The Novelist—developed and published by Kent Hudson/Orthogonal Games—is an interesting and only slightly flawed game. When I heard about it, it was characterized as kind of a take on The Shining—the Kubrick film, more than the King novel—in that it involves a novelist and his family in an isolated house shared by an invisible presence. There’s one big difference: the viewpoint character that you play in the game is the ghost.
Well, sort of.
The ghost isn’t the protagonist, though: that’s Dan, the novelist of the game’s title. In a sense, the game is about Dan’s decisions, and the ghost’s job is to wander the house invisibly, sleuthing out the complication(s) of the week so that it can sneak into the room where Dan and his wife sleep and whisper advice into Dan’s ear. It’s all framed as being about Dan’s dilemmas, Dan’s decisions, and Dan’s compromises, so in a senseDan is the protagonist. 1
The game is fascinating because it’s all about the role sacrifice plays in family: does a novelist spend more time on his work knowing it may cost him his marriage? Does he help his son through difficulties, knowing it may eat into the time he needs to write a good book and sell it? Or does he spend that time patching up his ailing marriage, even if it means his son will suffer during the coming year or, perhaps, for the rest of his life?
In a lot of games, the hard decision you make is which piece of gear to drop so you can carry more treasure… a fine dilemma, of course, but not an emotional one. The decisions in The Novelist were charged with a kind of emotional impact: these were decisions one character made, but which deeply affected other characters. And they’re not unrealistic ones: parenting and marriage do involve sacrifices—at least, if you’re doing them right—even thought they’re not necessarily so all-or-nothing. The emotional heft of the decisions in The Novelist give it something I haven’t seen in many other games.
Likewise, I appreciated the way the game ultimately hinges on rethinking the very idea of—that is, one’s definition of—”success” itself. In a world full of messages about “balancing needs” and “having it all,” this game is sometimes brutally honest about the fact that relationships sometimes require real, difficult sacrifice, even of things one feels are crucial to oneself and one’s identity… ar least temporarily. As a new parent, I’ve been coming to terms with this myself, and whatever issues I may have with the representational mechanics of this, I still find it refreshing to seee it depicted at all in a game, let alone used as the central source of “conflict” (or, if you prefer, the central “puzzle”) in a game.
That said, it’s not perfect. For one thing, Dan’s wife seems to make a certain number of what I think are unrealistic demands: as soon as she hears about an organization, she decides not only that she wants to join it, but that she wants to work for it full time and Dan should get a “regular job” and give up the University position he’s been offered(!) so that she can do it. That just comes off as selfish… especially her wanting to do so when it also means their son is going to be (to some degree) left hanging. I actually chose what their son wanted just because I suspected tha choosing Dan’s reasonable wish—that he take the university job—would have ridiculously dire consequences for his marriage… but at the same time, Linda going full time in an organization she’d just heard of seemed like a stupid reason for Dan to turn down a professorship. (There are, after all, Art Therapy programs all over the place, probably including one in the town where the university was located… and she’d just heard of the group, which makes her demand seem somewhat , if not outright selfish.) It’s fine for things to seem that way from Dan’s point of view, but greater access to Linda’s backstory, the problems in their marriage, and her organically changing perspective might have helped balance that out.
The reason I can’t remember them all is the other issue I had with the game: it’s a bit slow, or long, or… well, it takes a lot of time to finish, and it’s not time spent doing new things. I had to take long breaks from playing so that I wouldn’t find repeatedly searching the same space—a little four-bedroom house—monotonous. It’s not that there’s a lack of new material to find in each turn, it’s just that at some point, I started to get fatigued searching the same floor plan repeatedly. I’m not sure the fix for that would have been changes in the floorplan, mind you: I think maybe changes to what was accessible in the house might make more sense. (Maybe something like having the ghost only search the house at night, and having to avoid the light of any lamps left on, with different lamps left on each night?) Then again, maybe it’s just that there’s an overabundance of rounds.
Yet for all that, The Novelist is really worthwhile. Between the time I bought it and the time I finished it, we found ourselves with a baby on our hands, and in some ways that changes the way I see the game. Having a kid does mean sacrificing time, giving up some things… yet here also has to be a balance, and one cannot give up everything and remain healthy. (Trust me, we know some older people—especially mothers—who show the warped signs of that kind of self-sacrifice extremism, and it’s not wonderful at all.) The opposed tug of various responsibilities, duties, and instincts, and interests is fascinating when presented in a game form mostly because it’s real, whether we know this from being married with kids, or from any other kind of relationship.
Anyway, good game, even if it has some notable flaws. The one thing I really wish is that there’d been a way to have the “ghost” shift to Linda’s point of view, perhaps on alternate turns, or as an option for a second playthrough. I think that might have made the turns feel a little less monotonous, and might even have fixed the balance problem between her wishes and Dan’s by rendering her and her aspirations and demands somewhat more sympathetic. Her backstory, meaning the untold story of how and why she stopped painting, probably needs to be told, and could do a lot to temper how unreasonable some of her demands are. (Plus we’d see her struggling with her sympathy for Dan’s lifelong project—she did marry an aspiring writer, after all, from all we can tell, anyway—and also wrestling with her own feelings of inadequacy in helping their son, her doubts about things, and her own desire to sacrifice for Dan and Tommy, which one would hope is actually more like Dan’s.)
Besides, there’s no reason not to give the female lead more agency… and more responsibility to consider her own role in the family, and to let us see the sacrifices she chooses to make along the way, too, instead of focusing only on her husband’s struggle. Parenthood, when it’s not single parenthood, is a shared struggle, and involves teamwork and mutual deliberation, as well as self-sacrifice.
Also, I found the representation of the writing life a little off: yes, I’ve been through the kind of crisis of confidence—and struggle with career—than Dan has been through, even if I haven’t yet published a novel. But it’s not all-or-nothing. I know, I know: you have to ramp up the stakes if you want to make a game. But doing so creates a false impression of how writers work. I say this even being fascinated by creative types who give up and walk away from the game, whether because they see themselves as having failed, or said all they have to say, or whatever. (I’m very curious why T.E.D. Klein (whose wonderful Dark Gods I reviewed here earlier) stopped writing horror, and I found Searching for Sugar Man one of the most fascinating music documentaries I’ve ever seen.)
Still, even without seeing Linda’s side of it, even with the other flaws, the game as it is represents a fascinating exercise in hard choices, in the pain that is love, and in the difficulty of setting priorities when they sometimes conflict with one’s own needs and wants. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent a couple of months banging up against that in real life—what does one need more, sleep or writing time?—but I find that new and fresh, in a game. It feels a lot like a statement about what games could be about, and maybe sometimes should be. That in itself is a worthwhile achievement.
Hm. Someone named April Fehlig—who apparently plays even fewer computer games than me—reviewed the game for NPR and seems to have ended up feeling pretty much the same as I did. Go figure.
That said, the ghost gets nicely developed: at the end of each round, when the house is asleep, you can find clues to the ghost’s past “interventions”in the lives of those who’ve lived there in years long past. It’s a neat little added bonus within the game.↩