We only have so much time in the day. Everyone has different responsibilities to juggle: school, work, hobbies, family. No single facet of our lives can receive all of our attention, which means we need to choose our priorities. This balancing act is the core of Orthogonal Games’ The Novelist, using a single family to convey the triumphs and failures that occur as a result of one man’s decisions.
The titular novelist is Dan. He’s struggling to write a new book, but that isn’t his only problem. His marriage is on the rocks, and his son is having trouble in school. The family rents a home on the coast for the summer, and Dan hopes the change of scenery will help him get his life back on track. Your job is to help him, but not by controlling Dan directly. Players assume the role of a specter inhabiting the home, floating around the house and snooping to gather clues about each family member’s desires. This includes reading notes, letters, and diaries, along with entering the characters’ memories and reading their thoughts.
Staying Out Of Sight
The Novelist has two modes: stealth and story. In stealth mode, you must move around the house while avoiding detection. In story mode, you can’t be seen, leaving you free to focus on gathering clues. I checked out both modes, but I strongly discourage you from playing in stealth mode. It puts up a barrier between you and what the game does well (the choices) without adding anything significant.
You use this information to resolve a minor family crisis in each of the nine chapters. In one case, the family inherits a small amount of money. After gathering clues, you learn that Dan wants to put it towards advertising for his book, his wife Linda wants to pay to join an artists’ co-op, and his son Tommy wants to go to camp and play with other kids. In almost every case, you’re weighing Dan’s need to work on his book, mend his relationship with his wife, and nurture his child. Someone is always going to be disappointed; the specter chooses the primary outcome by whispering to Dan in his sleep, and can compromise on another (assuming you gather all the clues), but the third always ends up neglected. The text explaining the consequences of that neglect are often heartbreaking, which is a credit to the game’s ability to make its characters feel real and relatable.
This attempt at representing real-life conflicts and choices leads to some intriguing moments. Given his apparent role as the lead character, I began with the goal of guiding Dan to success in his writing. However, as I progressed, I couldn’t stick to it. Sitting in front of the typewriter seemed selfish and hollow given some of the scenarios that arise. I can’t spoil anything, but the game presents some tough situations that can upend your previous intentions. That ties into one of my complaints: Neglecting Dan’s endeavors in favor of his family is often presented as the only humane option. You’d have to be a special kind of monster to encourage Dan’s writing in certain instances. On one hand, it’s cool that The Novelist can evoke that kind of emotion. On the other hand, it saps some of the gravity from the choices at the game’s core.
Some of the choices are letdowns, but the tendency to grow stale is my biggest issue with The Novelist. Unlike other interactive narratives like Gone Home, you aren’t exploring new areas or solving any mysteries. Instead, your sense of progression comes from the family – but they don’t deliver. You are in the same unchanging rooms the whole time, and your decisions don’t affect the characters’ patterns – they trace sterile patterns around the house and never exchange more than cursory greetings. You play the same game of hunt-the-clues each chapter, looking on walls and countertops for various notes in order to reach the point of decision.
The lack of variety in your activities is unfortunate, but the cathartic moments of choice are exciting. Reading notes that reference your previous actions alternates between reassuring or depressing – but powerful in either case. I felt the weight of every option, and lamented Dan’s inability to keep his head above water on all fronts. Even if the gameplay formula is a bit rough, any experience that forms this kind of connection with the player is worth your consideration.