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Moral dilemmas. Choices. Over the past year or so the recent focus of story-heavy games seems to be tightly fixed on making you decide between one unpleasant situation and one alternative - but no less terrible - outcome. The inference here is seemingly that life is full of tough choices and our modern games should reflect this. It was only a matter a time before a game appeared that made this its primary function and bombarded you with a stream of difficult decisions.
Enter The Novelist, a game written and designed by Kent Hudson. It asks the question, is it possible to keep chasing your dreams once you have a family? The game revolves around a summer in the lives of the Kaplans. Dan is a writer who already has a successful novel under his belt and is trying to write his next best seller. He is married to Linda, a talented but still aspiring artist. Together they have a five year old son, Tommy. Their marriage started to become strained after they put aside some of their goals once Tommy entered their lives. They have decided to get away from it all and spend their summer on holiday at a quiet house in the woods, far away from distraction so that Dan can work on his book, Linda can have a place to get back into painting and they can all spend time together as a family.
But your role in this story is something quite different. You play as some form of spirit that resides in the house, watching the family and getting to understand their hopes and dreams. The Kaplans can't see you as long as you remain hidden (this is achieved by flitting between light fixtures), a vantage point from which you can watch the family interact with each other and listen to the thoughts in their heads. You will need to emerge, however, to investigate physical clues left strewn about the house and to enable yourself to go straight inside each family member's head and relive some of their memories but you must be careful not to let any of them see you. Once exposed you are vulnerable to detection and if you are spied by any of the family then they will become spooked. You can cause distractions by making the light fixtures flicker which will draw the family over to that area, leaving you free to sneak around behind them for a few moments.
The ultimate goal here is to help these people figure out what they need to do to live happier lives with each other. Each member of the family has something they wish to achieve, but their goals are not realistic without compromise. Dan has his wife and son to consider, Linda feels like her husband is drifting away consumed with his work and Tommy can't understand why his father won't spend time with him. The game is split up into chapters which each deal with a small crisis within the family's lives (this may be Dan needing to complete a deadline, a death in Linda’s family, Tommy wanting to go to a one-time-only show and so on). Each chapter contains specific clues and memories you need to investigate. Once you have enough you will be able to work out each person's current desire and must choose one of them to help. If you haven’t been careful enough and any of them have seen you too often then you won’t be able to discover what that person wants for the current chapter, their choices will be locked out.
Here's the catch: letting one person achieve their goal will be to the detriment of the other two. You may suggest to Dan that he stop drinking to appease Linda's concerns, but it will mean that he loses his writing muse and produces work of a lesser quality. Or you may suggest that Dan locks himself away and focuses on his writing, but it will leave Tommy upset and confused as to why his dad won't play with him. If you have discovered more than one person's desire then you have the opportunity to choose a compromise between two people, but one family member will always be left disappointed.
The Novelist is the epitome of "mood piece". As such, your enjoyment of the game depends very much on what state of mind you are in as you play it (introspective and relaxed is probably the best way). It's also likely to resonate much more with anybody who has a family of their own. Unfortunately it's quite heavy-handed in its presentation of the moral dilemmas here and insists on very black-and-white solutions. It also doesn't help that the Kaplans are a miserable bunch that are difficult to identify with. The clues you find often are handwritten letters or journal entries in which Dan and Linda express everything that's going wrong and how unhappy they are. It becomes tiresome and feels like the game is trying to hit you over the head with a depression hammer.
The fact that the game (and really there is very little "game" here) does manage to provoke an emotional response from players shows that it does what it sets out to achieve. The biggest issue with this is that the situations and resolutions never feel realistic enough, and the act of compromise in the real world is able to work between more than two people at a time. The Kaplans only come off as selfish in the end making it difficult to really invest much of yourself in them. The aspect holding everything together is Tommy, the son, who is an innocent in all this and makes you feel like you need to protect him from his father's behaviour.
Ultimately you are only able to provide a truly happy ending for only one family member once reaching the end of the game. This is entirely dependent on the choices you’ve made, but from what we saw the other two won’t live horrible lives as a result of your decisions, however much the game continually tries to tell you they are on a terrible path because you didn’t help them. The Novelist still remains an interesting experiment that you will find yourself getting caught up in. Playing as an outsider to the family gives you a significant amount of objectivity but also prevents you from ever really connecting.