The indie scene has been booming over the past few years, leading to the creation of more personal projects. We’ve seen games like Papo & Yo, To the Moon and, most recently, Gone Home. These titles may not tell true stories specifically, but they center on topics that are easily relatable. The latest in this growing trend is The Novelist, a game that utilizes supernatural elements to tell the story of a family in crisis.
In The Novelist, you don’t play as any particular character. Instead, you control a ghost inhabiting the summer home of a young couple and their son. The father, Dan Kaplan, is a novelist struggling with his next project while also attempting juggling his familial life and responsibilities. His wife and son both deal with their own issues, which either coincide with Dan’s own personal issues or are a direct result of them.
This is where you, the mysterious entity, come in. Your main goal is to learn as much about the family as you can while leading Dan toward the decisions you think he should make. Every decision will have consequences, leading you to make some challenging choices along the way. This is a tough position to put the player in as, right away, it’s easy to relate to Dan, his family and his troubles. If not for that, the game’s powerful moments would fall completely flat (as well as the subtle ones), but thankfully you are given plenty of opportunities to learn as much about this family as you can.
This is helped by the excellent writing, which brings you up to speed on the lives of these three people almost immediately, making your end goal equally well-realized and difficult. The decisions you make will shape the story throughout and ultimately affect the ending, yet you never have a full picture of where things will go from there. Sometimes a decision that seems to benefit Dan in the short term might have a lasting negative impact on himself and his family, so your choices matter in a resounding way.
The gameplay is relatively basic, which is perfect as it allows the story to breathe, focusing more on the family and less on your ghostly “character.” Its simplicity is also its greatest hindrance. Each day, you have to find out as much about the current situation as possible from all three perspectives. This involves you going around reading notes related to each character and viewing their memories, leading to your discovery of their desire for that day. The act of going through this process seems intriguing at first, but once you realize you’ll be repeating this same basic task for the entire game, tedium sets in rather quickly. It doesn’t hurt the impact of the story, yet it makes getting to those moments harder than it should be.
You can only make one of three major decisions each day, although if you discover all three character desires, you can compromise with them for a second choice before the day’s end. These compromises won’t leave that particular family member completely satisfied, but it gives you some leeway in your choice.
For example, one decision focuses on Dan’s drinking, which has increased dramatically since his writing troubles. You can choose to keep him writing (and, as a result, drinking) to finish more work in less time, or spend more time exercising, which is what his wife wants. The first decision you make for Dan you will commit to fully, but the compromise will only be a smaller commitment. Dan may continue to drink and, as a result, write more, but he’ll take a couple of days out of his schedule to jog to please his wife. These are just small choices that add up over the course of the game, some more so than others, adding to an already excellent narrative.
The game has two difficulty modes which change the game dramatically depending on your choice. The first is stealth mode, allowing you to treat it as a stealth game, relying on your abilities to “possess” light sources in order to stay hidden. You may be a ghost, but this mode forces you to stay out of sight and penalizes you for being seen too often by certain characters, locking you out of their outcomes for the day.
The other mode, story mode, removes these rules and allows you to roam freely and enjoy the story at your own pace. I appreciate the option to give players two different ways to experience the same story, but unfortunately, the stealth mode only adds to the tedium of the gameplay. Thankfully, you can switch modes at any time, giving you a chance to try both whenever you want.
While it doesn’t provide the most compelling gameplay experience around, The Novelist is a captivating look at a small family’s struggles and your role in their lives. The writing is top notch and no matter what path you choose to take, the impact of your choices will be felt by the time the credits roll. It’s yet another example of the strength of interactive narratives and the many ways in which games can explore stories from perspectives unseen in other media.
Pros: Inventive approach to narrative, excellent writing, impactful choices
Cons: Tedious gameplay, stealth mode is not a desirable way to play