Video games are great at getting a reaction out of players. As players, there’s really no other choice. If a game requires us to reach a far-off destination, we jump. If an enemy attempts to kill our character, we quickly react by mashing on buttons until the foe is defeated. A game presents us with a wealth of things to do and we respond in-kind with whatever actions are required. Over time, the medium has become increasingly better at getting an emotional reaction out of players. Rather than just responding with our fingertips, our hearts come along for the ride as well. Nuanced or not, it’s a sign of a good game if the player becomes emotionally invested in it. The Novelist will have players shouting at their screens, racked with guilt, groaning with sadness or misty-eyed with joy. The reaction? Keep playing.
The core of The Novelist’s story is easy enough to explain. Dan Kaplan is a struggling writer who desperately needs to find the inspiration to finish his newest novel. To do so, he and his family have moved to an isolated house for the summer. Facing pressure and deadlines from his publisher, Dan must also juggle being a good father to his son Tommy and a good husband to his wife Linda. But players don’t take on the role of Dan. Instead, control is given in the form of a ghost who haunts the rooms of the house.
Rather than having Dan make his own decisions, the ghost will influence how resolutions are made inside the house. he plot advances through a constant series of crossroads Dan must face. Each of the Kaplans has their own desires for a chapter and the player chooses who gets resolution and who doesn’t. Throughout the story, Dan has trouble concentrating and finding inspiration on his book – will he work on a problematic chapter instead of spending a night with his wife? Will he instead take Tommy down to the beach to explore and spend just a few, less inspirational hours on his book?
As the ghost sniffs around for information, we find that Tommy has had a problem with bullies because he is a slow learner. Do you ignore him and risk his happiness at home and school? It may sound like the makings of an after-school special but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The game throws a lot of difficult decisions at the player and each has its own weight that can pain the heart. Even after the conclusion of the first night, it can be difficult to see how inaction with one member of the family affected them.
In The Novelist, decisions are final, not merely cut-and-dry. By making these choices, a feeling of permanence is forced onto the player. Having the player feel awful at a choice made in the game might not be “fun” in the traditional sense of what we think video games are. That being said, forging an emotional connection with digital characters is a sign of tight writing and realistic characterization.
Players will shout at their screen if Dan does something terrible. They will regret ignoring Tommy and hold their head in shame as he draws a sad picture of his father. One can appreciate the fact that there is no perfect ending here. Multiple plays can explore different choices and what they lead to but each time, those moments feel real and meaningful. At the story’s conclusion players will no doubt reflect on the “Novelist” and its meaning in how stories are told through games.
The game builds itself around the player figuring out how to resolve the issues of each family member. To do so, they will control the ghost as it travels around the house gathering clues. Part of gameplay is tied to stealth. As a ghost, players can freely walk around the house but risk scaring the Kaplans. If they get scared, their story resolution is blocked out for the chapter. To stay out of sight, the ghost can possess light fixtures around the house where it will scan the area for clues. Flickering a light will cause one of the Kaplans to investigate it, allowing the ghost to temporarily move around while they are distracted. It isn’t Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell, but it certainly doesn’t aim to be. There are times when stealth can be tense but the difficultly does go up a notch as the game goes on by having some of the lights turned off, forcing the ghost to walk around rather than teleport everywhere. Those who wish to explore the story rather than focus on stealth will definitely appreciate the option to turn stealth off and have the ghost be permanently invisible.
Players will search the house for clues to slowly discover what each Kaplan wants out of that chapter. Letters and objects are scattered around the house and reading or investigating them provides insight into that person. The ghost can also read their thoughts and explore their memories. Sneaking up behind a family member and pressing space will allow the ghost to enter into a memory where more clues are found either in conversations characters have with each other or notes they write to themselves and others. It might be simple, but these clues also help paint a larger picture of each character.
When the player figures out exactly what one of the Kaplans wants, they can end the chapter and watch their resolution play out. Further investigating everyone else opens up their resolutions as well. All is not lost, though, as the player can come up with a compromise for one character. It might not be their ideal outcome but it prevents at least one person from coming up empty-handed.
Often, it can be upsetting to watch part of Dan’s home life fall apart while another repairs itself. Those who become invested in the Kaplans will begin to recall past decisions and try to eke out a collective happiness for them. Since Dan abandoned Linda one night, maybe it’s time to make it up to her and ignore that important novel milestone? Decisions are rarely made without several moments of thought and prediction on what the outcome will be. Because different endings are achievable, the game begs to be replayed. Players will pick up on things they might not have noticed before or at least try and see what will become of their “model” family next.
Graphics & Sound
The Novelist never takes players out of the Kaplans’ summer home. The game is a very contained experience and doesn’t try to handle more than it can. The simplicity of its looks also makes it easier for players to fill in the unknown spaces.
Dan and his family could potentially be any possible husband and wife or father and child combination – a kind of blank canvas. What’s easier to appreciate are the subtle visual cues peppered throughout the game. Characters and their surroundings begin to reflect the struggles or the joys they face. Tommy’s drawings will cover the walls if something memorable happened to him. Linda’s art changes in expression. If Dan is having a lot of problems with his writing, more pieces of paper will crumbled up in the trashcan by his typewriter. Those touches add to the drama of the story and show that those story beats don’t take place just inside text.
A beautiful piano score accompanies the entire game. Rather than being the same composition over and over again, the score is procedurally done. Like the rest of the game, it never feels the same during every run of the story. It definitely goes for atmospheric over dramatic, holding hands with the “action” of the game rather than punctuating it. Some sound effects and one-line bits of dialogue can seem a bit canned as the ambient noise in the Kaplan’s house. Despite that, the voice-acting is very well done. Everyone feels committed to their roles, coming off as real rather than melodramatic.
What makes The Novelist a tough game is its story, not gameplay. Using stealth is a clever mechanic and is incorporated thoughtfully enough. Still, it only hints at the deeper purpose of using a ghost as the playable character. As a small title, the game could have hit all the trappings of low budgets and being “too out there” for some. But The Novelist takes strength from its honest and often painful story. Families and people can fall apart. They can be miserable in some places while happy in the next.
Kent Hudson obviously drew from experience when creating the game and that memoir tone can resonate with anyone who has similarly struggled as Dan or his family did in the game. The Novelist might not be the most typical game this year but it receives a recommendation because of its emotional punches which never miss an opportunity to make the player react. That portrayal of human honesty and vulnerability places it among the best of this year’s storytelling in video games.