With games such as The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and Dear Esther finding their way into mainstream gaming, a new genre has begun to emerge. Some argue that perhaps interactive story would be a better label than ‘game’ for these titles, while others file them under the broad adventure game heading. Whatever you wish to call them, they have a new member among their ranks: Orthogonal Games’ The Novelist, a tale about a family living by the coast and the hardships they must overcome to keep their relationship in one piece.
Though the story centres on author Dan Kaplan and his wife, Linda and son, Tommy, you play the role of the ghost inexplicably residing in the rather large house by the seaside that is supposed to help Dan get over his crippling writer’s block. The family is staying there over the summer, and it seems that if this picturesque isolated environment can’t stimulate the author’s creativity, then there is no hope for his future in the industry. Dan’s family has made a sacrifice by moving to support him, adding tension to already rocky relationships between both husband and wife, and father and son. As the resident ghost, it is your job to influence the members of the household to make decisions that will shape their lives during and after the summer as they all desperately attempt to maintain the balance between selfish and selfless decisions – and it isn’t as easy as it might seem.
I was a huge fan of the idea behind this game. In my opinion, there aren’t enough games that revolve around realistic stories and scenarios, and I was beyond excited about the prospect of trying to keep a fictional family together. Many people escape to the world of games because real life isn’t easy, and to take that challenge and put it into a form like this seemed like a logical progression that I was surprised nobody has truly explored yet. That said, there were a few aspects of the execution that detracted from what was otherwise a unique and rewarding experience, particularly in terms of the nature of the choices that had to be made. On more than one occasion, it felt like the decisions I was choosing between didn’t necessarily have to be in opposition – why was it necessary for me to choose between family dinners and spending time on my novel? Por que no los dos? Dan’s relationship with his son seemed to be suffering because Dan was taking an all or nothing approach, and it frustrated me that the game didn’t let me maintain what seemed to be an entirely plausible balance. Surely Dan could have had dinner with his family and then returned to his work, or spent the day while his child was at school and his wife was working putting in the hard yards, and dedicated the nights to his family. But, perhaps that is the real challenge. Perhaps it’s not so easy to keep your mind on two things at once.
Often, that was a problem I had more with the character of Dan himself than with the consequences of my choices. I am aware that he was a product of my decisions, but even so, I do wish he’d been a little more sympathetic. When the possible consequences of the choices seemed similar I found myself consistently favouring Linda and Tommy, because they were quite frankly, more likeable characters. Of course, I’m aware that may very well be personal opinion. It was often a challenge to avoid completely sacrificing one character because every choice affects everyone, frequently in several different areas of their lives. Though they’re not on the same scale as life-or-death decisions in bigger games like Mass Effect, these choices still felt real and often caused me genuine stress.
The simple art style of the house and characters helped to keep the focus firmly directed at the story, as did the relatively intuitive gameplay. The Novelist does feature two different ‘modes’ or ‘difficulties’, one that involves moving between light fixtures so that the family cannot see you and be spooked, and the other allows you to roam freely without fear of being detected. In the end, I didn’t find it made much of a difference – the harder difficulty just made it a little fiddlier, rather than providing a challenge. Plus, it made me feel guilty when I was caught – these people had enough on their plates without worrying about the weird voyeuristic ghost living in their holiday house. There are times when you are able to roam without being detected in order to explore memories and examine the characters’ thoughts to aid you in getting the full picture, making it that bit more interactive which is always welcome.
In the end, this game did manage to immerse me in the Kaplans’ world, and there were times when their pain was my pain – and that’s always a great achievement for a game. The mechanics were a little frustrating, but ultimately, it’s the story we should be worrying about, not the mechanics. This is one of those times where narrative truly triumphs and the fiddly nature of the controls doesn’t detract significantly from the experience. I came out of The Novelist emotionally affected and feeling seriously invested in the future of this family, particularly young Tommy. When it comes down to it, I really just hope he turns out okay.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of The Novelist by Orthogonal Games.