- Written by Evan Tumbas
- Published: 08 February 2014
Genre: Found Object / Adventure
Developer: Orthogonal Games
Publisher: Orthogonal Games
Release date: December 10th, 2013
Is love really all you need? You’ll find out.
With simplistic interactive fiction The Novelist earnestly presents a snippet of The Kaplan family’s life and is thematically rooted in choice and consequence within the family unit. It acts as a poignant reminder of how desires must be carefully managed while trying to find a balance and suffices to evoke feeling in the wake of whatever outcome prevails. The Novelist yanked at my heartstrings and presented some contemplative situations and decisions that caused me to pause, reflect and examine myself. You play as a benevolent, peeping specter, commandeer lamps and light fixtures to stay out of sight and interact with various forms of written communications as well as memories to uncover the feelings and desires of the Kaplan troupe and the history of the house they’re renting for the summer.
Perhaps my expectations of what existing as a ghost might entail have been skewed by the media, but being one in The Novelist seemed like a convenient excuse to inhabit in the intimate spaces around The Kaplan's. Still shackled by gravity, unable to phase through physical objects or really manipulate anything in the environment besides study the notes, letters and pictures scattered about, it doesn't exude the feeling of ghostliness in the slightest. It is incredibly peculiar to feel like you're walking around the house as an average human person, while you play a bodiless, weightless ghost. Hardly game breaking, but it did serve to mess with my suspension of disbelief a bit.
Stealth can be an interesting and engaging mechanic, even when part of a game that is otherwise creepy and awful like the hilarious Sneak King, but here it is solely purposed to gamify The Novelist when it doesn’t need it to be a rewarding experience. Flitting between light fixtures in a bid to conceal myself was neat at first, but quickly got tiring. In a few instances members of the family played some admittedly impressive defense and made it impossible for me to reach my goal undetected which in turn forced me to either hop about between the visible fixtures or sit on my hands and wait. My two cents? Play the story mode. I enjoyed The Novelist in a way I haven't enjoyed a game before, but the actual game aspect was lacklustre. You won’t be missing out on much of by electing to go with a Story play through and might end up bypassing some frustration and enjoying yourself much more.
You gain insight into The Kaplan’s thoughts through two means, venturing into their memories to view tableau instances and spy on an exasperating amount of hand written and drawn communication. When you sneak up behind Dan, Linda or Tommy before they notice you, the magic happens: watch Dan sigh in exasperation, stressed out on his office sofa, behold Tommy`s lamentations over the lack of friends in the area and bare witness to Linda compare her studio to a cage. These moments are always incredibly brief, but manage to add perspective. Emotions stirred, it’s up to you to decide who is validated by whispering in Dan’s ear while he sleeps, but who to put first is a heavy quandary and you can’t always get what you want.
Do you sway Dan to spend his time secluded from his family, focusing on his writing career to get over writer's block to successfully release his second book? Maybe persuade Dan to spend his time with his son, who is having some trouble at school both academically and with other children or foster Linda’s inner artiste and help fulfill her dreams? The sentimentality pervading the choices in The Novelist help with varying how you might weigh your options. Throughout each chapter, Dan, Tommy and Linda each have three or four items to find. Examining them all allows you to compromise and meet another halfway, which is nice, but someone is always going to be disappointed.
The Novelist is such a concentrated experience, taking place solely in the confines of the relatively limited set of drab rooms, that the interactive object hunting becomes stale in short order. While the lack of much visual stimuli helps the only interactive pieces of the environment stand out, it really works against the fun. I felt a similar way about Gone Home, the gameplay was weak, but at least with Gone Home it was entertaining to dredge the environment, to read the labels on the old home VHS recordings of The X-Files off the TV like I used to have myself or the odd SNES cartridges laying about. In The Novelist about the only interesting parts of the environment are the written transmissions, but it mostly serves to highlight how strange it is that a family would keep so many things bottled up, reserved for paper.
Ultimately, the amount of satisfaction one garnishes from The Novelist relies upon how deeply the consequences impact them on a personal level. Functionally, The Novelist is basic and the stealth mode is pretty extraneous, the brunt of the experience being an emotional odyssey and an analysis of consequence, choice and the relationships of a familial unit. It’s a diminished escapade as a result, so it’s difficult to accurately give The Novelist either a pass or a recommendation. For myself, it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in quite some time and will stick out in my mind. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you can get behind some sombre subject matter and heavy choices don’t put the fear into you, dive into The Novelist, it has a lot to say.
+ Stinging, powerful disappointment.
+ Makes you consider your own actual life. Woah.
+ Dan has a really badass mustache.
+ Dan uses a typewriter.
+ Poignant writing. It`s wonderful stuff.
- Playing it was pretty dull
- The singular environment could put a skydiver to sleep mid free fall
- Not fun in the traditional sense
- Stealth mode was a bust
- Not enough mustache. Both Tommy and Linda should have been designed with mustaches. Huge oversight, in my opinion.