The Novelist review
A house sits unoccupied, perched on a cliff with a gorgeous view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With tons of living space and an isolated setting, this home should be a dream find. However, the house has changed hands time and time again, its previous inhabitants complaining that they felt that their actions were being guided by a force other than themselves. The Kaplans are the latest to rent the house for the summer, and each family member comes with their own hopes and dreams that often clash with the others’. They, too, are about to find out that something lurking inside the house wants to influence them while they juggle their responsibilities and relationships with each other. In Kent Hudson’s intriguing narrative experiment The Novelist, that something – a ghost – is you. Despite your ethereal nature, your decisions will affect the story in very tangible ways and will help determine the fate of this unsuspecting, troubled family.
Dan Kaplan is the titular novelist, with one book under his belt already. But his second book will really determine if his career sinks or swims. With deadlines for the new book looming, he’s hoping the house will give him inspiration and let him focus on writing. His wife Linda wishes to rekindle the deteriorating romance between her and Dan before the big “D” word comes up, and is thinking about getting back into her painting career that she stopped once Tommy was born. Tommy had a rough school year, and between feeling loneliness and frustration at his reading comprehension, he really needs his parents to spend time with him. Will Dan shut himself in his office and isolate himself from his family at the expense of losing his marriage? You decide this and many other decisions, but beware that every choice has consequences, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time.
Having control over the family’s decisions helps you feel connected to the characters and invested in what happens to them. Their wishes and disappointments are very relatable, because their trials are common to any family and we’ve all felt the kinds of emotions each of them experiences. Depending on which decisions you choose, however, the characters can be very lovable or rather horrid. If Dan ignores Tommy the whole weekend because you choose for him to write his novel at the expense of all else, he seems heartless. And yet, you can never really blame him for what results, because you are the one choosing that decision for him. It’s very hard to make choices, knowing that at least one of your characters is going to be heartbroken.
You won’t be able to make such choices unless you learn all about your new houseguests, of course. And although you may be a ghost, you’re not invisible, so you must stay out of sight. A big part of The Novelist is using stealth to go from room to room finding papers and discovering memories. There is an option at the start of the game to play without stealth, but the sneaking aspect adds a bit of suspense and difficulty. A tutorial eases you into how to do this effectively. The mouse controls the camera, and the WASD keys move you freely around. The characters often move from room to room, saying hello to each other and going about their business. Wandering around can be risky for you, however, since the family can walk in at any time and see you. The best way of getting around without being seen is by possessing light fixtures that are turned on. Pressing the space bar will possess a light, and you can move from light to light as long as the next is in your line of sight. Lining the camera up with a light can be a little difficult at times, since some of the light hotspots can be very thin.
There are tons of lights in the house to choose from, though more and more are turned off the farther into the game you get. This makes it harder to enter rooms the characters are occupying, so sometimes roaming freely is the only option. If a person sees you out of the corner of their eye, you have a moment to possess a light nearby and disappear. The character will become suspicious, however, and if the same person sees you a second time, or if you can’t make yourself invisible quickly enough, they will become spooked. If a character is spooked, you will still have the option to choose their desire at the end of the day, but you won’t able to select it as a secondary compromise (which allows for two decisions to be picked in a day). Fortunately, if seen again by a spooked character, the game doesn’t end and there is no exorcism possible. Rather inexplicably, a spooked character’s suspicions have disappeared by the start of the next chapter.
You do have the ghostly ability to make one light flicker at a time, which will cause a character nearby to go and investigate, hopefully giving you time to leave the light and read the note or journal at hand. There is no time limit overall, which is a relief, as your plans to get around the house don’t have to be rushed. Pressing the tab key shows what needs to be done next, and indicates if there are more letters to be found or if a character is suspicious or spooked. Quitting the game will save your progress, and since this is the only way to save, if a character becomes spooked there is no way to reload and try again.
While The Novelist does not have any puzzles to solve, in each of the game’s nine chapters you’ll have to read through papers and enter the memories of family members to find how they all want that day to end. Each character has a set number of papers and memories to locate, and the option to see how many are left in a given chapter can be toggled on or off. Sneaking up behind a person and pressing the space bar transports you to an earlier moment that's occupying their thoughts. During these sequences, time is frozen so you don't have to worry about getting caught and can focus instead on looking around for glowing memories scattered around the house. A ringing noise grows louder the closer a memory is, and pressing the space bar near the glowing figures repeats a one-sentence conversation they had or reveals a note they wrote that day. These provide insight into an event or exchange that has the character preoccupied. They don't really add anything new to the chapter that isn’t already stated in letters, however, and could have been used to add more depth to the problems instead.
Once you’ve read all the papers and seen all of the memories of a particular character, a thought bubble will appear above that person displaying an item highlighted in blue. Each blue item is somewhere in the house, and you must find it to choose that character’s desire for the day. Decisions vary from whether they’ll work or spend time with the family to where they should vacation for a weekend or which family member’s friend can spend the night. Each person has different goals, and no matter what decision is picked, at least one character will be unhappy. A chapter can be completed without knowing each family member’s hopes for that day, but at least one needs to be known.
After a decision object is selected, the game transitions to bedtime. If you’ve gained full insight into more than one family member and know how they want to end the day, a compromise can be chosen during the night by selecting another character’s item. That will please that person somewhat, but not as much as if their decision had been chosen first. Letters are also scattered around at night from previous owners that give background about the house and its former occupants. Once you are done looking around, you whisper to Dan in his sleep to end the chapter.
Graphics in The Novelist have a unique feel. Everything pretty much looks realistic, but the thick black lines surrounding each object give it more of a graphic novel look. The house and surrounding view of the ocean and forest are rendered in full 3D, and there are seven rooms and two bathrooms to explore. Each room is distinct and has very little clutter, but there are plenty of tables, shelves, couches and other places where letters can be found. In a nice touch, the scenery evolves with the story, so if Tommy is painting a picture of his dad playing with him in one chapter, in the next chapter the painting will be proudly hanging on a wall. If Linda is allowed to work on her painting, what originally looks like scribbled sketching becomes a beautiful bird in the next chapter, and if Dan can write, more piles of paper appear next to his typewriter. The character animations are done well, with the family members all wearing different clothes each day and moving and working smoothly. The palette is quite muted, and the only bright colors to be seen are from Tommy’s paintings. During the night sequences, the house is devoid of all color besides grays and silvers, which gives it a very unearthly feel that goes well with your presence as a ghost.
A piano selection is the only music that plays throughout, but it is so subtle that it blends well into the background and does not become annoying. Ambient noises add to the atmosphere, from the typewriter clacking away to crickets singing at night and an audience clapping during a show on TV. The voice acting of the three main characters is good, putting emphases and emotions in the right spots while talking with each other or reading the letters out loud once the ghost finds them.
The Novelist only takes about four hours to complete the first time through, but there is a ton of replay value in making alternate decisions. The letters and memories stay the same, but watching how things play out when different choices are made can be interesting. With no puzzles to complete, the game’s main strengths are its storytelling and stealth, the family drama successfully playing on your emotions and the stealth adding some much needed gameplay. How your decisions affect characters is fascinating to see, and playing with a family’s future can be both fun and heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a game where the choices you make considerably impact the story, The Novelist is a delight.
Determining the fates of a family in crisis can be very fun and emotionally challenging, but the lack of puzzles leaves The Novelist feeling more like an interactive stealth story.