This installment of Mood Pieces is about The Novelist by Kent Hudson, an interactive interpersonal drama out for PC and Mac platforms.
When I heard about The Novelist, I was immediately intrigued: a game about a writer who’s struggling to keep his work and family together, with the player acting as a ghost who tries to influence the events towards a happy conclusion. The Novelist tells a story about the Kaplan family renting a house for a summer and living through several events of everyday tragedies and successes. The father is a struggling writer trying to finish up his second novel, the mother is a painter, and their child just started a school challenged with some learning problems and bullying. The aim of the summer is to give the father time to finish the novel, while clearing out some family issues in a new fresh environment.
The twist in the game is the player character, an initially undefined entity who can jump from one lamp to another and skulk around the house, diving into Kaplans’ memories and digging through their letters, notes and diaries. The basic cycle of the gameplay is to search the house for clues, jump into each family member’s mind to revisit their memories, read their minds, choose an outcome by choosing an item in the house, and finally in the night whisper the choice to the ears of Dan Kaplan. During the night the player has the chance to search the house for hints about the nature of the invisible skulking protagonist that they are, and to try and find a compromise with the needs of an another family member. There is a voluntary stealth element in the game as well, since if a character sees the player when he’s not possessing a light source, they will get spooked, which removes the chance for a compromise. This can be turned off, which gives player a total freedom to roam. The player can also make the light flicker, which brings the characters over to investigate, making it possible to sneak behind them. In the end of the summer it’s the time to make some difficult choices, and there’s a short recap of how things progress after that one influential summer at the house on a cliff.
The Novelist was one of the most divisive indie art game experiences for me. To put it bluntly, it was one of the best indie games I didn’t really like. The writing here is top notch, the problems and conflicts of the characters feel believable, and all in all it was a very emotional and effective literary experience. As a game, well… it was mostly a treasure hunt in a rather boxy house. I don’t often complain about graphics, but the house could’ve used some work – something as simple as putting rugs on the floors and a couple of more posters on the walls would’ve made the house feel less of a shoebox. The idea of the gameplay is awesome on paper, but something with the execution just doesn’t click for me. Maybe it was the over-reliance to reading notes, with the characters just wandering aimlessly around the house like simple automatons. The actual gameplay elements felt under-utilized. Struggling to find a way to eavesdrop an argument, having some actual use for the flicker-ability, things like that would’ve done wonders.
That said, the game was made by one guy, Kent Hudson, which makes it quite a feat. In the end, although I sounded very negative, I did enjoy the game very much – as much as you can enjoy a game that makes you feel actively bad and horrible, but in a good way. If writing is your thing in a game, don’t miss The Novelist. I’m very interested to see what Hudson comes up with next.