game, how you feel about the game, even how you play it. These ordinary people, with no special abilities, no gun-toting acrobatics, have histories and lives beyond the current map. Every so often you really care about a particular character (more often than not it’s a dog).
I still haven’t ‘finished’ the game, in that I haven’t reached the west coast, and every playthrough makes it feel a little further away, but I return to this alien world every so often to see what these tiny groups of survivors are doing. Each time it’s exactly that. Surviving.
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As a sort of partner piece to this essay, here is a short photoessay on the segmented architecture of Overland.