The Novelist Review: When Emotion Trumps Gameplay

I constantly found myself wondering how Dan felt about being pulled in all these directions. If he lets the book slip in favor of caring for his family, does he find himself resenting them? Is he fulfilled by sacrificing his creativity in order to foster Linda’s painting career, or Tommy’s schoolwork? Does his family appreciate his sacrifices, or even understand them? For that matter, does Dan?

None of those questions enter into the game, really, because mostly The Novelist is about your values and priorities, and there are times when it hits these themes on the head hard enough to really reverberate on a personal level. Just about anyone can relate to the conflict between being true to yourself and obligations to loved ones, and The Novelist handles that topic in a deft, emotional way. But for The Novelist, putting the question to the player means skipping out on really putting the question to Dan.

For being the effort of mostly just one person in developer Kent Hudson, The Novelist is an impressive game that does a beautiful job of making choice meaningful — not in the life-or-death shape-the-universe kind of way, but in smaller choices that are just as (and probably more so) profound. The hyper-intensive focus on the game’s family makes such a minor thing as how we spend our time, something we’re forced to deal with every day, into an agonizing and interesting balancing act. Where games such as The Stanley Parable have lately parodied the idea that games must be inundated with choices to make the player feel important, The Novelist makes the experience worthwhile by asking important questions.

So though it’s not without its flaws from the standpoint of an interactive experience, The Novelist is still worthy of your time. It uses gameplay and exploration, however slight, to send players into their own minds and experiences. The Novelist asks you questions about your own life through the lens of Dan and his family, and shows well the ways that games can challenge their players, and be more than the sum of their parts.

Pros:

  • Light, focused personal narrative that tells a refreshing story
  • Choices require players to think about their personal priorities
  • Rounded characters provide some pretty tough decisions and interesting developments for the Kaplan family
  • Great-looking and very well-written
  • Capitalize on gaming’s potential for engendering empathy and speaking to common human experiences

Cons:

  • Gameplay is thin and repetitive
  • Choices are somewhat flat and two-dimensional — you get to choose Dan’s actions, but there’s little character development for him or his family until the end
  • Directing the narrative is clearly more for the player than for the development of the characters or narrative
  • Dan’s family doesn’t really add much to the storyline as it develops, as each chapter is just a choice between each member; there’s no interplay
  • Priced a bit high for a short, ultimately somewhat thin experience, despite being emotionally engaging

Final Score: 72/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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