Early Access Snapshot: Overland

Early access games are little presents from possible futures: you're not quite sure where the game is going to end up, but the developer is playing around with ~*~something~*~ and wants to know if it works. For this reason, early access games are chances for the developer to have a dialogue with players: what works in the game & what doesn't; what's exciting & what's rote. 

Sure, you may have to contend with some bugs and crashes, but watching something grow and develop (and getting to see how a game is built from the ground up) is unlike anything else in gaming.

Today, we take a quick look at Finji's upcoming game, Overlandcurrently available on itch.io as a late-stage alpha.

When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to play chess. I think it was an attempt to calm me down and teach me reasoning, but mostly my tiny horse-obsessed self was excited to play a game that featured pieces that looked like horse heads.

For long rainy afternoons, my dad would teach me how to approach the game, how to plan steps and steps ahead, but also how to stay responsive to the ever-changing field. 

I wasn't very good at it.

In an attempt to bolster my confidence, my dad would go easy on me. I think he didn't want be to be discouraged, but I hated knowing that he was being more lenient than he would for, say, a peer. I disliked this more than even losing. What was the point of a difficult strategy game if it wasn't hard?

Overland bears a resemblance to a chess game: it too is turn-based, with different sprites on the field having different powers. It too takes place on a limited field, divided up into squares.

More accurately, though, I guess I should say that Overland  bears a resemblance to the chess I played as a kid against my dad... but only when he finally said, "OK," and took off the training wheels. 

Overland is unrelenting and difficult. But, as a strategy game, it should be. Its leanness and its meanness makes it captivating.

Overland is a turn-based strategy game with roguelike elements (specifically: the levels are generated algorithmically [thereby changing with every play-through], its gameplay takes place on a grid, and characters experience permadeath).

It takes place after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster. The player starts with one (possibly two) characters, and can build their team as the game progresses. Each character has a random skill: some get an extra move on their turn, others can revive fallen comrades within a certain time.

The player navigates these characters as they attempt to cross the United States. Along the way, the player can decide when to make pit-stops. Each pit-stop might bring the player some needed resources (a med kit, a toolbox, gasoline, a new car, a new companion), but each stop is also full of scuttling little alien mutants. These little mutants glow like they're straight out of Attack the Block and intend to kill every human that they hear. 

Any little noise will attract more: move a dumpster, and a few will pop out of the ground, drawn to the sound. Pit-stops that seem relatively relaxed could suddenly become out of hand with one ill-timed explosion. I lost a whole group of survivors over the course of one awful turn when my car exploded, drawing in a whole bunch of nearby mutants to pick off the one un-scorched human.

Most of my games ended quickly and frustratingly, with a group of survivors I had carefully tended and curated suddenly done in by one wrong move on my part.

I say it was frustrating, because it absolutely was. But it always felt fair, albeit difficultly so. So, I was never frustrated at the game, only at myself for not adequately thinking far enough ahead. Whenever I invariably lost one group of survivors, I would just start a new game and try again.

The more I think about it, this website is my attempt to reason out why I don't connect with a vast swath of mainstream video games. Specifically: I run in circles around the question of why mainstream video games lean into very specific horror/tension-generated mechanics (first person, survival, jump scare, etc.).

Playing Overland , I ended up thinking a lot about how it effectively shows a different and, ultimately, successful way of generating tension and horror in a gaming mechanic. There aren't any jump scares, and I'm never lulled into a state of empathic connection with a first-person perspective. However, throughout the game, there's a looming sense of dread. My partner started to watch me play, but had to quit due to the tension he could feel building in his chest.

Overland doesn't pressure you into any timed requirements. In fact, it gives you all the time in the world to plan your strategy, since the monsters only move once you say it's the end of your turn. Sure, you're limited by how many moves your characters can take each turn, but with a "go back," button to undo any thoughtless clicks, there's room and time to make sure your character goes where you want them to.

But, within this, the game finds ways to make you feel tense. The board is small, creating a feeling of claustrophobia that seems incongruous with the vastness of America, but totally in line with the myopia of terror. The sound design is a constant low and ominous hum, something that would be perfectly at home in a David Lynch movie. The mutant monsters move erratically, in ways that follow rules but are unpredictable to the player.

And, to go back to it: the game is hard. Like I said, one ill-timed move can spell the permanent end for a group of survivors you've grown attached to. (I felt especially tied to one all-women group that had made their way out of improbable escape after improbable escape. They were ended when I misjudged how many tiles away I was from a fast-moving mutant. It took out my group's strongest member and medic, and the rest crumbled from there.)

This difficulty means that the game requires the player's undivided attention. It draws you in. I played with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw. I was determined to beat it, even as it continually caused the pit to drop out of my stomach whenever I realized (yet again) that I was about to lose.

I haven't beaten Overland (/I don't even know if Finji has built out an ending yet), but I don't know if I ever beat my dad at chess either. That really wasn't the point. The point was to keep trying and to push myself past the point of tension or nervousness or self-doubt (or even just to sit in it). It's the only thing I've ever wanted, anyway.

Overland can be purchased and played on early access at itch.io. The game definitely has some mechanics to work out (how to store items in my car??), but these are few and minor for such an early-stage game. Overland explores horror in an exciting way, it is tight and lean and satisfyingly difficult, and it's beautiful to boot. There's little not to love.