Perusing 'The Novelist'

Another indie game weighed down by the business

Perusing 'The Novelist'

Even in a year when the community was more obsessed with story than ever, The Novelist became noteworthy for delivering not only the most relatable storyline but also one of the most thought-provoking journeys.

As a ghost, the player swoops through the lives of one little family, watching as struggling author Dan Kaplan enters a rental cottage to reconnect with his kin.

The Novelist lets you unearth the story at your own pace. Dan desperately needs to finish another book this vacation. His marriage to wife, Linda, is on the rocks. And their son, Tommy, has suffered from bullying at school and struggles with reading. Dan struggles to balance priorities and make decisions we each make daily.

Pick up the letters, bathroom mirror notes, and drawings scattered through each room of the house to find clues to solve problems. Some include voice acting, which makes the player feel less lonely. Once you've found all the clues, you're left with three objects symbolizing the family's three conflicting desires. Pick whichever you deem most important.

Spend the day camping with the family or write furiously all weekend to keep up with the publisher’s strict deadlines? Put effort into mending Dan’s frayed relationship? Dan's tortured author musings are just as compelling as Linda's struggle to keep their marriage intact. Indie developer Kent Hudson (who previously worked on blockbusters like Deus Ex: Invisible War) puts everyone’s desires on the table and admits there’s no way to manage them all satisfactorily. Someone will be disappointed by whatever choice you make.

At one point Dan makes a petulant remark, wishing he could write like a single guy: meaning all night with tons of booze. Details like that humanize Dan. It's rare to see such an honest moment in a game, in a market where every character is beyond heroic. I felt that while my choices as a player would make a huge difference in the course of his life, Dan would be a good person regardless. For several moments I agonized over a decision, hoping Dan's future wouldn't be Hemingway's because of me.

There is a built-in compromise mechanism, which allows only one additional person’s hopes will be partially met. So if the player chooses to have Dan spend time with Tommy, neglecting both himself and his wife, he or she can also choose to “compromise” and vaguely satisfy either Dan or Linda. This is where the game begins to run into some problems. Ultimately, the compromises you can make feel formulaic and unsatisfying. I realize the limits of the indie business model, but the latter half of the game becomes awkwardly inorganic.

Also problematic is stealth mode, which involves darting from lamp to lamp in an effort to hide your existence from the home’s occupants. Only briefly thrilling, eventually stealth involves less strategy and more waiting around than anything. Invisible mode may feel cheaper than stealth, but it ultimately allows the player to peruse letters, journals, and drawings without worrying about being seen, which can eliminate chance for compromise. The mode made the game feel more personal, as if the object of the game was to simply know the characters rather than hide from them.

Hudson went indie, rejecting the glamor and prestige of the mainstream. And the game had me sitting at my desk chair, thinking about how I prioritize my life, and if I've hurt someone without realizing it. It left me with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach for which I am grateful. Too many stories end with a neat bow on top, never to be replayed. This one created tension with normal life, not puzzles or combat.

Ultimately, The Novelist represents the best and worst of indie gaming's biggest year, hitting big highs with its storyline but lacking in direction and overall polish.

For more story-driven games, check out The Walking Dead and Gone Home.

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