I’ve never been one to get too into an “emotional” game; I like a good story as much as anyone, but in gaming these are historically often paired with other elements of action. This trend has changed over time, and there’s been a lot of recent games that strip down some of the most basic aspects of what we consider games, why we play them, and what we expect from them. The Novelist, available on Steam, is probably the first full action-free emotional experience game I’ve ever played, and I found some things out about myself in the experience.
The Novelist places us in a somewhat familiar scenario; a family, going through some struggles, has found a vacation home to stay in for the summer to get away from their normal routine, and to work out their issues and get a handle on their lives. The titular novelist, Dan Kaplan, is fighting against himself and his looming deadline for his work in progress. His wife, Linda, is seeking to rekindle what once she had with Dan, while also seeking desperately to find joy within herself and reignite her own artistic spirit. The couple’s son, Tommy, has fallen behind at school, where he’s also forced to put up with bullying and the general strife of being young and out of his element. The player takes on the role of an unknown character, something like a ghost that hides within the house, uncovering the secret desires of each of the Kaplans, and whispering to Dan in his sleep about which path should be followed.
Each ‘day’ of play consists of essentially the same formula; the player character – keeping out of sight in Stealth mode, or roaming more freely in Story mode, which I played – searches the house for written clues, as well as reading the thoughts and reliving memories of the visitors, uncovering what each one’s primary concern is. Once enough has been divined about a certain person’s desire, an object representative of that is named, and the player can select that object to sway events in favor of that person over the others; if the player uncovers the object for more than one person, a second object may be found during the night, offering a ‘compromise’ solution that will appease, but not entirely please, another. The third family member’s desires will go unattended-to under either circumstance.
The game deals with some complex emotional themes; the core of it is about juggling family life with work, but there’s complicated, realistic scenarios that drive narrative into difficult territory. When the death of a family member leads to a funeral that interferes with Dan’s obligations to his publisher, which is more important? Is it better to let the quality of work slip in favor of family bonding time? Should an unexpected chunk of cash be used to advertise the book, to further Linda’s dreams of an art career, or to send Tommy to a camp to make friends and build confidence? Dan struggles with alcoholism, while Linda feels her husband drifting farther away, and Tommy looks forlornly at toys left unassembled, dreaming of being able to play with his parents while they wrestle with their insecurities; these are all things that, in various ways, play upon the daily choices that many people face in their lives, forced to choose what’s more important to them when financial stability and familial happiness seem beyond reconciling.
Perhaps it’s because I am a husband and a father, but I found a lot of the decisions truly difficult to make. I started out dead-set that Dan would finish his novel, a masterpiece worthy of the time he devoted, but as things progressed, more and more I found myself siding with Linda and Tommy, putting their needs and desires over the work Dan needed to complete. At one point, I actively decided that I no longer cared if the book did well, because I wanted – for whatever reason – to see this family, this small group of entirely fictional people, to be happy with their lives, regardless of the uncertainty of their narrative futures. I found myself truly invested in the results of the decisions I made, a sinking feeling setting in when someone’s dreams were deferred for what I felt was the better long-term choice.
When I finished the game, the narrative played out in a way that I was honestly happy and relived to see; though it was just a story told with words on my monitor, reading about the happiness and love that Dan and Linda found, the success that Tommy had later in his life – it moved me. So what if Dan’s career fell by the wayside, and he never made a name for himself as an author? I had already given up on having it all, and I was deeply pleased with the way that the endgame played out. I’m not entirely sure that the $20 base price tag is quite where I’d place it, but the art, sound, and incredibly well-written story are certainly worth the $15 sale price as of this writing; and, Steam being what it is, The Novelist is sure to be available on sale in the future. I’ll likely play the game at least once more, turning things in different ways to see the impact on the outcome; I’m curious to see what other narratives exist, and how the flow changes from day to day as different people’s needs take the forefront. I’d easily recommend it for anyone interested in thoughtful, emotionally-driven story — though, its focus on this is likely a detractor for many more “traditional” gamers.
[+Exceptional story and writing] [+Difficult, emotional decisions] [+Great art, sound, and overall design] [+Deals well with difficult realities] [-Some cliche story elements] [-Probably not everyone's cup of tea in a game]