Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What I Played: The Novelist

It's begun, you guys. I've become addicted to PC gaming. Dammit, Steam!

Some games I can only play for a short while before I need a break (I've still only only gotten to one ending in Papers, Please despite owning it the longest), and some games I would gladly play ALL DAY.

But the game I want to talk about today is neither of those. Like all of the games I've bought and played so far on Steam, it's story-heavy, and not reliant on "playing" but rather choices: The Novelist.

You are a ghost. You haunt a rental house, and this summer the Kaplans are coming for a long summer getaway. Dan Kaplan, the father, is a novelist struggling with his sophomore book. It's put a strain on his marriage with Linda, herself an artist, and kept him distant from his son Tommy. Your job as the ghost is manage this family's dreams and relationships. Whether you destroy them or nurture them is up to you.

 You can learn about them by reading their thoughts, snooping in their correspondence, and investigating their memories. When you know what everyone wants, you influence the next day's actions by whispering suggestions to Dan at night.

On its surface, the game looks simple: it's only 9 chapters long and action is limited to the rental house. That's not really a whole lot of choices to make. But under the surface it's incredibly complex. There are over 100 different individual scenes creator Kent Hudson had to create, each reflecting not only the choice and compromise you made in this chapter, but also the previous chapters.

It's also the kind of thing that has a special appeal for me; as a writer and creative person in general, I can find it hard to balance my creativity and passions with other important things, like my relationship and my health. If you've ever done NaNoWriMo, Script Frenzy, or the 30 Characters in 30 Days challenge, you've experienced that tension yourself. I was curious about how the story would unfold and how much Dan Kaplan's life would mirror my own.

There are two modes: "story" (the family is incapable of noticing you, so you can move around as freely as you like) and "stealth" (the family is capable of noticing you, so you have to be sneaky and possess different light sources and stay out of their line of vision). I didn't want to have to stress about being seen in addition to collecting all the clues and making the right decisions on my first playthrough, so I chose story mode.

Ideally, you should play the game without metagaming or strategizing—the experience Hudson was going for. Unfortunately metagaming, strategizing, and optimizing is exactly what I like about gaming, and I didn't lose myself in the story so much as metagame it: "Just stagger it so that everyone has equal wins, compromises, and losses, and you'll get the best possible ending." I'm glad the game received such rave and enthusiastic reviews, but personally I was incapable of getting as immersed as other gamers and reviewers apparently did, so I probably didn't enjoy it as much.

Instead, what I did find quite arresting (and wanted to see more of) was the house's backstory. You get glimpses here and there—ghostly journal entries and correspondence from residents who lived there years ago appear at night—but the focus of the game is heavily tilted towards the Kaplans.

I only have two issues. First, there are no save slots; it's impossible to go back and undo a decision, so you either have to see the consequences of a bad or mistaken decision through to the end, or you have to start over from scratch. And, yes, I did make a decision by accident. It's my own damn fault, but it was frustrating that I had no means of undoing it. However, the game is so short that this is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.

Secondly, for such a simple game it seems quite resource-heavy. It has the longest load time of any of my other steam games, and it seems like my computer (quite new, though not built to be a ~gaming PC~) really strains to run it at times.

I don't know if I got the best possible ending, but I got a pretty good one. I'm not sure how much I want to go back and replay for other endings, because those other endings mean something going wrong for someone, whether it's Linda or Dan or Tommy. Since there's no in-game checklist of possible endings, I don't really have any desire to go back and get some of the worse ones "just because."

I appreciate the crazy level of thought, detail, and design that went into this game, though. If you don't check any of the other links in this entry, you need to read the last one, especially if you're interested in game design. I'll even include the link again for convenience's sake. This is like the Fred Astaire of games: a lot of work and sweat and focus to make a final product that looks easy and effortless.


  1. What an interesting concept for a game. If I played I know I'd be nervous the whole time about making the "right" decisions. I just want the Kaplans to be happy!!! :'(

    1. It's certainly possible to play the game so that everyone is more or less happy! Especially if you keep track of your choices.

      I might go back and do a second "unoptimized" playthrough (or two) where I choose options based on my perceived value of the choices, just to see what ending I get. Like, I think Tommy cares more about going camping for a long weekend than just going to the beach for an afternoon, even if the numbers say he doesn't.

    2. That would be an interesting risk to try! If you do you should come back and update!