I myself am not a novelist, though I’ve taken a stab at completing several books, one of which still lingers in the back of my mind as something decent or, at the very least, worth finishing off. That said, I have had some short stories published over these past years of my capricious life–hey, check out “Opportune” in the Triangulation: Lost Voices anthology, being sold over at that Amazon dot com site–and do grok a bit of the internal struggles that come with balancing time with creativity and drive, in terms of producing something.
That’s what’s at the heart of The Novelist–balance. This 2013 game about life, family, and the choices we make comes from Kent Hudson and Orthogonal Games and packs quite a wallop. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me, an introvert who spends far too much time worrying about decisions, both past and those still to happen, and whether anything could have been or be different. I will most likely only ever play this game once, and so the decisions I made for the Kaplans are final and finite, never to play out differently. Let me set up the plot for y’all…well, at least how it starts.
The Kaplans are on vacation in an isolated house on the coast. Novelist Dan Kaplan hopes the time away will not only reconnect them all, but also defeat his crippling writer’s block, which is stopping progress on his next book. Dan’s wife Linda wants to work on their failing marriage, as well as develop a career as a painter. Their son Tommy is incredibly lonely here and desperate to gain his father’s attention. Also, the house is haunted, and you play as this spiritual incarnate, listening to the family’s thoughts and influencing the decisions the family makes over the course of the summer. More on that last bit…in a bit.
The Novelist has two styles of play: stealth or storytelling mode. I went with the former, since it seemed to add more to the gameplay, wherein you actually have to be careful not to make yourself known to the house’s inhabitants, otherwise you can’t read their thoughts and help influence them in a certain direction. As a ghost, you can travel–and safely hide–in lights, but you can also exit light fixtures to move around the home, and this is when you need to be aware of where Dan, Linda, and Tommy are at all times. If they see you, they’ll become suspicious, and if you can’t hide fast enough, they’ll eventually be spooked to the point of no return. Without this element, I feel like The Novelist would simply be an interactive story, which is not a deal-breaker at all, but trying to remain hidden at least adds some tension while searching the home for clues.
The Novelist is separated into chapters, and in each one, you must gather clues and listen to the family’s thoughts to learn about their lives and true desires. Once you are ready, you must make a decision, which means selecting one person’s desire over the other two, which often leads to disappointment on their parts. If you found enough clues, you can make a single compromise, which means it’s only half disappointing and probably better than nothing. For one chapter, I forgot to make a compromise before whispering my ghostly choices into Dan’s ear as he slept, and I’ve felt horrible ever since–someone else could have at least be minutely happier, if not happy, and I funked it up.
Anyways, your decisions then affect the next chapter and how the characters feel and move on with their days. You’ll read letters and notes that give you a glimpse of the repercussions you’ve created, as well as feel like a sad sack of slop every time you spy one of Tommy’s crayon drawings. At night, after you found all the clues and selected your decision, you get to wander the house freely as everyone sleeps, coming across spiritual journal entries of people that once lived in the house; I found this to be the least interesting aspect of The Novelist, and it felt like a forced way to explain how the home became haunted by a spirit. All I was concerned about was the here and now, the current happenings.
Ultimately, from The Novelist I learned that I’m probably going to be a terrible parent. Many of Tommy’s issues, such as wanting to build a toy car or look for arrowheads in the woods, seemed trivial when compared to fixing Dan and Linda’s marriage or Dan making progress on his next novel, which, as an author, is his job and future income and security. So Tommy got left out for a lot of the game, except later when I did make his education a top priority for the family. Still, there were ups and downs across the whole summer, and while things turned out okay-ish for everyone involved, I still wonder if I could have done a better job of manipulating them towards happiness.
The Novelist will not blow anyone away with its visuals, but the writing and solid voice acting really help bring the Kaplans to life, in a way that makes their dreams and desires feel tangible–and thus more heartbreaking when you steer them off the path. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in choice, as this is basically those big moments in Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but from beginning to end, and much more mundane. It’s all the more believable despite the magic whispering ghost zipping from lamp to lamp and hiding in bathrooms, which never seemed to get visited, to not get spotted.