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The Novelist

Definitely one of the most thought provoking games I’ve played in a long time.

I picked up the Novelist of a recommendation from a friend, not knowing a great deal about it other than the fact that it looked quite different.

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The Novelist casts you as a ghost that haunts a house. Over the summer, there is a family of 3 (Mum, Dad (the titular novelist) and their son) that stays there in order to solve a number of problems. Dad (Dan, the titular novelist) is struggling with writers block and hopes the retreat will help him finsh writing his latest novel, Mum (Linda) is an aspiring artist and worries about the state of their marraige and contemplates leaving Dan, and their son (Tommy) is having trouble adjusting at school and is needy of his Dad’s attention.

Each chapter of the game (there are nine) introduces a dilemma, from which you can choose 1 of 3 outcomes which will favour one of the character’s wishes over the other two (although the decisions are always from Dan’s perspective and what he does). For example, will Dan work on his novel tonight, spend time with his wife or spend the evening building a car with his son? You can also choose to compromise, choosing to half-implement 2 solutions (e.g. work a bit on the book and then hang out with your wife etc.). All of your decisions will make a difference to the shaping of the narrative and the conclusion of the game.

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Gameplay consists of two phases. Your days are spent searching round the house for objects, reading the families thoughts and entering their recent memories to look for clues as to the possible outcomes to the dilemma in question. After you’ve chosen a particular outcome, you enter night time where you can look for clues from the past of the house and make a compromise if you so wish. This brings a nice variation and rhythm to the game, since there are no real puzzle elements to be had and the location never changes from the same small house. Two modes – stealth and story, add an interesting extra layer to things. In stealth mode you can be seen by the Kaplan family, and if you are spotted you will spook them and not be able to choose that family member’s preferred outcome. This makes you think a little differently about moving around the house – instead of just walking round with abandon, you are forced to use the lights (which can be possessed and act as a fast travel system) a lot more to sneak up behind family members to read thier memories and find objects.

But the games hook comes not from these gameplay elements, but from the choices that you make. It may well be light on mechanics, but it uses those few mechanics to great effect. Every choice to do something necessarily means that some things don’t get done, and the other two will be upset. Even if you do make a compromise, it will of course never be the same as if you’d chosen their outcome completely, making you wonder whether it’s worth compromising at all.

You can never actually win at this ‘game’. In the Novelist you can’t work it so that all 3 family members are 100% happy – you just have to think about whether the compromises you made were worth it. Do you put your work first and let your marraige suffer and spend less time helping your child grow and develop? Or do you bury your own ambitions to support those of your spouse and spend more time with your child, to the detriment of yourself and your dreams? Or lavish all your attention on your child to the detriment of both yourself and your partner?

As a working (well, studying, but studying full-time and then some!) father of a young child with a wife, this game really resonated with me and mirrored many of the basic life choices that I have to make, and just how difficult those can be. Subsequently, this is one of the most emotionally evocative games I’ve played in a while, and it achieves this with grace and subtlety that many other titles could learn from.

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As I was playing I noticed many other clever development decisions that I really respect. The developer (Kevin Hudson) has really kept the scope of this game down in sticking to one small location to use for the whole game, and it’s shows in his skill how that location never becomes boring. The art style is basic yet more than enough and carefully selected pieces of environmental narrative are just enough to fill in what’s going on and how everyone feels (Tommy’s crayon drawings being particularly poignant here). Sound is minimal but enough to create the bleak atmosphere the game needs (you are a ghost after all!). The only major problem is that the voice actor for Linda is pretty poor – bland, almost monotone delivery does do damage to an otherwise well-written game, and thankfully the voice actor for Dan is much better. Strange that there was never a voice actor for Tommy though.

It just goes to show just how powerful and engaging games can be on a wide range of topics, and that you don’t need a massive team in order to do it. This is one man’s creation that speaks to the timeless dilemma of choosing your priorities carefully, and the juggling act that goes with it.

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