The Novelist may not be conventionally exciting, but it’ll take you on an emotional not-so-merry-go-round.
How much of your personal ambitions and desires are you willing to sacrifice for those closest to you? This life-defining question lies at the warm, melancholic heart of The Novelist. This creation comes from the mind of Kent Hudson, who has taken to indie development with Orthogonal Games after over a decade spent working on hit titles such as Thief: Deadly Shadows and BioShock 2.
The Novelist puts players in control of a ghost which haunts a summer house, and is able to explore the memories and dictate key decisions made by members of the Kaplan family, who are staying there for the summer. While perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong description for an entity that has powers of mind control, can’t pass through walls, and can inexplicably transport itself between electronic light fixtures, the best alternative description I came up with was ‘destiny-defining super-conscience’, so the more conventional term will have to suffice for now.
As this lamp-dwelling spectre, it’s your job to find out what Dan, Linda and little Tommy Kaplan want from their lives, and help each of them pursue their dreams while not completely neglecting other members of the family. Dan is an author struggling with writer’s block, Linda is his wife who has creative ambitions of her own and fears that their relationship may be on the rocks, and Tommy is a struggling-at-school son. As in life, all their needs must be considered, and the game eschews action for careful emotional consideration. Yes, there’s a more challenging ‘stealth’ mode in which you have to snoop around the house while avoiding coming face-to-face with the family, which scares the shit of them and locks you out of their precious memories, but that’s very much an aside. What we’re dealing with here is a game entirely about compromise.
You snoop around the house on key days throughout the Kaplans’ summer, reading memoirs and pamphlets, looking at paintings, and exploring the family’s memories, which let you relive key recent moments in their lives. Using the clues and your own sense of what takes priority in life to guide you, you finish each day by choosing which family member’s desires to fulfil, at the expense of the others. Making things a little less guilt-inducing is the option to fulfil a second character’s desires in a ‘compromised’ way, but each turn is bound to end in at least some disappointment for someone. Satisfaction is not gained here in the ‘now,’ but in piecing together your knowledge of the past to shape a decent future for the family. Even then, the spectre of disappointment (shamelessly intentional pun) always lingers.
Any decision you make will leave you with a bittersweet feeling.
The amount of dithering I invested into The Novelist is a testament to the game’s emotional impact. Can I get Dan to turn down playtime with his son for a second round in a row when there is a deadline looming for his novel? Do I bang away at the typewriter or bang my wife? In The Novelist, such decisions have far-reaching consequences.
After each day/chapter ends, the game enters a slow black-and-white montage showing the effects of your decisions, and emphasises the impossibility of keeping everyone happy all the time. Whether it’s seeing Tommy crying because he couldn’t go to the plane show, Linda forlornly gazing out the window, or Dan holding his head in his hands as he can’t break through with his novel, any decision you make in the game will have leave you with a bittersweet feeling; even if two out of the three people are happy, why is it the misery of the one that affects you the most?
The Novelist is a strangely sombre experience. The overall tone of the game – reinforced by its dreamy piano score and sketchy, spectral visual style – feels like you’re constantly battling against the inevitability of disappointment. On balance, it seemed like I came to a satisfactory resolution for most of the family by the end of the summer, but the fact that things didn’t turn out perfect for everyone left me feeling empty. While you can reasonably question whether you want to come away from a game feeling this way, it’s a kind of emptiness which leads to further reflection; I now know, for instance, that I should never have kids. Thank you Novelist, for simplifying my life for me.
The Novelist angles the player towards the father’s point-of-view, which fits well into the theme of the story. From the game’s title, to the fact that you whisper what you want the family to do in Dan’s ear at the end of each day, means that you’re far from being an objective influencer. Just as in real life, you can’t detach yourself from perceiving your own family through either the lenses of the father, mother, or child. So too, in The Novelist you’re confined – albeit subtly – to the eponymous character’s perspective.
As empathising with the Kaplan family goes, The Novelist could’ve used an injection of warmth and wit. When you’re not exploring memories, their interactions as they traipse around the house are limited to the obligatory “Hi honey” and “Hey Kiddo” as they pass each other in corridors. Please God, tell me this isn’t the family life that awaits us all. While that may be a fairly accurate family portrait for some, it would’ve been more emotionally fulfilling if you could see the effects of your actions in the family’s day-to-day interactions, rather than just through their scrawlings, letters and diaries. Maybe the dad could play with the son of his own accord occasionally, or mum and dad could cuddle while watching telly. Shit, someone could even crack a naughty joke to lighten the atmosphere and make them more human.
Upon completing The Novelist, I could only conclude that I’ll be a neglectful father but a loving, horny husband, whose personal ambitions and pandering to my wife’s emotional needs will leave my son doomed to a life of loneliness and boredom. While this sounds about right, I couldn’t help but take this bleak outcome too literally, or personally. Is the game honestly trying to tell me that those couple of times I didn’t take my son to a plane show because of a death in the family, or let his mum put his toy car together rather than his dad, would go on to ruin his life? Surely if the game is musing around the theme of how far the consequences of small events can reach, then it should be open to the possibility that at some point in the future, other similar small events may reshape his life for the better (events not dictated by a peadophobic ghost such as myself, that is)?
The Novelist tells me I’ll be a loving (horny) husband but neglectful father, leaving my son doomed to a life of loneliness and boredom.
Or maybe The Novelist treats our fates as set in stone, defined by our memories, families, and environments. The fact that players control a supernatural being – rather than a family member – feeds into the idea that it would take something out of this world to be able to alter the paths of our lives, which are otherwise defined by our memories, which are defined by the memories of our parents, and so forth.
What’s most fascinating about The Novelist is that it begs you to ask these questions. The uneasy feeling that not everything will work out quite right at the end of each chapter doesn’t conform with our spoilt gamers’ desires for satisfying resolutions and gratification. A seemingly simple playthrough of The Novelist will make you muse about yourself, your priorities, and the very nature of the gaming medium.
The Novelist takes its hat off to the things in life which are seemingly mundane but deceivingly important. It doesn’t have the soulful character or immersive nostalgic atmosphere of fellow first-person snooper Gone Home, but it offers a touching and thought-provoking experience which is incomparable to anything else. Until someone points out to me another title in the ‘destiny-defining supernatural snooper’ genre, then this emotive, transient experience remains one of a kind.