While blockbuster titles like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” get all the press, the rise of relatively open software stores on PCs, consoles, tablets, and smartphones has allowed for a major increase in the viability of games made by smaller, independent developers.
“The Novelist” doesn’t have the big action set pieces or cinematic cutscenes used to tell stories in most games. Instead, the player drives the story directly through gameplay.
The game puts players in control of a nigh-invisible, “Paranormal Activity”-like entity (see: character above) haunting a house on the coast of Oregon. As the game begins, a novelist and his wife and son move into the home for the summer.
The novelist, Dan Kaplan, is struggling to complete his second book. Meanwhile, his marriage is going through a rough patch and his son is having trouble in school, both socially and with his work. Basically, it’s not a good time for the Kaplan family.
Of course, none of this is told to the player outright. Instead, the player has to sneak up on the Kaplans to “uncover memories” via possession and find clues laid around the house. Letters to and from family, diary entries, and the son’s crayon drawings slowly reveal what each of the family members are thinking about and what they want in life.
Things get interesting when you know what each character really wants. That’s because the player can influence the Kaplans’ lives by telling Dan what do to while he sleeps. The only problem: you can’t make everyone happy in every situation.
In fact, the game only lets players make one character happy in any given situation. Whether it’s giving Dan time to work on his book, taking the Kaplans’ son to an amusement park or going for a hike on a trail Dan’s wife picked out, the options available to the player are almost all mutually exclusive.
If you’re careful about finding out each character’s wants, you can try to find ways to compromise between them. While you still can’t make more than one person happy, compromises let you keep one of the others from being unhappy.
That’s an important distinction to make. Each character has a “happiness score” based on the player’s decisions. Fulfilling a want adds to that score, finding a compromise maintains it, and ignoring a character’s wants lowers it.
That score affects the ending of the game. In my play through, I tried to give Dan time to work on his novel but kept worrying about the state of his marriage and the lack of attention his son was getting, so most of my suggestions focused on improving those aspects of his life.
In the end, his book was a failure (ending his career as an author) but his marriage became stronger than ever and his son grew up to become a famous graphic novelist.
Apparently, I care about family more than having a successful career. But others will have different priorities, and those priorities can play out through eight different endings that range from everyone being happy to the Kaplans falling into ruin.
While Hudson has spent more than a decade as a game designer — with big games like “Bioshock 2” and “Thief: Deadly Shadows” under his belt — making a game by himself still proved to be a challenge.
To make the game, Hudson employed Unity, a game engine favoured by a number of independent game developers for its ease of use and incredibly active and helpful community. He isn’t a programmer, so to put together the game’s logic he used uScript, an add-on for Unity that lets game developers connect bits of logic visually rather than using thousands of lines of code.
According to Hudson, it took him about a week to become familiar with Unity. That’s lucky, because figuring out what he was going to make in the first place took months.
When he first left his job at 2K Games after becoming fed-up with the avoidance of experimentation in traditional studio-based game development, Hudson thought he was going to start his indie career by making a simple game for the iPad. After a few false starts, he decided to tackle to problem of giving players “agency” in the stories they play through in video games.
Tired of games where the story happens around the player in cutscenes instead of being driven by their decisions during gameplay, Hudson came up with a concept a lot like “The Novelist” but with eight characters, each fitting a distinct stereotype — novelist, painter, old millionaire, etc. But that proved to be far too complex to tackle by himself.
“There would have been far too many permutations of the story to keep track of during writing,” Hudson told me over coffee. “And with that many characters, it’s hard to make the player care about the wants of any individual.”
So he stripped it down to a far simpler group: the nuclear family, by many standards the building block of social interaction and community.
“That made the system behind the gameplay much easier to work with, because with only three characters it became a balanced equation: one character would be happy in any given situation, one character could remain neutral, and one character would become unhappy.”
Many of the struggles faced by the game’s titular character are reflections of Hudson’s own problems and anxieties. After all, there isn’t a huge gap between what goes into writing a book and writing the story for a game. In fact, at one point the player finds a bunch of inspirational and self-deprecating post-it notes in front of Dan’s typewriter — Hudson says that those are actual notes he had at his desk that he wrote into the game when he was struck with a bout of writer’s block.
Of course, not every scenario is inspired by Hudson’s life. For instance, he’s not a father. To create a realistic-feeling family dynamic, he surveyed friends who are parents and spoke to their kids about what it’s like to be a parent and a six-year-old kid.
The result is a game that truly captures the emotional ups and downs of finding balance in one’s life, whether it’s between work and family or even between one’s spouse and one’s child.
While it’s not heavy on action — the primary game mode requires the player to find creative ways to keep out of the Kaplans’ sight, though there’s also a mode that lets non-gamers simply wander about the house freely to experience the story without worrying about hiding — the game offers satisfaction by showing that their decisions really matter, just as in real life.
For the price of a trip to the movies — $14.99 on Hudson’s site, available on PC and Mac — “The Novelist” provides 2-4 hours of gameplay per playthrough. While I’m not sure if I’m going to go through it again any time soon (simply because the choices I made were all gut reactions, making the story feel like my own), completionists will enjoy playing through the game to see the different endings.
Bottom line: For gamers who enjoy piecing together an emotional story, “The Novelist” is one of 2013’s must-buys.
See a trailer for “The Novelist”:
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