“Your choices are the story.” That’s how Kent Hudson, founder of Orthogonal Games and creator of The Novelist, described his game to me.
An upcoming indie game that tells the story of author/family-man Dan Kaplan, The Novelist brings unique twists to the stealth genre. “The Novelist is a chapter-based game, and each chapter builds to a decision that the player must make,” Hudson says. The Kaplan family have visited a remote home for the summer: a home which you inhabit. You play as a “mysterious ghostly presence” influencing the lives of those around you over the course of the game.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS
“The decisions are always based on Dan’s struggle to balance his career with his family, and it’s up to the player to decide what Dan does,” Hudson explains. “The decisions impact the relationships in the game, so if Dan decides to focus on his career in one chapter then at the start of the next chapter his book will be better but his relationships with his wife and son will be worse. That will be the starting point for that chapter, which creates a unique context for the next decision based on the player’s choice.
“There’s no timer or external pressure on the player to make a decision, but the game only progresses when a player discovers what the conflict is in a given chapter and decides what Dan should do. Over the course of the game, the legacy of Dan’s decisions build a narrative based on his relationships, so one player might tell a story about a man who sacrificed his marriage to write the great American novel while another player might tell the story of a failed writer who devoted his life to his family. I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that each chapter has three equally sympathetic viewpoints, so that players have to make decisions based on what they think is most important, not a black or white, good vs. evil choice.”
Hudson has a long history in the games industry, working at Ion Storm, 2K and LucasArts before becoming an independent developer. It all stems back to one game, he explains. “My personal tipping point was the release of Deus Ex between my junior and senior year of college. Prior to that I’d just been a fan of games like most kids growing up, and in college I’d started building levels in free SDKs and messing around with mods, although it had always been a hobby.
“But the degree to which I fell in love with Deus Ex blew me away. I was an FPS junkie who’d never played an RPG before, so the whole ‘characters you talk to instead of shooting’ thing was new to me. Throw in the player customization, multiple-solution objectives, and near-future setting (I’ve never liked fantasy settings), and I was hooked. Deus Ex fundamentally changed my ideas about what games are capable of and made me seriously consider a career in games for the first time.
“I was majoring in political science at the time, so finding a job in the game industry felt like a long shot, but a few months later Ion Storm [developers of Deus Ex] posted a job opening for level designers and I was lucky enough to get hired; less than a year after the release of Deus Ex I was working on the sequel, and 12 years later I’m still making games professionally.”
INDEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT WAS THE ONLY WAY TO WORK ON SOMETHING WITH PERSONAL MEANING AND CREATIVE FREEDOM
“It sounds obvious to say this in hindsight, but I was really surprised how isolating it would be to go from working around a team of people every day to working by myself at home,” Hudson says of his transition to a one-man studio. “I enjoyed it at first, because I’ve always valued alone time and was glad to be free of all the meetings and processes of AAA development, but after a while it started getting more and more difficult to focus and keep my motivation up. I had to make some conscious decisions in order to restore regular human contact throughout the day: I made it a point to chat regularly with other indie devs, and for the past few months I’ve been working regularly at a co-working space.
“The biggest advantage of independent development, on the other hand, is complete creative freedom. No question. I’m still constrained by practical concerns like manpower and money, but within the limits of what one guy can make with a laptop I can do whatever I want.” He explains what we’ve heard many times before: publishers don’t often support experimental titles. “The Novelist never would have been greenlit in a million years by a publicly-traded company, but working independently I can follow my creative instincts without having to pitch my ideas to executives that don’t even play games. This project has changed a lot since its inception, and I’ve gone down plenty of blind alleys, but it’s been great to make decisions based solely on what’s best for the game, not the myriad non-game considerations that exist at a large company.”
As with anything, The Novelist has its fair share of inspirations. “I feel certain that the aggregate of all the things I’m into led to the overall aesthetic and emotional content of the game,” Hudson says. On the aural side of things, Hudson says that Harold Budd inspired him: “the music in the game is procedurally generated and different in every game, but the tone and reverb on the piano samples I created are heavily influenced by Harold Budd’s more ambient piano work.”
The gameplay itself draws from existing stealth games, including Deus Ex and Thief. “Although the fiction of the game is different (the Kaplans are investigating a weird shimmer of light they caught out of the corner of their eye, not hunting for an intruder in a top-secret facility), the core stealth model will be familiar to anyone who’s dodged behind a crate in order to break line of sight with a mercenary who’s investigating a strange sound,” Hudson says. “And the player enters the characters’ memories by sneaking up behind them and getting close enough to touch them, which is very similar to sneaking up behind a patrolling guard and knocking him out (of course, you don’t actually hurt the characters in The Novelist).”
“THE DYNAMIC STORY IS INFLUENCED BY THE THINGS I DON’T LIKE IN GAMES: LINEAR STORIES”
The game’s unique visuals started off in a similar way. “I knew from the start that I wanted something stylized, not photorealistic, for a variety of reasons. First, I disagree philosophically with the never-ending quest for photorealism in games. So far that chase has just driven us further into the uncanny valley, and it’s also contributed to the rising cost of game creation that has in turn led to problematic levels of risk aversion. Second, I wanted something that wouldn’t get dated with age, since it’s based more in aesthetic style than graphical technologies. I wanted the art style to simply be ‘what The Novelist looks like’ from the start, in the same way that other stylized games have aged gracefully with time. And third, I wanted the characters to be intentionally a bit of a blank slate for players to project onto, so that the emotional and relational things players learn about the family have a bigger impact.
“My friend J.R. Hogarth de la Plante did the original concept art for the Kaplan family, and from there I worked with CGBot [the company that has produced all the game’s artwork] to develop the style. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, so I’m very lucky that the gang at CGBot was able to decipher what I wanted and deliver such great-looking art.”
Other, more lighthearted easter egg style inspirations are in play as well. “Once the game is out I plan to do a huge blog post listing out all the references, because I’m pretty sure that every single name or location in the game is based on a movie I love or the name of a friend.”
“THERE’S DEFINITELY SOMETHING DEEPER THERE: CRISES AND EMOTIONAL ISSUES”
When the game’s first trailer released earlier this year we were blown away, and we felt like there was something darker going on in the game’s story. We asked Hudson if there was any truth to this. “There’s definitely something deeper there, in terms of different crises and emotional issues that each character struggles with, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily “darker” than what’s in the trailer; there’s no twist moment where you find out that Dan has a dark secret or that the house is slowly driving the family insane. Over the course of the game, you slowly learn more and more about each member of the Kaplan family, and by the end you’ll have created a deep understanding of the characters both from the information you uncover and their reactions to decisions you’ve made.
“As for the playable character, there is a backstory but I’d rather let players discover it for themselves as they play the game.”
We were also curious as to whether the world outside of the house would have any impact on the story. “The house is the physical location of the game for the entire duration. That said, the outside world plays a big role in the game. Many of the situations in the game revolve around events that will take one or more family members out of the house for a while. Sometimes they’ll even go to other states. You won’t accompany them on these journeys outside the house, but you’ll be able to read about their adventures in the outside world and see the impact those events have on the story and the characters’ relationships. Off-screen characters like Dan’s agent and his wife Linda’s family also play key roles in different chapters, and the game is set in a time before home computers so the Kaplans communicate with the outside world through letters that you’ll find around the house; those letters offer another connection to the outside world.”
Another thing we noticed in the reveal trailer was the unique approach to gameplay. When questioned what his favorite in-game mechanic was, Hudson told us that it was the ability to possess light-fixtures, and jump from one to another. “It’s definitely the most action-oriented, visceral mechanic in an otherwise somber game, and after a bunch of work it’s gotten to a place where it feels really good. The player is invisible and safe while inside a light fixture, so in addition to enabling speedier navigation it also serves a stealthy purpose and lets you observe the family’s life from interesting perspectives.” The mechanic seems to be one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the game, allowing for observation points where there otherwise aren’t any.
Of course, Hudson is currently focussed on producing a shippable game, but he discussed the future of The Novelist with us nonetheless. “I’ve already committed to doing a Linux version after the Mac/PC version is out, and after that I’ll look into the PS4 and the OUYA, depending on what kind of experiences other independent developers are having with those platforms.”
He’s also considered mobile platforms. “I’ve given a bit of thought to an iOS version of the game, but the challenge of moving to a touch interface would make that project a much bigger undertaking. I’ve found that the subject matter of the game appeals to an audience far outside the traditional hardcore gamer market, though, so the idea of porting the game to iOS is definitely exciting in terms of making the game accessible to people who don’t traditionally play a lot of games.”
“I’M NOT PROPOSING A CORRECT ANSWER”
At its heart, The Novelist is about asking questions, and making us think. “As the creator of the game, I’m not proposing a correct answer for whether your career or your family is more important; I’m instead creating a game where each player will find their own answer to that question. So when you combine the fact that the game’s chapters come in a random order with the fact that the player is making the decisions, there are a large number of potential stories to be told. The relationships are the only thing that persist between chapters, so you’ll really be creating a story that grows over time based on your series of choices.” This sounds like an exciting prospect indeed, and we’re definitely looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
To read the full, unedited interview (containing some extra information about Kent and his game), click here to go to page 2.