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Talkingship – Video Games, Movies, Music & Laughs | October 20, 2020

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The Novelist: An Interview with Kent Hudson

The Novelist: An Interview with Kent Hudson

Do you have a memory from your youth that helped to form your drive to be in the gaming industry?

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, but 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 Austin 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.

What inspired you to leave 2K and become an independent developer?

I actually quit 2K to move to LucasArts for about 8 months before quitting that job as well, but the reason for both moves was the same: I wasn’t in a position where I was making progress on things that I believed in, and even though at LucasArts our project was really exciting creatively, various organizational constraints prevented it from moving forward. Those situations are unfortunately common in the AAA industry; business goals are often divergent from the creative goals of the people making the games, and sometimes you just need to find a different situation.

I never had a specific aspiration to go indie, but once I left LucasArts I realized that independent development was the only practical way for me to work on a project that meant something to me personally. My wife had (and still has) a great job in San Francisco, so moving to another city wasn’t an option, and even though there are companies doing really cool stuff in the Bay Area none of them had openings that made sense for me at the time. Luckily, my wife and I had been saving up a nest egg for a few years, which gave me the financial flexibility to take the indie leap. Although going indie was never a consciously-planned endeavor, I’m incredibly happy that things have worked out how they have.

What are the main differences you’ve noticed between working as a studio developer and as an independent one? What’s the greatest advantage?

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. 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 via IM and video calls, and for the past few months I’ve been working 3 days a week at a coworking space. The space is full of all sorts of creative people, and I’m actually the only game designer here: most of the people I see are working on things like arts and crafts, fashion, running an Etsy store, or designing a website, and it’s been really cool to meet people from all different industries.

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. 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.

The Novelist is a very unique concept. Did you have any inspiration from fiction outside of gaming?

Nothing comes to mind directly, but I’m far too skeptical of the idea of truly original ideas to believe that The Novelist sprang to life as a fully formed, unique concept. I’m just drawing a blank at this particular moment. I’m a big reader, I love movies, and I’m a colossal music nerd, so I’m always absorbing other types of media; it’s important to be well-rounded in life and not just focus on games. So while there’s no specific influence I can point to, I feel certain that the aggregate of all the things I’m into led to the overall aesthetic and emotional content of the game.

Actually, I just thought of an influence that’s very recognizable in the game: the piano music of Harold Budd. I’ve been a fan of his work for many years, and the aesthetics of the piano score in The Novelist owe a large debt to albums like The Pearl, The Plateaux of Mirror, and Translucence + Drift Music. 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. La Bella Vista, a completely improvisational performance that Harold Budd didn’t even know was being recorded, is my all-time favorite piano album, and it’s a big influence on the music in The Novelist.

And I just thought of one other influence: the character names and proper nouns in the game are positively loaded with references to my favorite movies. 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.

Regarding gameplay, what were your main influences?

As far as the moment-to-moment gameplay, the stealth is based on games like Thief and Deus Ex that use the standard green/yellow/red light awareness model. 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. 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 with a blackjack (of course, you don’t actually hurt the characters in The Novelist).

The method of telling a dynamic story based on character relationships, in a game where the chapters occur in a random order each time, is actually influenced by things I don’t like in games, namely linear stories and unskippable cutscenes. I’m really concerned about the direction the industry is going, with an increased focus on expensive, cinematic games that need actual players less than ever, so I’m really trying to do something different narratively with The Novelist. I’m certainly not claiming that This Is How Stories Must Be Told In Games From Now On, but I’m trying to do my small part to offer an alternative style of storytelling that may spark ideas for other developers.

The art style is quite distinctive: where did that originate from?

I should start by giving credit to CGBot, the company that has done all of the artwork for the game. They’re run by a friend of mine, Sergio Rosas, who was an art director at Ion Storm Austin and Midway Austin at the same time as me. My friend J.R. Hogarth de la Plante did the original concept art for the Kaplan family, and from there I worked with CGBot 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.

As for the art style itself, 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.

So onto the game itself. How much of an effect are your choices going to have on the story? Will there be multiple/different endings?

Your choices are the story. The Novelist is a chapter-based game, and each chapter builds to a decision that the player must make. 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. 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.

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 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.

Based on the trailer, there seems to be something deeper and darker at work with Dan and his family, and I get the impression that there’s more to the playable character than it first seems. Is this the case?

Hmm, that’s an interesting question; I’d be curious to know what elements triggered that response. 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.

Is the world outside of this house going to be involved at any point, or is the house the setting for the duration of the game?

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 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.

You’re clearly using a lot of unique gameplay mechanics. Which would you say is the most interesting of these? How difficult was it to implement some of them?

I’m pretty partial to the mechanic that lets you possess light fixtures and jump from one light to another as you navigate the house. 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.

It was, as with most features, easy to prototype and hard to make shippable. At its core, it’s just “if you’re looking at a possessable object, you can press the space bar to move to it quickly” … but there are a million small things that go into making that simple interaction work:

  • First, how do you tell what the player’s looking at? It’s much, much more complicated than simply picking whatever’s closest to the middle of the screen; figuring out what the player is trying to highlight is a classic challenge in game development. If you want to see a programmer sweat, just walk up to them and quietly whisper, “frob code.”
  • Once you move the player, you have to handle a bunch of low level details: make sure to turn off gravity so they don’t slowly fall out of position, make sure to make them invisible, make sure that they can actually see from the light fixture instead of being buried inside it. To do that last bit you have to make the object invisible, but you can’t just have it pop out of the world so you have to hide the transition with …
  • … well-timed camera effects. To get it feeling ethereal and magical, you need to use a variety of quickly-activated screen filters and FOV effects to make it look supernatural while also hiding the moment when you make the light fixture invisible.
  • Finally, you need to add a subtle “whooshing” sound effect to underscore the movement, and it takes lots of tweaking to find the right speed for moving the player around.

There are a lot of other things that go into that feature, but as with any mechanic the very first version is usually pretty simple to implement but making it bug-free and polished is an adventure unto itself.

Are there any plans to bring The Novelist to consoles (especially PSN, considering Sony’s newfound love for indie games)?

I wouldn’t say I have actual plans right now, but that’s only because I’m focusing on finishing the game for Mac and PC first and don’t have the bandwidth to support other platforms before that point. As soon as I ship version 1.0 I plan to look into other platforms for sure, though. 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.

I’ve also 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.

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