The Novelist

The Novelist Interview with Kent Hudson

Every once in a while a game pops onto Greenlight with a premise so fascinating that you can’t help but get excited about it. The Novelist definitely finds itself in that category for me, and so I was very excited to have the opportunity to speak with Kent Hudson about his game.

Thank you for speaking with us today! Tell us about yourself.

Kent Hudson
Kent Hudson – Designer

My name is Kent Hudson, and after more than a decade in AAA development on games like Deus Ex: Invisible War, BioShock 2, and others, I quit my job to go indie. The Novelist is my first indie game.

What was your favorite game growing up?

As a younger gamer, I was a total Nintendo fanboy. Looking back, I would say that my favorite Nintendo games were Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and similar classics. I discovered Doom 2 in high school, which was really formative for me as well.

But the game that changed my life was Deus Ex. It came out between my junior and senior year of college, and even though everyone else was enamored with Diablo 2 I was blown away by the player choice, atmosphere, and fictional world of Deus Ex. I had worked on levels and mods since my freshman year, but Deus Ex completely changed what I thought games were capable of, and from that point on I started taking the idea of making games for a living very seriously.

I was majoring in political science at the time, so switching to a career in games didn’t make a ton of sense, but I’m glad I took the leap.

The Novelist - Focused on writing
Dan Kaplans works on a career-defining novel.

Tell us about The Novelist!

The Novelist asks one central question: can you achieve your dreams without pushing away the people you love? The game focuses on Dan Kaplan, a novelist struggling to write the most important book of his career while trying to be the best husband and father he can be. The Kaplans have come to a remote coastal home for the summer, unaware that they’re sharing the house with a mysterious ghostly presence: you.

Read the family’s thoughts. Explore their memories. Uncover their desires and intervene in their lives. But stay out of sight; you can’t help the Kaplans if they know there’s a ghost in the house. It’s up to you to decide how Dan’s career and family life will evolve, but choose carefully; there are no easy answers, and every choice has a cost.

Dan’s relationships – to his work, his wife, and his son – react and shift in response to your choices. With a different sequence of events in every playthrough, The Novelist gives life to a unique experience each time you play.

The decisions you make will define the Kaplans’ lives, but they may also tell you something about yourself.

The Novelist - Struggles
As a ghostly presence, you are able to peer into the lives of Dan’s family.

The concept is equally fascinating and innovative. How did you come up with the idea?

When I look at the game now it all clicks together and makes sense to me, but it was actually a very long, winding, painful road to get here. I wish I could say that the idea sprang from my head fully formed, but that’s almost never the reality when it comes to making games (or books or music or movies). My original goal was to create a game in which the player has a key role in shaping the story in a more systemic, less-scripted way, and although the game has changed a lot I feel I’ve maintained that core idea.

The game started as something with a bigger cast of characters, where you could create different types of relationships between whoever you wanted, but it was so wide open that none of your choices meant anything emotionally; you were just moving numbers around. I realized that players needed a much more well-defined context for their choices to mean something, so I started thinking of specific scenarios that might be interesting.

I realized that I could shrink the game down to look at one family and immediately get the benefit of well-understood relationships: I don’t have to explain to anyone what a father, mother, husband, wife, parent, or child is. That was a key moment for me, because that shared understanding provided context for what a good or bad relationship meant.

At that point I just needed a counterpoint to balance the family relationships against, and Dan’s career seemed like a logical choice (there are chapters in the game that deal with his wife Linda’s career as well). From there I started identifying strongly with the subject matter, so you’ll definitely see some things I think about represented by Dan in the game.

What exactly is the player? A ghost? A fly? A completely supernatural being?

The player isn’t exactly a ghost, per se, but that’s probably the easiest shorthand for describing it. The player definitely has supernatural abilities, although those are the only fantastical elements in the game; the Kaplans don’t know the ghost is there. Well, they don’t know you’re there as long as you get spotted … it is a stealth game, after all.

But yes, the player is a supernatural being in an otherwise grounded world. There are some sequences in the game that give clues about the ghost’s origin, but you’ll have to play the game to uncover that part of the story.

The Novelist - Certainty
Read their thoughts… Feel their uncertainty

How can the player affect the family and their lives? Does the player influence the story?

The Novelist is a chapter-based game, and in each chapter the family finds themselves in a different situation related to the career vs. family question. As you explore the house and learn about the characters, you’ll unlock a clue for each character that explains how they want to resolve the chapter. The catch is that each outcome is mutually exclusive with the other two, and if you don’t pick a given character’s outcome it will have a negative consequence going forward.

The three choices in each chapter are mapped to the three main themes of the game: career, marriage, and parenthood. So if you conclude a chapter by having Dan do what his son wants, Dan’s career will get a little bit worse, as will his marriage. As you continue to make decisions in each chapter, a landscape of relationships will start to grow, all based on the values you’re expressing with your choices. Perhaps Dan and Linda will fall madly in love all over again while he loses control of his book, or maybe he’ll write the great American novel while being an awful father; it’s up to you to express yourself and shape their lives.

If the player can influence the story, does that mean that each playthrough will yield different experiences for different players?

That’s pretty much the goal of the game. I’ve put a lot of effort into giving each character a sympathetic, believable desire in each chapter. I don’t want to have a chapter where there’s a clear right or wrong answer, because there’s nothing interesting about that. I want each choice to be balanced enough that players have to bring their own judgment and values to the situation. That in turn has the effect of making the developing relationships a reflection of the player, not just a choice between pre-scripted plot branches.

I think of The Novelist as a question game, not a message game. I don’t know the answer to the central question of the game, so I’m trying to make an experience where people can find their own answers. To that end, the chapters in the game progress in a random order in each playthrough. That makes the game even less about plot and more about the relationships that take shape over the course of the game and ultimately form the story.

The Novelist - Into the distance
Relax and enjoy the view!

What personally is your favourite element of the game?

This might just be a case of recency bias, but I’m really fond of how the player sees the results of decisions made in the game. At the end of each chapter the player decides what Dan should do in order to drive the story forward, and until recently those decisions were presented to the player as nothing but text. I was never happy with that solution, but it was also out of scope for me to do full animated cutscenes to show the events set in motion by the player’s choice.

I finally found a solution I’m really happy with, though: showing a moment in time from each of the decisions and slowly panning over the scenes in black and white. You can see an example of this at the end of the trailer, when Dan is sitting down to put together Tommy’s pedal car. For the sake of timing I only showed that one shot in the trailer, but in the game you see not only what you told Dan to do but also the effects of not choosing the other options.

It’s accompanied by a text recap over the bottom of the screen (also taken out of the trailer for timing/clarity reasons), and it’s a nice blend of narration and 3D work that’s stylish and interesting. I even learned some basic 3D modeling/posing techniques so that I could rapidly build the scenes, and overall I’m really happy with how it all turned out. In a game that’s all about choices, it’s important to give the player satisfying feedback when they make a difficult decision.

The Novelist - Typewriter
Ah, the typewriter. Such a beautiful tool.

How is development going? When can we play it?!

Development is going well! There are still some features to add and some polish to do, but I feel like things have stabilized and I’m approaching the home stretch. The game will be out this summer, though as a solo indie developer I can’t really provide a more specific date than that; you never know what might come up!

Where can players learn more about the game, and how can they support its development?

The official site is, where you can preorder the game and receive the soundtrack as a bonus when the game is released. You can also follow the official Twitter account or the RSS feed if you’d like to keep up with development updates.

As for supporting the game, I would of course appreciate a vote on the game’s Greenlight page. 🙂

Thank you for your time!

And thank you for your interest! I really appreciate the support.


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