Despite finally popping my mmo cherry & falling head first into the world of online rpgs with Final Fantasy XIV, it’s no great secret I have a pretty low opinion towards the recent trend of trapped-in-the-game shows, finding the focus on self-insert badass narratives and pawing over the minutia of non-interactive battle mechanics incredibly dull. Why not just get the actual experience rather than aim for a vicarious thrill from something you had no active part in?
Overlord hardly breaks free of this issue but at least attempts a more earnest approach, understanding the emotional resonance of such games, whether in the fear of watching your community and creations fading away or the joy in upgrading stats and online cred. The core conceit remains focused on power fantasy, but instead of the Gary Stu’s of SAO, NGNL & (what I saw of) Log Horizon, the premise deliberately draws attention to Ains Ooal Gown/Momonga existing as an ultra-powerful being within a predominantly weaker world. Rather than trying to force the illusion of tension by pretending there are legitimate threats to him, Overlord is more than aware that it’s basically using a cheat code to breeze through an evil path of the story. I appreciate how unapologetic it is about this while still retaining a level of subtlety regarding Ains’ actions.
It’s also surprisingly funny when it wants to be, playing the humour straight-faced, but with a self-knowing slant that rarely feels indulgent. Npc characters under Ains’ rule treating the petty in-game interactions between former players like the machinations of gods within some mythological fable or Silmarillion style epic never fails to be entertaining – e.g. their retelling of the squabble that ensued from one guild member discovering his sister had voiced a character in his favourite ero-visual novel. Seeing Ain’s horror at discovering an old retainer he had made & forgot about in his youth was some nightmarish Nazi-esque Hetalia cosplayer suffering from a major case of chuunibyou was another highlight. The show does overdo it a bit with chief npc guardian Albedo being madly in love with him because he messed with her settings, but that is kind of the point even if the joke quickly becomes stale. There’s definitely the sense of occasionally overreaching given the material on display.
If I were to have a main problem with Overlord, it’s that there often feels an odd disconnect between how the viewer is supposed to feel about Ains’ goals of world dominion, and actually watching him go about it. Even though he’s technically the authoritarian leader of a demon army, most of which have a fairly negative view on the human race, Ains (both as an avatar and as the nameless player controlling him) is often shown to be kind (if ultimately self-serving), both to his subordinates and unwitting non-guild npcs. Despite using aliases and disguises, there is the sense he is interested in the people around him. However, watching him suddenly bribe people out of all their belongings, being indifferent to the fates of comrades, or straight up murdering potential threats comes across as needlessly barbaric, especially considering the show’s cold and indifferent tone during these moments.
Maybe that’s supposed to the point; after all Ains is effectively following a ‘dark route’, treating the npcs as tools to be used and sometimes even toyed with. You could potentially see yourself doing the same during a play through of a GTA or Elder Scrolls game. However, this is a trapped-in-the-game scenario so the distinction between real and in-world characters blurs to the point of becoming indistinguishable. As a result it often feels uncertain whether some of more grisly scenes come from Overlord making a point about the world being indifferent to their fates, or that we as viewers just aren’t meant to care.
My personal biases gravitate towards the former; however, knowing how genres like this operate it’s probably more likely the show is using everyone but Ains and his inner circle as sheer cannon fodder. If he was pure evil it would make more sense, but the player behind Ains’ persona comes across as an awkward but genuine person, rather than malicious, so hearing his nervous and somewhat bumbling inner thoughts alongside his actions as a despot doesn’t quite gel (even with the whole lacking emotions hand wave). This is no Papers Please. There’s little indication Overlord is making any form of commentary about how your real life and in-game personas can be so radically different.
The end result is a sense of fragmentation, with the show appearing too strongly directed to be saying nothing about Ain’s actions, yet doesn’t invite any discussion about them. As such it’s hard to tell whether Overlord is nothing but a fun, but barebones adventure, a cynical representation of humanity (or lack thereof), or a commentary on the choices we make in games. More than anything I’d like a clear indication that some thought has been given about the type of story it’s supposed to be.