An interview with Finji co-founder Adam Saltsman

We recently had a chat with Adam Saltsman, Lead Coder on Overland, a squad-based survival strategy game developed by Finji. Featuring procedurally generated levels set in a post-apocalyptic North America, Overland will chronicle the struggle to survive after a cataclysmic event ravages the Earth.

Players will engage in turn-based interactions as they strive to take care of a group of survivors on a road trip. Scavenging for supplies whilst travelling west across a desecrated landscape, players will be faced with tough choices and decisions in a desperate bid to survive. Attempting to avoid the sound-sensitive creatures now roaming what remains of North America, accompanied by a cast of fellow survivors you’ll struggle to find weapons and fuel as you try to keep moving. Saltsman had this to say to IIG about the origins of the game.

“It’s… a little embarrassing maybe but I use Twitter too much (still) and at one point I was playing a heck of a lot of the XCOM reboot and Michael Brough’s 868-HACK and posted something to the effect of ‘what if squad-based but small ha ha’ and then went to bed and/or played a bunch more 868-HACK.”

“But then I was like ‘wait WHAT IF SQUAD-BASED BUT SMALL’ and started sketching some things and one thing led to another and we hired someone to make a small digital prototype, which was badly busted, so we made a paper prototype and fixed some things, and then we sort of had slightly a game. Almost.”

Overland
Overland takes you on a procedurally generated road trip through hell.

Overland’s encounters are randomly generated making no two playthroughs the same. The player will take tactical gambles risking life and death to find hidden rewards and unexpected outcomes. Deciding to stockpile gasoline or push your supplies to the limit desperately trying to keep your party alive is core to this experience. Your choices define the narrative. As you can imagine the game features numerous pop culture references, some more obvious than others. Saltsman had this to say on the game’s influences.

“I mean even the origin of the game was very directly from the aforementioned 868-HACK and XCOM. Initially I’d imagined it to be almost more like a 80s alien invasion movie or something, like John Carpenter type of jam. Once Heather Penn got involved we started aiming a little higher, some less obvious influences started coming in, mid-century American gothic paintings, more like… agoraphobia than claustrophobia I guess. A big turning point for me was reading Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, which inspired Tarkovsky’s brilliant film Stalker and the videogames of the same name.”

“The big impact of that book was two-fold, it’s one of the quintessential big/small sci-fi stories, like a big world-changing event seen through a very small aperture, which is a conceit and a framing that I enjoy a lot, it fires up the imagination.”

Another interesting aspect of Overland is its art style. Opting for a minimalistic technique the game is represented in stark outlines and bright colours one tile at a time. It is this tile-based gameplay that gives Overland its distinctive look. Saltsman spoke to IIG about some of the difficulties his team faced bringing the game and its characters to life.

“There were a few challenges in particularly that stand out to me, beyond just the usual technical stuff. One was the creature designs, which I think we worked on on-and-off for six months or more. I have no idea if that effort shows through or not but we were striving for a very specific weird thing and it took us a long time to find it.”

Overland 2
Overland features a beautiful, minimalist art style.

At its heart, Overland is a road trip story, albeit one through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You’ll meet interesting characters along the way creating your own emergent narrative based on the choices you make. In terms of game design, beyond the tile based map, it sticks to what you would expect from a squad-based tactical survival game. The analogies Saltsman made to games such as X-COM hold up here. It is a game that requires thought and planning. You can’t just run in all guns blazing and hope to be victorious. Saltsman had this to say about the challenge of trying to design a game that’s different in today’s market.

“I mean to some extent now it’s like ‘hey man i dunno what to play this weekend, is there anything new in the VR lizard-romancing simulation genre’ or whatever. And your friend will be like ‘yea check out these 3 games that came out on thursday’. That’s crazy and beautiful. What did we do to deserve this?”

“People talk about discovery problems and so on but the real problem and the real challenge that I honestly relish is how do you make something that is even worth playing when a bunch of your audience is sitting on top of a tower of 200 shrink-wrapped games? What do you even make when someone already made Kentucky Route Zero. This is like a life crisis basically. There’s something about this that I like a lot. Like I have to put my best thing out there, and I need to seek out collaborators and we need to support and elevate each other and make something that’s really worth it. The bar is up. Finally. That feels ok to me.”

Overland 1
The tile based map design gives Overland its own distinctive look.

It’s developers like Finji that are bringing the sort of innovation to the industry that has come to define the indie genre. Things may have shifted in terms of revenue, but the heart of indie game design remains the same, experimental gameplay and the willingness to try something different. It’s about creating something unique and Overland certainly offers that. Saltsman offers us some of his thoughts on the indie industry and where it’s currently at.

“So an anecdote: I feel like no one remembers this but there didn’t used to be a genre of survival games. Like that sounds insane to type now but go back to 2007-ish and find me a survival game. There was a weird RPG for the original DS where you were like stranded on an anime island. That’s it. That was the choices you had for the whole entire fantasy of survival. The mid-2000s were, except for some intensely weird PS2 games, I think just a super bland time. Like we were coming down off this insane high of peak Valve and peak Gamecube and there was just nothing. And that’s where the modern indie games scene comes from in a lot of ways, is a reaction to just this profound disappointment in where we ended up.”

“So yea, there was a time when if you made anything even remotely interesting, remotely challenging, something that wasn’t super condescending, there was this huge, hungry audience just roving around snatching things up. I’m not sure if that’s totally true anymore, it feels like there’s so much more interesting, valuable, thoughtful, strange stuff available from so many more channels than before.”

If you’re looking for more information on Overland then check out Finji’s website here.

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