The Novelist Review

The Novelist Review

Life's Balancing Act.

The Novelist Review
Release Date
December 10, 2013
Orthogonal Games

Quite possibly the greatest aspect of indie gaming is the fact that developers are able to follow their creative vision and create games with unique stories and concepts. The Novelist by Kent Hudson is a picture-perfect example of why indie games fill a void in the world of gaming. They are able to bring us into places where AAA games simply cannot, and are able to tell personal stories that resonate within us. The Novelist is filled with brilliant writing, genuinely-difficult family scenarios, and characters that everyone can relate to. While it can be argued that it is more of an interactive story than a game, the overall experience is an enjoyable change of pace in a world where most of the games we play are of the “shoot first, ask questions never” variety.

The Novelist tells a story of the Kaplan family; Dan, Linda, and young Tommy. While the story focuses on Dan, the father and husband of the household, his wife and son play critical roles in the game. The game begins with the Kaplans moving out to a remote summer home, but only for a few months. Looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they decide it would be best to spend some time away to grow as a family. This sounds like a great idea, and it would be, except Dan is working on a novel that could redefine his career. His efforts to write the most important book of his career often counteract his desire to be a supportive husband and father. With the entire family under a great deal of stress, it isn’t clear if they are going to figure out a way to make this work. That’s where you come in.

The Novelist Review - Summer Vacation
A wonderful start to the summer!

The Novelist is divided into chapters, which each chapter presenting new challenges for the family to face and overcome. In turn, three chapters represents a month of time in the Kaplan’s summer vacation, which goes on for a period of three months. In each chapter, the player sets forth to learn about what the family is thinking, feeling, and aspiring to accomplish. Playing as what can best be described as a ghostly-supernatural being, you read the family’s thoughts, drift into their memories, and quietly influence their decision-making. In each chapter, you are only able to select one of the family member’s desired outcomes, which results in the other two getting let down in the process. For instance, if you let Dan spend all day working on his book, that comes at the cost of his son missing out on spending time with his dad while further increasing the rift between him and his wife Linda. You are able to make a single compromise per chapter, in which you meet someone halfway, but at the end of the day you’ll never be able to make everyone happy. Sound familiar? It should… That’s life.

The Novelist Review - Finding Time for Tommy
Life would be easier if there were more than 24-hours in a day.

That brings me to what makes The Novelist so special. The writing is absolutely brilliant. At its core, if making the decisions that affected the Kaplan family were easy, the game would be a nonsensical charade of figuring out which answer is ‘correct’ for each chapter. I’d hate to say it, but Spoiler Alert: There is never is a correct answer. Each choice you will be forced to make is difficult. Each decision has a significant and long-lasting impact on the story and the Kaplan family. You will be forced to choose between your morals and what may make financial sense. Every choice is challenging, and it is clear that a lot of thought went into crafting these scenarios to ensure that there was never an easy answer. The decisions are so morally and emotionally ambiguous that everyone will experience the story in their own way. Not only because you’ll grow attached to the characters and see the consequences of your decision making, but because the game continuously adapts to the decisions you’ve made. Very few people will experience the game quite the same.

The story is replayable thanks to the fact that the chapters are randomly placed in a unique order with each and every playthrough. As you make different choices, the family’s relationships shift and mould to the new storyline you are influencing. While this is excellent from a replayablility standpoint, you may or may not feel inclined to give the game another go when you finish; at least not right away anyways. The issue isn’t the story, but rather more to do with the repetitive nature of the gameplay. In fact, while the The Novelist is verbose in respect to its story, it is relatively shallow from a gameplay perspective. You’ll find yourself looking for the same types of things every chapter. You’ll look for notes left on the tables, mail on the counters, post-its on the walls, and diaries thrown all over the place. While these notes and letters help to support the story, they don’t provide the satisfaction or tension that the chapter endings do. I found myself rushing through just trying to find everything just so I could advance the story. When you consider that the entire story takes place in a single-family home, you can only spend so much time searching through the same rooms over and over until you get a tad irked.

The Novelist Review - Note on the Door
Oh, there’s that damn note!

The gameplay is given a needed kick in the pants when you set the game to its “Stealth” difficulty setting. This makes it necessary to sneak around the house using your ghostly abilities to hide in the light fixtures so that you can go undetected by the Kaplans. I think a lot of players will appreciate this, as it definitely adds an interesting dimension to the game. While the stealth adds finesse to the gameplay experience, for me The Novelist is still all about the story and having to sneak around the house further lengthened the time it took for me to advance it. It also made the ‘note hunting’ even more encumbersome, which as I mentioned previously made the game feel a tad repetitive. The result? No stealth mode for me. Just give me more story!

There were a few other things that I felt could have been delivered in a more robust way. While I absolutely loved the story and how the characters were shaped within it, I felt like there was a bit of a missed opportunity to expand on the inner thoughts of the characters while exploring their memories.  While exploring their memories, you find them in tableau-like stances which are wonderfully emotional and telling on their own. However, the characters often have very little to say, which is unfortunate because they often represent critical moments in the character’s storylines. That is of course, if you can even find them. The game uses a theremin-like sound to direct the player to where the tableaus are, but the direction was barely discernible. While using both my surround-sound Steelseries headphones and my 5.1 audio system, I could never seem to use the audio cue to find what I was looking for. Again, it irritated me because I wanted to advance the story, and there I was searching the house  aimlessly with a ringing sound in my ears!

The Novelist Review - Moments
These are some of the most beautiful moments in the game.

You know, its kind of funny. Most of my complaints revolve around the fact that I loved the story so much that I didn’t appreciate things that got in my way of getting more story. The Novelist is a very unique experience, and I think that it’ll fit very well into Steam libraries around the world.

The Novelist Review
Review Summary
The Novelist is a unique story-driven experience that provides gamers with an opportunity to do some soul searching while helping a family make life work. Its wonderful writing will make every choice as difficult as they are meaningful, and you'll find yourself caring about its characters and their ambitions. The game isn't perfect from a gameplay perspective, but that is outweighed by the overall quality of the experience.
The Good
Brilliant writing.
Emotionally engaging story.
Unique concept.
The Bad
Repetitive gameplay.
Memory searching could have been something really special.
A little too much 'note hunting'.

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