That’s what The Novelist teaches you: what would you give up to ensure the happiness of the ones you love? What would you ask them to give up to secure your own happiness? I have the word “sacrifice” underlined three times in my notes; underneath it, in slightly smaller letters but still underlined, is another word: compromise.
The Novelist is a title that will teach you the true meaning of both. Often taken for granted, in the debut work from Orthogonal Games you will learn the value of these concepts and you may even find yourself applying the lessons you learn to your own interactions in real life. After playing it’s difficult to look at your own relationships in quite the same way – you’ll be conscious of decisions you’ve made recently and find yourself wondering if you could have handled things differently.
In The Novelist you take the role of a ghost haunting the home where struggling writer Dan Kaplan and his family (wife Linda and young son Tommy) have decided to spend the summer. Dan has writer’s block. He’s struggling to make progress in his latest book, and he and his family hope that the time spent in their summer retreat can be used to help him get past it and mend the cracks in their marriage which have started to form. Linda is rediscovering her love of painting, and Tommy is falling behind at school after being mercilessly bullied at his previous placement. Every family member has their own needs and desires and their own hopes for what they want to accomplish from their summer away.
As the ghost of a previous occupant, it’s your job to help Dan decide how to tackle a series of increasingly difficult moral quandaries. By reading the thoughts of the residents, exploring their memories and finding clues around the house, you’re able to uncover what each of the three characters desires in that particular chapter, before deciding who to satisfy by whispering in Dan’s ear as he sleeps.
This is where the need for compromise comes in: just like in real life, you can’t please everyone all the time. By uncovering the wants and desires of more than one family member you are able to influence Dan into trying to satisfy the needs of two people, but the result will never quite be to the full satisfaction of either family member, and one person will always end up feeling left out.
After making your choice at the end of the each chapter, you see the consequences of your decisions in a combination of static images and short passages of text before moving on to the next dilemma. Your actions subtly influence the relationships in the family and each person’s happiness.
For example, one chapter has you choosing whether to let Dan continue drinking to help him meet his editor’s deadline (he finds it easier to write with a little amber nectar inside him), or heed his wife’s concerns and give up the bottle. In the meantime, Tommy just wants his daddy to help him build a pedal car. So you’re left in a difficult position – help Dan to finish his book and make it a success, put Linda’s mind at ease by giving up the bottle (which will make it more difficult for Dan to meet his deadlines), or give Tommy some quality time with his father. Or you could try to satisfy the needs of two people. In my original playthrough I gave Linda what she wanted and found a compromise with Tommy; but trying to meet his deadline without alcohol to lubricate his thoughts meant that he only joined in with the construction of Tommy’s car halfway through, leaving his son grateful but feeling neglected nonetheless.
Every chapter is filled with difficult decisions like this and they only get more difficult to make as the game goes on. It gets progressively darker too, wandering into difficult emotional territory with equally difficult dilemmas to consider. Attend a funeral and miss a book signing, or attend the signing and leave your wife feeling unsupported? The impact of your decisions is felt throughout the subsequent chapters and while each revolves a different subject from the last, there are subtle nods to what has gone before, scattered through the thoughts and diaries of the adults and Tommy’s drawings of his relationship with his father.
In addition, at night-time you are able to piece together the story of a previous occupant of the house – who may or may not be the ghost whose insubstantial shoes you inhabit. As the lives of the Kaplan family grow ever more complicated and emotionally difficult, so too do the diary entries you’ll read between chapters take on a darker tint.
There are two ways to play the game, with one of the options introducing a light element of stealth, requiring you to stay hidden and undetected lest the family members suspect something and become immune to your influence. To be honest, it feels a little superfluous; it never becomes challenging, even when the game attempts to ramp up the difficulty in later chapters. It feels as though perhaps the game’s creator was unsure whether the game was strong enough to carry itself on the strength of its core experience. Playing in Story mode allows you to ignore the need for stealth entirely, and the game doesn’t suffer for it in the slightest; if anything it enhances the experience, allowing you to concentrate solely on the events and the moral quandaries that you’re faced with.
Visually, the game is attractive without being ostentatious. A clean cel-shaded look is employed, lending each character and object a thick black outline, and there are no fancy lighting or particle effects. The Novelist doesn’t need such things though: the true value of the title is in the choices you’ll make and how they shape the lives of the Kaplan family. The house you inhabit – and the game never moves beyond its walls except in the static images which act as an epilogue to each chapter – feels like a space that could easily exist in the real world, though I’ve yet to find a child blessed with such a large bedroom or the ability to keep it so neat and tidy.
Aurally, the game continues the subtle and unassuming approach it takes with the visuals. A lone piano provides the musical backdrop with a slightly discordant melody that is pleasant, but repeats just enough to make you consider turning the sound down. Effects are minimal – the sound of footsteps, for example, or the clacking of a typewriter. The voice acting is a little patchy; Dan receives the strongest performance, and Tommy sounds like a young boy should; but Linda often comes across as though the actor portraying her was bored, even when the dialogue being spoken requires passion and emotion. The performances are understated and functional without being exceptional.
While short in its duration, the game has a high degree of replayability. At the end of my playthrough Dan’s book was a success and he and Linda had managed to repair the rift threatening to tear their relationship asunder, but Tommy grew up feeling unsupported and alone, spending his adult life drifting between dead-end jobs and never fulfilling his potential. With the ending influenced by the many decisions you’ll make in each chapter, the temptation is strong to alleviate the pang of guilt you’ll feel and start again to see if you find a better balance between the needs of each family member.
At the end of my first play-through of The Novelist, I put aside my laptop and just sat in silence, trying to take in what I’d experienced. Then I cried. I’m not ashamed to admit that and I only share it because it’s important to convey just how deeply the game moved me. I couldn’t have played the game at a better time – myself and my partner had been going through a turbulent period and my experience with the game helped me to view recent events with a new-found sense of perspective; all of a sudden I could see the consequences of the decisions we had made, the slow trickle-down of cause and effect that had led to that situation. Could I have handled things differently? Could they? What if…? It made me realize how selfish we’d both been, neither of us realizing how much we were hurting the other through the choices we had made. Finishing the game for the first time on Christmas Day lent the occasion a melancholy air as I considered the choices which had led us to our current circumstances.
Thankfully, our relationship is on the mend, both of us making the effort to move on from what led to the rift developing in the first place. That’s in no small part thanks to The Novelist and my experience with it. Quite possibly the most moving and deeply affecting experience that I’ve come across in a very long time, Orthogonal Games should be applauded for managing to create something which speaks to the player on a very personal, human level.
It’s all about sacrifice and compromise you see, and The Novelist truly understands what that means. By the end of your time with the game, so will you.
Version Tested: PC (Steam)