One of the most prominent trends in Japanese culture over the past several years has been the isekai/tensei genre. A specific take on the classic fantasy story where the protagonist finds themselves in an alternate world somehow. In a large majority of these stories, its main appeal centers around a power fantasy of an incredibly competent main character exploring a usually less advanced world. Where problems begin to appear is when said character communicates to the viewer that they will never face true adversity. Overlord is the shining example of how to make this scenario function properly.
How to do it Wrong
Two of the most recent entries to the isekai genre are this season’s Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody (Death March) and In Another World with My Smartphone (Isekai Smartphone). Both of these shows succumb to the usual pitfalls of the isekai formula in fundamentally the same way, only presented subtly differently.
At the outset, Isekai Smartphone actually has a fairly novel idea. Take a piece of modern technology to a world of swords and magic. If approached correctly, the story almost writes itself. But the author overstepped his bounds and made the protagonist, Mochizuki Touya, a magic prodigy on top of that. This effectively makes the defining feature of the story into a gimmick. Rather than searching up remedies to common diseases or first aid techniques on the internet, Touya can just use a healing spell. Rather than self-teaching himself woodworking, he can just use magic. But what hurts the most is that it does this right several times. Touya uses a GPS to navigate a town and finds cooking recipes online. Those events make use of the show’s unique selling point but the existence of magic makes these scenes all too rare.
Death March has effectively the same issue as Isekai Smartphone, only with a far weaker premise. In this story, our protagonist, Ichirou Suzuki, is inexplicably thrown into the game that he and his company had been developing. That being said, one might expect that he could exploit his knowledge of the game that he helped to develop and that this would be the main concept. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The main character is instead given 3 meteor spells (read tactical nuclear strikes), which Suzuki accidentally uses to commit genocide on a tribe of lizardmen. Thus, giving him 300 levels, fully maxed character stats, more money than he could hope to spend in his life, a gun with unlimited ammunition, 2 swords blessed by the heavens, an infinite supply of fresh water, and some other skipped loot. What this creates is basically a character that does not need to think, has no end goal, and is laughably predictable.
How Overlord Embraces its Premise
At first glance, there aren’t many differences between Overlord and the two stories above. Suzuki Satoru suddenly finds himself in the world of his favorite MMORPG, Yggdrasil, as his character in the game, Momonga, which he renames to Ainz Ooal Gown. Due to the resources of his guild, he has almost no need to worry about being self-sustainable. It is also established early on that military strength is of little to no concern compared to civilizations in that world. With that being said, how does Overlord keep itself interesting? It accomplishes this by being very deliberate and careful about what information any character has, as well as establishing a strong backstory about Satoru’s time in his guild.
A character’s actions often come down to what information they have to work with. Although Ainz is an expert of the game Yggdrasil, the world that he has transported to is subtly different. As such, Ainz can never be fully reliant on what he remembers from the game, but he always makes the most of what he does know. He learns about the world and is caught off guard along with the viewer. By forcing Ainz to stay his hand, what actually plays out is more of a global tactical drama rather than an action adventure story. He must consider if a hostile group of people have value to him, so he can’t just slaughter everybody he meets. Yes, Ainz and all of Nazarick are overpowered, but the story organically puts a leash on that power. What’s interesting isn’t how strong the people of Nazarick are. But rather, how that strength affects the plot.
What almost every isekai story fails to properly do is give reasons for their characters’ actions beyond morality. Often, authors get lazy and just depict some organization as being racist or slaver drivers, and hope that this is enough to make the audience care about the story. Instead, what Overlord does to make us care about the main cast is to craft a narrative about the guild of Ainz Ooal Gown and always remind us that Nazarick is the most precious thing to Ainz. The guild that he and his friends put their hearts and souls into building is the one thing matters to him. He even refers to the NPCs of Nazarick as the sons and daughters of his former guildmates. So even if the entire main cast is some level of evil, they remain likeable and relatable because they still have comradery amongst themselves. A character that acts in their best interests has infinitely more complexity to them than one that just does “the right thing”. So even if Ainz is the greatest magic caster, the purposes that he chooses to fight for is what fleshes out his character.
Overlord is a very well-conceived story that manages to twist the genre trappings typical of isekai stories to its advantage. By shrouding the world in mystery, it keeps both the characters and the audience on their toes. By fully establishing the work that he had to put into becoming strong, it justifies his strength. He did not obtain what he has by accident like Death March and Smartphone’s protagonists. He earned the right to that power by his own efforts in a way that anybody that plays MMORPGs themselves would respect. And that really is what it comes down to at the end of the day. Even if Ainz can be cruel and ruthless, he is respectable nonetheless and it’s very hard to say that for many other isekai protagonists.