December 10, 2013 2:55 PM | Lena LeRay
Life is a constant struggle to balance priorities. There is only so much time in a day, and everyone must choose how to spend their time to juggle relationships and personal desires. That is the focus of The Novelist, a game for Windows and Mac from Orthogonal Games. Born of Kent Hudson's 2011 GDC talk on player-driven stories, The Novelist gives you no right or wrong choices to make. Just hard ones. It's a game which ties meaningful choice to relatable situations in a way that packs a powerful emotional punch. That, or there was a lot of dust flying through the air when I was playing.
The main character of the game is Dan Kaplan, a novelist whose family is having some troubles. He's been focusing so much on his work that his relationships with his wife and son are rocky. The family has relocated for the summer to a house in which a benevolent ghost resides. The player, as the ghost, must sneak around the house, looking at things the family members have written, reading their thoughts, and searching through their memories for clues to what they want before whispering into Dan's ear to influence his choices.
The Novelist doesn't want to be categorized easily. It's a bit adventure, a bit interactive fiction, and a bit first-person stealth game. In the Stealth game mode, the player is visible to the family members unless possessing a light fixture, which means that it's possible to spook the characters and limit the available choices. There is a Story mode, however, in which the player is completely invisible and can freely explore all story options without having to worry about cutting off potential resolutions. In both modes, the house must be explored and the player's choices affect the game's direction in a multifaceted way.
The game is broken up into nine chapters, three for each month the Kaplans stay in the house. In each chapter, the needs and desires of each family member conflict somehow. Often there just isn't time for Dan to do everything, but sometimes conflicting events are going on at the same time and Dan has to choose which to participate in. Exploring the house and the family members' memories well enough to find out what everyone wants in a given chapter opens up the option to make not just a primary choice about who to satisfy but a secondary choice about who to make a compromise with. Nonetheless, at least one person's needs will always be neglected. As the story progresses, the characters' memories and overall happiness are affected by previous choices.
None of the choices in the game are easy ones. Every choice is a trade off. Focusing on Dan's book entails neglecting his relationships with his family, but focusing on the family endangers his career. Should he lose the publisher's faith to keep a promise to his kid, or break with both to provide emotional support to his wife when she needs him? All of the choices and their consequences are easy to relate to, and that gives them a great deal of emotional impact.
One of the best things about The Novelist is that you're never blindsided by the consequences of a choice. Through exploration, the player discovers what the characters want and why they want it. The letters and thoughts give you insight into how the characters will interpret Dan's actions, and right after the choice is made the game tells you exactly what the consequences are in the short term. At the end of each month, the cumulative happiness, or lack thereof, of each character is summarized. The system is not only transparent, but it also reinforces the emotional content of each choice as it is made.
The aesthetics are simple but lovely. The soundtrack is procedurally generated, atmospheric piano music that differs with every playthrough. Graphically, the real world is in bright colors and memories are dull by comparison. Each person has different handwriting for their letters, while subtitles and other narrative segments use a nice, typewriter-styled font which is easy to read and feels appropriate for the story. Only the three family members are voice acted, even though there are letters to them from other people, but the voice acting is good and helps give the characters life.
In terms of accessibility, the game should be easily playable for both the color blind and the hearing-impaired, though the keyboard/mouse controls cannot be changed. Although the game has a non-traditional first-person crosshair in the form of a translucent white dot which disappears against certain colors even with the contrast turned up, everything is cel-shaded with outlines, and the outline on any item which the player can interact with changes from black to white when it's usable. A message also pops up at the bottom of the screen to say you can use the item. Nothing critical to the game is communicated via color alone.
Much of the game's story is communicated through writing, and those bits of story which are voice-only were given subtitles just a few days ago to make the game accessible to the hearing-impaired. When exploring the family members' memories, the small size of the environment makes an inability to hear the humming emitted by the memories a non-issue, as it is still easy to find everything quickly. The hearing-impaired will still miss out on the incidental things the family members say as they walk about the house, but they are not really important to the story. Playtesters only recently pointed out to Hudson that the game was inaccessible to the hearing-impaired, so he prioritized story-critical subtitles for release and hopes to add incidental subtitles and a more visible crosshair to the game post-launch.
Overall, The Novelist is a short, fairly slow paced game which focuses on narrative, though it reacts to everything the player does. It's not just a branching narrative, either; although there are only so many paths the player can take in one chapter, the choices made influence the overall well-being of the characters. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is unique enough and relatable enough that people who think they might like it even a little should seriously consider picking it up. The Novelist is going to be $14.99 for the duration of the holiday season before going up to its regular price of $19.99, but you'd pay that much for a movie of the same length to have a story just told to you instead of getting to influence its path yourself.