The Novelist Review: When Emotion Trumps Gameplay

Every once in a while, I find myself playing a game that doesn’t really grab me, and yet which I struggle to step away from. The Novelist is just such a title.

As a game, The Novelist is something of a strange, dual-natured experience. It can be plodding and slow, slight and unengaging, because not a lot happens and you don’t do much. Remove its painterly visuals and it would function just as well as a Twine experience built on a series of menus, in which you get a few prompts that tell you what each character thinks, and then asks you to pick between them. That it mixes in Gone Home-like object searching in a small, sparse space to build out its narrative, along with some slight stealth elements, feels superfluous to the whole experience — things needed to hit the “game” prerequisite.

But that’s not to write off The Novelist entirely, because as a piece of interactive storytelling, there’s a lot of heart to be found within, and aspects of its gameplay help to internalize the feelings it means to portray. The Novelist is a game about making tough calls, as main character Dan Kaplan mentions. Your only job within the game is to gather information about Dan, the titular writer, and his wife and son, determine what each one wants and needs out of each new situation, and try to help Dan decide how best to spend his time.

Like other games that hold choice to a premium, The Novelist’s real challenge is in asking what values are most important to you, and how you extrapolate them to the characters. With Dan’s writing career on the line, his marriage disintegrating and his child struggling, The Novelist palpably asks players to choose between self and others, career and family, and in so doing, captures a very real and very poignant feeling many players will know well.

The Novelist
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Orthogonal Games
Publisher: Orthogonal Games
Release Date: Dec. 10, 2013
MSRP: $19.99
Available: Steam, official website

The Novelist tells the story of Dan and his family as they spend a summer in a coastal Oregon house, where he means to write and devote quality time to his family. Already stressed, it turns out the place is haunted — haunted, that is, by you, an apparently friendly ghost who helps people make tough decisions. Through the course of the game, you try to stay out of sight, reading letters and journal entries until you have an idea of what each person wants and needs. Wife Linda wants Dan’s support at her grandmother’s funeral, but Dan has a deadline and son Tommy was promised a trip to the beach. Which do you choose?

It all depends on the situation, and The Novelist excels on building on these moments. If Dan hit his deadlines last chapter, is it okay to skip the impromptu book signing? If Dan tutors Tommy to help his reading skills improve, is it okay to skip family time after dinner? Balancing all the aspects of Dan’s life is difficult and choices all have unforeseen consequences. Where The Novelist is at its best is when it convinces you that its characters are struggling through these moments; you’ll constantly feel like you’re losing the battle of balance, and that’s a tough, interesting space for a game to work within. The question, “Can I make it up to him/her later?” is always front-of-mind, and the game poignantly (and even somewhat frustratingly, just like real life) refuses to answer it.

Yet I still struggle with my experience with The Novelist. The moment-to-moment experience won’t hold players — it’s the larger story that draws through. But the story is weakened by the fact that the characters never interact; their reactions to your choices are delivered in summary and journal entries; they give no real indication of your progress through the game or how they feel about each other. For a tale about the emotional states of three people, the consequences of the game’s actions are pretty thin.

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