The Novelist is a game about compromise. In that respect, it’s probably more realistic than any other: it is the embodiment of the idea that you can’t please everyone. And that idea leads to what makes The Novelist so special: you can’t win.
Dan Kaplan, his wife Linda and his son Tommy are at a difficult situation in their lives. Dan’s struggling to write his next book, Linda’s worried about their marriage and Tommy is having difficulty at school. They’ve come to a remote house over the summer, hoping that this might solve their problems.
Of course, it’s not that easy. The house is inhabited by a spirit/presence, which you are playing as. In each chapter, you make the decisions for the family. Linda may want to go on a camping trip, whilst Tommy wants to go to a theme park and Dan wants to stay and finish his book. You get to choose which one has their wish fulfilled, and who ends up disappointed.
Weighing up each character’s desires at the end of each chapter is very, very difficult. Fortunately, there is the ability to compromise: you can pick one compromise in each chapter. They make things a bit easier, but they’re not ideal and will leave you unsatisfied – another realistic trait of family life. So each chapter ends with someone happy, someone slightly satisfied and someone disappointed. Deciding what to do is tough, and this unique approach to decision-making is the forté of the game.
WHO ENDS UP HAPPY AND WHO ENDS UP DISAPPOINTED? YOU DECIDE. AND IT’S NOT EASY.
The decisions you make tie into a grander story, that will ultimately affect the game’s ending. It’s told through a mixture of letters and notes that you’ll find scattered around the house, along with the ability to explore a character’s memories. This presents you with snippets of conversation that are certainly intriguing and often reference your previous choices. It means that you can’t escape the consequences of your actions, and helps to reinforce the heart-wrenching feeling you get when you disappoint someone.
The narrative does fall short in a few places though. The characters are a little one dimensional: they’re characterised by one thing. Dan’s a writer, Linda’s an artist…they’re not well rounded people with multiple hobbies and interests. This is coupled with a lack of character development over the course of the game. Although the situation they’re in may change, the characters themselves don’t seem to be any different in personality at the end than at the start. On the technical front, there are instances where a character’s thoughts (as expressed in a letter or diary entry) do not match up with their interactions with the others in the house: a small thing, but one that is certainly noticeable. Most of all though, I wanted to know more about my character. There are small hints and teases about the backstory of the house and its previous inhabitants, but it’s all very vague. I would have liked to see a little more, especially regarding the player character, and we don’t get that.
Having said that, the writing elsewhere is great: the letters are exceptionally emotional, and they’re read out by some superb voice actors (David Pinion is exceptionally good as Dan). There are some moments where the acting, combined with the nuanced script, evoked more emotion than any other game this year, and that’s something to admire. Admittedly, Tommy’s drawings aren’t always the most subtle of things, but they also do a fair job at conveying his thoughts and feelings.
STEALTH OR STORY?
The primary weakness of the game is its gameplay. The Novelist is a stealth game, and the mechanics do work: possessing lights and staying out of view make you feel like a voyeur, or someone who is interfering (which is, I suppose, intentional), but waiting around for characters to move can get tiresome. Coupled with the fairly irritating AI, the gameplay only serves to distract you from the story. It’s one of those things where it feels like the game elements are there to make it a “game”, even though they aren’t necessary (BioShock Infinite suffered from the same issue). The gameplay adds nothing to the game, and thus I preferred to put the game into “story” mode, where I could go wherever I wanted without being seen. Giving users that option was a nice touch, and thus makes up for any issue I had with the mechanics.
So whilst you’re roaming the beautiful house, accompanied by the relaxing music and admiring the lovely art, you might get slightly bored. But chances are, you’ll be so wrapped up in the Kaplan’s story that you won’t notice. And whilst the game is ultimately unsatisfying, in that you can’t please everyone, it’s extremely compelling. The Novelist is a bittersweet game: that’s why it’s so very good.
- A compelling story
- Tough choices, with no obvious answer
- Great voice actors and writing
- Gameplay mechanics aren’t great
- Characters are a little underdeveloped
- Story can be too vague at times
- After spending several hours in the same house, you might get a little sick of it
The Novelist is out now on PC and Mac.
Review copy kindly provided by Kent Hudson.