It never rains, but it pours. This sentiment can often be applied to life. I’d wager that nearly everyone reading this has gone through times when it feels like nothing else could possibly go wrong, or that just as things were looking up everything just crumbles once more. This feeling is one of the easiest to relate to and successfully implementing it into a game is an almost unprecedented achievement.
The Novelist is the most personal and beautiful game I have ever experienced. The creator, Kent Hudson, has quite plainly poured his heart and soul into this game, and the outcome is genuinely something to behold. Never before have I felt so emotionally involved in the characters, their situation and potential future, as in this truly player-driven story.
Mr Hudson’s creative masterpiece focuses on the Kaplans, a family like many others, faced with some of life’s many problems, looking for some answers, and taking the summer to try and find them. Vacationing for the holidays in a secluded house doesn’t end up being as simple as they had first thought, and it’s your job to help them find their way through the obstacles they encounter.
Dan Kaplan is a struggling author, working hard on his latest book, but suffering with serious writer’s block and looking for some inspiration to meet the looming deadlines and satiate his increasingly impatient boss. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as just focusing 100% on his work, with his wife Linda and six-year-old Tommy seeing less and less of him and feeling distant. How will he balance his passion for writing and desperation to complete a best-seller without letting his family slip through his fingers?
As a spirit residing in the house, you are in the unique position to not only witness the Kaplans' lives first hand, but also read their thoughts, and explore their memories. You are free to roam the house searching for clues on each family member’s wants and needs, in order to decide which way to guide them. Clues around the house include letters, diaries, little notes or lists or drawings, and discovering them all as well as delving into their memories leaves you with a decision to make at the end of each chapter.
Each character has a special item that matches up with the decision you have to make. For example Tommy might want to go to fly his kite, whilst Dan, feeling under pressure, wants to have a bourbon and write some more, and Linda just wants to share some wine and time with her increasingly-estranged husband. You can only choose one course of action making one person happy, leaving the other two disappointed. If you discover all clues and search all memories you can choose a compromise for one other character that will go some lengths to easing their upset. As the ghost you whisper your decision to Dan and this then has a knock on effect on the next chapter.
Wandering around the serene house is strangely relaxing, the simple almost impressionistic graphics are not distracting and allow you to appreciate the beauty of the place whilst still remaining completely emerged in the story. As you progress, and make certain decisions, objects appear around the house as subtle reminders of what has happened, keeping everything fresh in your mind and keeping your emotions right on the surface, ready to overflow.
The attention to detail is astonishing, with the friendly greetings between characters as they walk around the house passing each other, the light tapping on Dan’s typewriter becoming a soothing background noise, whilst gently reminding you of the ever-building strain he is under. You can choose in the settings to have each letter or diary entry read out by the person who wrote it, and I would strongly recommend you have this on, as the voice acting is astounding, each spoken word, emotionally-filled perfection.
As you make decisions, you can see the waves of change you create rippling out and in some cases spiralling out of control. With so many choices to make, and no wrong ones, it is sometimes very difficult indeed to come to a conclusion on the direction you want to go. Every person will experience something different here, depending on your own life, your own past and memories, blurring into the Kaplans’ story and influencing everything. In my case, for example, I found it really hard to not put Tommy first in every instance, as every parent will recognise that feeling of needing to put your child first. Others will maybe have gone through times where they haven’t taken the opportunity to live their dreams, and that will change the way you play.
Once sat down with The Novelist, I could not tear myself away. Although one playthrough was over in two hours, the amount of times I could go back and change one decision to see the effects, to explore all the different possibilities in their timeline, is almost endless. Several times I was in tears, and at the end of my first time completing the game, although the decisions I made were tough and I definitely wondered if I said or did the right thing, I felt strangely satisfied with the outcome. It was almost like looking back on my own life and thinking, “that was so hard, but I’m happy with how it turned out”. The moving effect of this is amazing, connecting with me on such a personal level, it’s something I have never really felt before, not only in a game, but in a book, film or TV show. What Hudson has done here is wonderful and I feel like a better person having known it.
If you choose one game this year to play, please try this, it is completely unmissable.