The Novelist is an interesting little game about life choices, mainly between one’s family and career. The Kaplan family of three (the writer Dan, his artist wife Linda and their son Tommy) moves into a remote location for the summer, mainly so that the father could work on his new novel. The player is an outside force that observes and even influences the decisions of the father. At the end of the summer the consequences of the player’s actions are revealed.
The concept of being a fly on the wall in someone’s household is intriguing. In this game the player is actually a ghost of some sort, one that can even whisper suggestions into the father’s ear. In some way the game succeeds in telling a story of a family summer and pointing out how hard it can be to please everyone. Unfortunately most of this incredible potential is eventually wasted, as the choices aren’t really very complex, some outcomes are practically forced, and even the whole supernatural aspect of the player being a ghost is rather watered down.
The Novelist doesn’t have an age rating but I don’t think it even appeals to the youngest audience. There are some mentions of real life adult issues like funerals, alcohol consumption or sexual relationships, but it’s all vague and described in text only.
The game has two modes: stealth and story. The only difference is that in stealth mode the family can notice the player’s presence and get spooked. To avoid being noticed, the player can hide in light fixtures, and even move by jumping from one to another. In story mode hiding is not needed, which comes especially handy if one wishes to replay the game a few times. I would definitely recommend trying out stealth mode in the first playthrough as avoiding the family can be surprisingly fun. The stealth mode is not hard at all, and the consequences of spooking the family members are almost insignificant.
The summer is split into three months, each month having three chapters. The player’s job is to explore the house and the memories of the family members revealing what a certain member wants to do. Player then can choose which uncovered wish to fulfill. If a family member wasn’t spooked, the player can also choose another goal to be carried out as a compromise. The nine chapters appear in random order, apart from the first and last (quite obviously since they are the arrival to the house and the departure). After the first and second months the game gives the player an overview and a hint of how things are progressing. The conclusion, which usually comes after the third month, tells how the family lived on for the rest of their lives.
The gameplay is very easy. “The ghost” moves with WASD keys and takes action with space or E key. The whole game happens inside the summer house. The play style is smooth and the simple graphics work well. I scoured through all the hints and wishes on my first playthrough and never got caught by the family. The whole game took about two hours to complete.
On my first playthrough I tried to please everyone but ended up with a cracking marriage anyway, oh well. The first play was still probably the most engrossing one, and I might even go as far as to say that this game should only be played once or twice. That way the story stays interesting and the flaws don’t really start to show yet. If you want to enjoy a completely virgin feeling on your first playthrough, I wouldn’t recommend dampening your enthusiasm with the rest of my text. There are no real spoilers (just a couple of chapter examples) but it reveals how little the player’s actions matter.
The biggest faults of the game lie in its simplicity. Sometimes less is more, but then again sometimes it’s just not enough. The player has nine opportunities to make a choice, and in each forking moment it’s possible to pick one of the three wishes, or two of the three wishes with one of them being the major choice and the other one a minor choice. It’s not terribly hard to calculate how many combinations that makes but I wont bother – let’s just say a lot. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter what the player chooses as long as they pick a person a certain amount of times. They are ecstatic or bummed up in the next chapter but in the end it didn’t matter to Linda whether it was the grandma’s funeral or a date night Dan missed.
In a similar fashion there’s the interesting idea of being a ghost. That stuff could’ve been epic. I was already fantasizing how I go all Shining on the family, with the people sobbing and crumbling in corners scared of the ghosts and the crazy dad writing and yelling. Nope, being a ghost is just a minor gimmick that doesn’t really have an effect on anything.
Also my inner feminist couldn’t just ignore the way Dan makes all the big decisions. Linda is basically just asking and begging him. This honestly made me somewhat dislike both of those characters, and I didn’t really want their marriage to work in the first place. Tommy was a cool kid though, I just couldn’t abuse him too much – even if it is just a game.
So far I’ve clocked seven hours in total and I think I’ll still try to aim for a “perfect ending”. I’ll be writing another post about my routes and their outcomes later, since I bothered to go so far as to test them. I’ll also be dissecting these flaws more as I don’t need to avoid spoilers in a post that is just one big spoiler in the first place.
In the end The Novelist is a nice game with a nice idea, but it would need to be much more to be great. Either making all the choices matter, or surprising the player with different kinds of outcomes. Or just something else I can’t even think of right now. It’s still definitely worth a play, at least at a discount price.