Things already pointed out to me that I got wrong:
- It’s not “Thomas,” it’s “Tommy.” I realized this halfway through editing the video, but since he’s such a non-entity in the game I felt it almost drove my point home more.
- It’s not “Nuketown” it’s “Megaton.” This is my own fault for mixing up Fallout cities, but also Bethesda’s fault for naming some cities in really boring ways. No one confuses Little Lamp Light or Nipton!
Script after the jump.
I know I tend to prattle on about how useless Objective Reviews are lately. But if ever there was a game that highlighted (at least to me) the need to hear multiple, subjective opinions about the value of games it would be The Novelist. Released late in 2013 to comparatively little fanfare it’s a game about a husband and wife and their young son who move into a haunted rental property for a few months so the father can focus on writing his novel, all while a ghostly presence whispers in the father’s ear and tells him what to do and – okay, yes, there are certain similarities to a famous Stanley Kubrick film and/or Stephen King novel. But where The Shining takes alcoholism and obsession with work and frames them as ghastly horror and madness, The Novelist instead seeks to examine the boundaries between work and family, between making sacrifices for something you care about and hurting other people in the pursuit of something you want. It’s a similar setup with similar themes but The Novelist is more exploratory where The Shining is prescriptive; it wants players to traverse the possibility space where these two ideas collide through its mechanics rather than dictate the dangers of the extremes through its narrative.
The game attempts to bridge the gap between those who like well character-driven games and those who look for more substantive mechanical interaction than you might see in something like Gone Home or Proteus. It does this through two systems – one designed to facilitate narrative choice and one that attempts to make minute-to-minute play engaging in a way that those other games didn’t focus on.
Gameplay consists of trying to find each family members’ true desires for each round of play and picking one person to get exactly what they want, one person to get a compromise, and one person to be left out in the cold. Players have to read notes, letters, journals, paintings. and other personal artifacts scattered about the house. And because the family is there while you’re snooping around in their business, The Novelist feels more like voyeurism than Gone Home’s archeological narrative discovery. This isn’t helped by the fact that players must also posses characters to see their internal thoughts. It’s a handy way of conveying the mood each character’s in to be sure, but it also drives home a sense that you’re sort of a peeping tom. Once the player has stalked a character enough they can then identify the object that acts as the character’s decision marker and end the round by choosing them as the winner.
The twist to this minute-to-minute gameplay being that you’re the ghost of this haunted house, and as such being seen by any of the family members can spook them so badly that you lose the ability to choose their desire or their compromise for that round. To avoid detection the player can hop from light fixture to light fixture where they’re invisible to the family and can even distract them by making the light flicker. To read notes or possess people, though, the player needs to step out of the light and risk detection. It’s effectively a super light stealth game, hopping from safe area to safe area – except instead of jumping out of the shadows to knock a guy out you’re jumping out of the shadows to read a note from Linda to her parents or possess Dan and see how he’s been feeling lately.
In fact, it’s such a light stealth system that it’s really hard to fail – in my very first playthrough I was spotted only once, by Thomas. And even then I didn’t manage to lose his desire for that chapter – that only happens if you’re seen twice. It does achieve some success in giving the game a spat of short-term tension – you need to always be aware of where everyone in the house is so that you know you’re safe to exit your lamp, and it makes possessions a little more thrilling when you know the characters may turn around and see you if you aren’t careful. But on the whole it’s airy, a bit vacuous, and tangential to the core ideas being explored in the game. It’s not that it doesn’t work – it does, but it feels too much like filler; like jangling keys to distract you from the game’s down moments. It’s something to occupy your mind while you search for the story chunks and game pieces that actually matter – so much so that the game even asks you upfront whether you want to bother with it at all or just want to explore the story. If anything the stealth system serves to underline just how superfluous mechanical focus can be within the context of a game that’s trying to do more than test your environmental awareness and dexterity with a mouse. Gameplay mechanics shouldn’t exist just to give players something to do any more than shots in a movie shouldn’t exist just to look pretty. They should be there for a reason – whether that’s to reinforce tone or to be a core thematic element. Having the option to turn this system off entirely sort of feels like the game admitting that it’s an extraneous element; that the stealth mechanics are an olive branch to those who would petulantly refuse to play the game if there wasn’t some skill-based mechanical hook. Still, it’s there if you are that sort of person – The Novelist puts forth the effort to give you that level of mechanical motivation. Just know that in so doing it becomes a great example of why more mechanics don’t necessarily make better games.
The real meat of the game, though, isn’t found in hiding inside of a lamp and waiting for a room to clear out but in making that recurring decision about who is going to get what they want. Unlike the stealth mechanics, these decisions carry a sense of heft – every choice made means two people lose out. For example, in one round of play (I suppose this game would prefer they be called “chapters”) the family comes into a small inheritance. Dan wants to use it to place an advance preorder ad in the local paper to motivate him to work harder, Linda would like to use it to attend an artists’ co-op, and Thomas would like to spend it on a summer camp. Only one person can see their wishes fulfilled, and it’s up to you to decide which path the family should take. Once the decision is made you get some brief exposition over a still scene as characters respond to what they did or didn’t get to do.
Because of this it’s easy to boil The Novelist down to “Fallout Endings: The Videogame” but that does it an injustice. If anything The Novelist highlights how badly modern Fallout games convey the consequences of decisions when they aren’t at a grand scale. Everyone remembers who they gave New Vegas to or whether they blew up the bomb in Nuketown, but quests for smaller characters with more personal arcs lacked that sort of narrative impact and closure. You could complete a quest early in the game and then 20 hours later when you beat the game get a follow-up in the form of a titlecard and voiceover for a town you haven’t visited since. Here it’s front and center, with every character winning or losing based on your decisions. Unlike Fallout, the intervals of feedback are regular and the differences in outcome are granular enough that you feel like you’re helping to shape the course of the Kaplans’ summer.
Where the game starts to lose people, I think, is how the characters themselves are conveyed. The core gameplay is all about uncovering each person’s preference for what the family should do that chapter, and all of the clues you find pull double duty both as hints about what they want and as expository character development. The effect this has is that everyone is defined entirely and exclusively by their desires. Dan won’t shut up about his book and does nothing but complain about his family, and Linda seems to have an eclectic list of demands – from hiking to going back to painting to rekindling her marriage. It runs the risk of turning the whole family into narcissists interested only in their own needs.
But this lack of true character plays out particularly poorly for Thomas. Being all of six or seven years old Thomas doesn’t get handwritten letters from old acquaintances or angry screeds from disappointed bosses giving him stress. Instead he gets really ham-fisted, hyper-literalist drawings of his desires in crayon form. It’s a hackneyed crutch for delivering a kid’s internal monologue and it’s used almost exclusively here. Which is particularly odd since players have to possess every character and look at their internal thoughts anyways. Consequently it’s hard not to feel that this could have been done in a way that didn’t feel so alienating. Dan and Linda struggle to rise above being defined by their needs, but Thomas struggles to simply exist as a character in the house.
Also troubling is the way it frames the decisions themselves. It feels like the family should be arriving at these decisions together. After all, each family member has desires that conflict with each other and compromises can be made. But every night the player whispers into Dan’s ear – and Dan’s ear alone. And he’s the titular character, and the only one with an arc focused on a singular goal the whole game. He’s the character the player stays with when reaching a game over state, and the final decision of the game has the biggest consequences for him. The game’s clearly from Dan’s perspective, and that’s not an invalid approach, but… it robs Linda and Thomas of any sense of agency, and it does so only to give primacy to Dan’s overall desire – the novel. Because if you don’t care about the novel then the core theme of the game is undercut, so Dan and his desires get top billing over those of the rest of the family. So even though the game is supposed to be about watching the fate of the Kaplans’ summer unfold, it’s really sort of about the player acting as a wormtongue telling a patriarch when and how he’s going to ignore his family. And yeah, that framing is a little creepy.
But despite all those flaws I have to confess a soft spot for The Novelist. Parts of it are the small things the game uses to build character, even as it fails in the bigger ones. If Dan’s relationship with Linda starts to sour she might hide out in her painting room with the door shut for a while, inconveniencing the player and putting up real barriers between her and Dan. If Dan puts Thomas’ car together it gets a proud spot in the living room, but if Dan ignores it the car ends up abandoned outside. Really the trophy system in general, where the physical objects in the house reflect the events of the summer and the choices you’ve made, gives the player a tremendous sense of impact on the lives of the Kaplans. And while the writing never delivers a strong sense of character it certainly delivers a sense of consequence, as every ignored plea or granted wish is met with elation or frustration. You really do feel like you’re straining a marriage, disappointing a child, or neglecting your work with some of these outcomes. The game’s not afraid to knock the Kaplans around a little bit as a result of your choices.
But, ultimately, I like the game because I relate to the game’s protagonist. I mean, as someone who just started a Patreon campaign, how could the following quote not at least in some way speak to me?
But it’s not just that. I’m also a married writer, and the game’s all about balancing time with your family and working on the thing you care about. This is actually a decision I have to make nightly.
I’m not trying to make this about me or anything, but that’s sort of my overall point – my opinion on this game is inherently tied to who I am. And to me it’s a game that reflects a lot of my life experiences. It shows me a part of myself I’ve never been able to see before in a way that only games can really deliver. I’ve had to come up with awkward schedules about when I can write and when I have to engage in family time. I’ve had to take nights off Errant Signal to spend time with a wife I’ve neglected for a few days. I’ve struggled with writers block and had it put me in a sour mood, I’ve turned to booze to grease the wheels of my writing more than once. And this game confronts me with a lot of those struggles and asks me to find a balance between them not just for Dan, but for myself. So to me The Novelist strikes a powerful chord.
But to someone to whom work isn’t a creative passion but just a way to earn a paycheck? To someone for whom writing is a privilege or an act of selfish indulgence? Dan’s an asshole who drags his family halfway out into the middle of nowhere so he can try and fail to get his stupid book done. It’s a game that shows exactly why we need more than a uniform “Pretty Graphics”->“Good Gameplay”->“8.8” system for reviewing titles. The horror of objective reviews isn’t just the idiocy of the phrase or the stubborn way gamers frame any review that’s too positive on the bell curve as moneyhatting or too low on the bell curve as link baiting. It’s the tyranny of a homogenous, uniform taste watered down for mass consumption and sold back to us with advertisements. It’s establishing aesthetic value by way of consensus. We need outlier reviews so that beauty that might only be apparent to some of us isn’t lost because they could tighten up the graphics on level 5.
So my OMG GamerSite Review would be this: Subtle touches and interesting choices can’t save a game about impacting the lives of the characters it forgets to flesh out. The choices were simple rock-paper-scissors fare, the game was short, and it’s easy to cheese a rotating set of choices to get an ending that’s much like this game: a not-great, not-terrible, good enough ending. 6.3
But my real review, my honest opinion? This is a game that, despite its flaws, manages to capture a bit of the struggle of what it’s like to write while also trying to be a good spouse. And the tradeoffs you’re forced to make – as contrived as they may seem – hide flecks of truth about day to day challenges of pursuing any creative work. Dedicating large portions of your spare time to a word processor, or a painter’s canvas, or a composing studio, or computer code instead of your loved ones may seem selfish, and maybe it is. But it’s also something that a lot of content creators have to do on a day to day basis. At the same time, you also can’t lose yourself in your work and forget that you have obligations to your family and friends. This game captures a lot of that search for balance. That doesn’t make the game’s flaws go away, but it does make the game have a unique and potent value to those with whom that message resonates. And I think I’m the better, the richer for having that sort of mirror shoved in my face.
Which review should you go with? Well – and this is the beauty of subjective reviews – that’s up to you.