The Novelist Review: Compromises and Consequences
The ability to make choices that influence the narrative flow in games is something that’s become increasingly popular; being able to make decisions that have a noticeable impact gives us a feeling a control (or the illusion of control), over the story arc and the way a game plays out. For the most part, games present us with sets of options based on what one may consider right and wrong, and we’re steered in one direction based on our moral compasses, curiosity, or intended outcome. It’s usually predictable and pretty cut and dry.
We’re embodying characters that are in places and situations that are so foreign from anything we’ll actually experience that the decisions we’re forced to make, in many cases, aren’t followed by the emotional impact that we’d otherwise feel if we could relate. So what happens when right and wrong are stripped away, and we’re given a series of scenarios that many of us could identify with?
Then in walks The Novelist, veteran game designer Kent Hudson’s indie title involving a struggling writer and his family.
Afflicted with a terrible bout of writer’s block, Dan seeks a cure by taking his wife, Linda, and son, Tommy, for a three-month stay in a secluded house in the Pacific Northwest.
While Dan views the retreat as a means to concentrate on his second book, Linda sees it as the perfect opportunity to rekindle her passion for painting, and concentrate to on strengthening her relationship with Dan. Tommy, who's been having trouble at school, wants to spend time with his father, and requires extra attention and tutoring from both of his parents.
The Novelist makes it clear what each character wants from the start, and uses their personal and professional ambitions to demonstrate how these desires can conflict with familial and marital responsibilities.
Using the Kaplan’s, the game explores the intricacies and delicate nature of relationships through its emotionally resonant and highly relatable narrative, and by forcing you to make the tough decisions that arise and affect the family over the course of the summer.
Instead of having you play as a member of the Kaplan family, The Novelist has you assume the role of voyeuristic ghost and mediator inhabiting the house. You’re able to flit from light fixture to light fixture as you explore the house for clues in the form of journal entries, letters, and notes, which offer insight into what each family member wants during the course of each chapter. Each chapter also presents a new set of conflicting interests and true-to-life unpredictable situations, such as a death in the family or a job opportunity. The Kaplan’s minds can also be read as they wander about the house during the day, and once enough environmental clues have been found, their memories can be explored for a definitive answer as to what they really want.
...it explores the intricacies and delicate nature of relationships through its emotionally resonant and highly relatable narrative...
Once you’ve fully explored both the house and the Kaplan’s memories, you’re forced to choose who gets what they want by whispering your choice in Dan’s ear while he sleeps. The catch is that no matter what, someone has to end up unhappy with the outcome. Should Dan hole up in his room with a bottle and his typewriter and leave Linda and Tommy to eat dinner without him? Or should he take it easy on the drinking and be more present? You have to decide.
You act as an observer most of the game, and the only agency you really have is the decisions you make at the end of each chapter, allowing one character to end up happy, another somewhat happy, and the third disappointed and/or bitter.
It’s such a seemingly simple mechanic: the requirement that someone has to end up disappointed, but it’s what makes The Novelist such an emotionally difficult and weighty game. While you won’t have much trouble discerning each character’s desires, which are usually a bit too transparent, or exploring the house, you will labor over the difficulty of deciding who gets their way. The process is painful and illuminating, knowing that you’ll have to leave a member of the family even more unhappy and longing, and forced witness what your decision does to each character and the family as a whole.
The close of each chapter causes you to pause and consider the impact of your choice, as well as the previous choices you made and how the family and the narrative is affected. It wants you to consider how you can effectively manage heartache, while preventing heartbreak.
The choices you make are also cumulative, and influence how the Kaplan’s will fare in both the long and short-term.
Having Dan focus too much on his writing could cause his relationship with Linda to deteriorate further, or make Tommy increasingly despondent. If Dan neglects his writing totally, his book will ultimately fail. It’s not a game where the choices fall neatly into the right or wrong categories, but is instead a game about compromises and consequences, and the process of finding a middle ground for everyone involved.
As with the ending of each chapter, finishing the game provides a reflective, and possibly disheartening, experience. Like many decisions we make in life, The Novelist leaves one riddled with uncertainty, wondering “what if I had done things differently?” Or more importantly, “should I have done things differently?”
The Novelist explores a subject rarely touched upon in games; the tightrope we sometimes walk between our personal goals and being able to emotionally provide for those we love.
You relatively short summer with the Kaplan’s might play out differently than mine did. I unintentionally put Dan’s career on the back-burner, and he failed as a writer but can be there emotionally and physically for his family. My Dan stopped drinking and spent more time with his son, while fostering Linda’s artistic passion. In the end Dan’s book was unsuccessful, but his marriage strengthened and survived, and Tommy ended up with a career as a successful illustrator because of the choices I made. It didn’t have a storybook ending, but in life most things don’t, and we just accept that fact and do the best we can.
The Novelist explores a subject rarely touched upon in games.
The tightrope we sometimes walk between our personal goals and being able to emotionally provide for those we love. Using the fragile Kaplan family as a mirror, the game faces a series of difficult and sometimes uncomfortable decisions, and it addresses the all too real issues many of us deal with on a day-to-day basis; issues that burrow themselves into the backs of our minds during the day or keep us up at night. It wants us to consider how we balance selflessness and selfishness, and how and why we prioritize certain things over others. In this regard, The Novelist is a thought-provoking game that’s just as much about the player as it is about the Kaplan’s.
Games The Novelist
Tags indie gameindie gameskent hudson orthogonal games reviewthe novelist game