Despite some problems, The Novelist is still an intriguing game with some compelling concepts.
How do you balance work with your personal life? How do you know when to follow your passion and when to spend time with your family? These are the main thoughts that dominate The Novelist, an independent adventure game where you assume the role of an ethereal being that’s trying to understand the Kaplan family after they moved to a summer-house.
Dan is the head of the family. Although he used to work as a professor, he’s just moved to a summer-house to reconnect with his family and to work on his novel, but he’s been missing deadlines due to writer’s block. He’s also been neglecting his wife and kid, so it’s gotten to the point where he has to choose between work and his family. His wife Linda enjoys painting, but she stopped practicing he passion after giving birth to Tommy. She wants her marriage to work, but she also wants to develop her career as an artist. Tommy’s bullied at school, but he still enjoys reading and playing with other children, but the sudden move has deeply affected the child. He tries to communicate his problems through crayon drawings.
In the game though, you don’t play as any of these characters. Instead you assume the role of a spectral figure who can move between sources of light and its goal involves overseeing the desires of each character, so that at the end of each chapter, you can influence the main protagonist to make a specific decision. Although you’re a ghost who can move around the house however it wants, you need to stay out of sight or else the Kaplans become aware of your presence. When you investigate the house, you need to look for notes, drawings or journal entries and then for the specific character who wrote that note. Once you’ve located the character, you can read their thoughts to understand what they are going through. To explore people’s memories you need to sneak up on the characters and get close enough to trigger the special event.
Structurally, the game’s divided into different chapters and each of those parts has a dilemma you need to face. Most of the times, each member of the family wants something different and you need to decide who to please and who to disappoint. Staying undetected during these chapters helps you understand each character a little better.
Stealth isn’t the game’s strongest mechanic, since it’s finicky and capricious most of the times. Luckily for people who aren’t interested in sneaking behind characters to reveal their memories, there’s an additional difficulty that removes the stealth part. In stealth mode, characters can see you and you need to make use of light sources (lamps, light bulbs and so on) to remain undetected,) but in storytelling mode, you can explore environments at your own pace and, as the name of the mode suggests, focus on the story. Once you get used to the game’s structure (exploring your surroundings to locate notes, journals and books, getting inside the characters memories and exploring them, reading through their thoughts and choose a decision) the process starts feeling repetitive, since new chapters take place in the same setting and you need to approach the game in the same way.
Exploring the Kaplans memories, their worries and needs might make you uncomfortable every once in a while (the idea of sneaking up on people so that you can explore their memories is really creepy when you think about it,) but the almost voyeuristic nature of the game’s also compelling and fascinating at the same time. The subject matter is something that games haven’t really explored before and I’m glad The Novelist does that, since it manages the topic in a mature and thought-provoking manner.
It’s great to see how each decision you make influences the subsequent chapters. Since there are no right answers, some decisions leave almost no party involved with a sense of fulfillment and happiness and those heartbreaking moments (which I won’t reveal here, since they are an essential part of the game) are what make The Novelist such an intriguing little game. By the end of the game, which should take you around three hours to complete, you don’t get the feeling that the story is over. During the conclusion, all the family’s problems are still there and that sort of open-ended nature is what I really enjoyed most about The Novelist: you don’t win this game. You’re just exposed to it for a while and even though you shape and manipulate some decisions, it’s not like the characters live happily ever after.
But for all the game’s triumphs, there are also some failures. The Novelist’s premise sounds compelling at first, but little by little, some problems start cropping up. Some core concepts, ideas and mechanics make absolutely no sense: Why would characters leave notes telling how they feel in the most brutally honest way possible? Also, what exactly are you? A ghost? A specter? Why do people notice your presence if you’re too close to them? Why are you trying to help them solve their problems?
The Novelist is an intriguing game with some compelling concepts. The way in which you’re exposed to those concepts is not ideal though, since the difficulty and gameplay get in the way of the story. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to play the game in the lowest difficulty setting and you ignore some of its nonsensical ideas, you’ll realize that The Novelist’s story is worth experiencing.