A videogame crossed my desk that was about guiding a family unit with the simple little title of The Novelist, and I figured that it was going to be, well tiresome. I’m sorry. One of the subjects I find most tiresome is when writers write about writers in a very deliberate, very blatant way. You’ll find an enormous number of stories where the protagonist is an artsy male of reasonable means who is striving to be an author. Writers are writers, and we’re so often told we should write about things we know. I expected The Novelist to be a videogame version of those tiresome stories about some middle-aged man who had Always Wanted To Write A Book churning out some thing that focused mostly on him dealing with no longer being twenty.
I was, as it happens, very wrong.
The Novelist is an emotionally sincere, somewhat painful story about three people in a complicated relationship, and the ghost that tries to guide them towards a meaningfully better life as a family. It’s very hard to fail and almost impossible to ‘win.’
Gameplay is comprised of two rudimentary components. The first, optional component, is a stealth game. You’re a ghost, some strange presence that the family shouldn’t know about. If they feel you’re around, they’ll be scared, and therefore, you can’t help them. Or hinder them, if you feel like being a jerk. Either way, the stealth game is mostly interesting in that you need to sneak up on people to read their thoughts. Also, you have a short-distance blink power, where you can possess a light source in the house, and whoosh along into it. This means you can view all the rooms in terms of these fixed short-distance teleports. I like the mechanic, well enough, but I’ve played Dishonored enough that I’m frustrated by a blink that isn’t quite as good as Dishonored’s blink.
You have, effectively, three people to hide from, a fairly large space they move around in and a power that lets you teleport swiftly from point to point to manoeuvre around them.
That is the ‘stealth game’ part of The Novelist, and it’s… rudimentary. It’s not very exciting. You can play it for a bit but honestly, I turned it off in the third chapter and didn’t bother with it again. It might add a little spice to what you’re doing, but it doesn’t, to me, enhance the way the game plays. Honestly, the stealth mechanics feel a wee bit awkward to me. I’m used to sensitive stealth games, with retaliation and recovery mechanics. When you fail, that’s okay – you can just go back to the start of the chapter and try again.
The Heart Of The Matter
The Novelist isn’t really a game about stealthing around, though. The stealth is just connective tissue, sinew to the more thoughtful puzzle of how to manage these relationships together. And manage you must; you have a household of three people whose aims are never perfectly occluded. There is the aim of the father, a novelist and title character; there is the aim of his wife, herself an artist, as she seeks to manage her ambitions; and there is the aim of the child, who does not understand its role, but who still feels a particular way in relation to its parents. The story is divided into chapters, where you investigate what each character wants, and how they are reacting to the latest news for the family, then choose which of the three possible options the family should choose. You can compromise between two people most of the time – but you can never please everyone.
This is ultimately a videogame that gets into that realm where a certain type of person says is it really even a game? You just walk around, you listen to people, make a choice, you see the reactions.
This is a game because if the game simply told you these things it would have to tell you them in an order. There would be some automatic implied context. In The Novelist, it scatters these clues through a space, and even how those pieces are placed conveys some meaning. An envelope with a letter sitting on top of it is a different thing to an envelope with a letter tucked back into it. If there’s a linear sequence of A-B-C, finding them in the order C-B-A constructs the narrative in a different way in your mind, eventually illuminated. And it might feel different than B-C-A.
This sensation won’t work for long stories. It won’t work for a narrative of key events and specific cites, of action scenes. Instead, it works best for a narrative of emotional contexts, and not one that’s too long – and that’s the kind of story The Novelist is.
But Maybe We Can’t?
I don’t actually think there’s a lot of replay value to The Novelist.
First, this isn’t a game where you can get everything right, because this isn’t the kind of game where everybody can be satisfied. Everyone has reasonable wants; you need a very mercantile attitude to try and make even one person very happy. Essentially, you’re trading the happiness of one character for the happiness of another. If you can do that, you’re either able to make some moral judgement about the decision itself, or you think someone is actually asking for something unreasonable. That’s fine, but the game really will reflect your personal values. It’ll show you who you empathise with and why. That’s not likely to change, though.
Second, if you do reach the end of the game and find yourself unhappy with the ending you had, I don’t think the solution is to return to the start and try to ‘get it right.’ That seems a very insincere way to play the game. You can do it, fine! Maybe you’re the kind of person who sat at some decision and thought if I just did this differently? You might find a path you like better if you return to that point.
I doubt it, though.
The Novelist is a very gentle experience, a strange hybrid of an emotional visual novel, ethical puzzle, and stealth game. It deserves attention – and praise – if only for those things.
One final detail is that The Novelist is very small as downloads go, but also not very long. You will probably be able to finish it only a few hours of play. If you’re looking for a time sink game, something you can play a lot and enjoy and master, this is definitely not the piece. Think of it more in terms of watching a particularly thoughtful movie.
Buy it if:
- You like thinking about emotional compromises.
- You liked Dishonored’s stealth, but would prefer it in a more narrow environment.
- You’re interested in stories about relationships as processes, rather than stories that treat relationships as goals.
Avoid it if:
- You want something with serious pacing.
- You’re uncomfortable with the impression of parental neglect.
- You’re strongly empathic to these character archetypes and do not want to feel sad.