Jun 29, 2014

The Novelist Review: A game about our life choices

in category Games

Meet Dan Kaplan, a struggling author who is juggling between the demands of his Wife and Son and what could be his most important book in his career.

Moving to a remote coastal home for the summer, the Kaplans try to work out the kinks of their new life, unaware of your mysterious ghostly presence as you try to dictate their everyday decision that could make or break their lives.

As creepy as it sounds, the Novelist is anything but. It is beautiful, poignant and heart-wrenching. Yet also helpless, tedious and a crawl.

Kinda like how Life is really.

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Armed with powers that Professor Xavier would be proud of, you haunt the Kaplans by reading their thoughts, uncover clues littered around the house about their daily activities and search their memories to discover their secret desires. To achieve such a telekinetic feat, you are also given the ability to possess lamps. Yes lamps. Hide from the Kaplans and emerge only when their backs are turned to sneak onto them and play footsie with their memories. Dispossess a lamp and you run the risk of discovery, which will ruin your opportunity to play God with the Kaplans.

As you read letters from families, diary entires, news paper clippings and Tommy’s drawings, you start to understand the quirks of the characters and their unique wants. Dan’s the novelist and all he wants to do is to get over his writer’s block and produce something he can be proud of despite the impending deadline. Linda just want the family to be a family again, as well as focus on her paintings. Tommy is like every other 6 year old kid, always wanting Daddy to be his buddy and play with him. Each of them are fleshed out wonderfully, with needs that can hit a little close to the heart.

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The game is split into different chapters, each progressing the overall story with events like a visit from the in-laws, or a funeral. At the end of each of the chapter of the story, you have to choose whose desires you want to fulfil, with the ramifications of your choices played out after you have chosen. Is it Dan and his alcoholic fused creativity? Or his Wife, Linda’s, hopes that Dan goes to her grandmother’s funeral? How about the his son, Tommy’s, desire to just spend more time with Daddy? If you spent enough time uncovering all the clues and desire of the Kaplans, you get the chance to invoke a compromise to attempt to fulfil another family member’s desire. At times, the conflicting nature of the desires can make the choices very hard but I found myself placing the needs of Dan and his marriage as priority. I felt a pang of guilt when I read that Tommy was hurt that Daddy didn’t want to go out with him but I reasoned, surely there are other opportunities down the road to make up for it.

It could have been very easy for the developer to make each choice black and white. Just choose a choice, and a compromise, and see the needs of two of the Kaplan’s fulfilled. You just need to then make up for it on the next point in the game. But it surprised me with the realistic nature of how the story played out. In one of the choices, I had Dan chose alcohol to help him ease the pressure (against the wife’s wishes) and also compromise by helping Tommy with the building of a toy car. Dan got into a drunken stupor and hurt himself on the shin, without much sympathy from the other Kaplans, while he was slow to help Tommy, which essentially was the same as not helping.

But in other cases, some of the Kaplans desires were too simplistic to have a huge impact on the overall story. In one of the chapters, Linda wished that she washed her ugly sweater that her parents gave to her in time for their visit. Seeing how insignificant it was compared to the other choices, it seemed like an easy decision to go with Dan or Tommy but it seemed that be not wearing the sweater, she hurt her mother and disappointed her parents. Surely Linda could have very easily just wash the ugly sweater, without affect any of the other desires of the family members?

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As much as I love how organically your choices are weaved into the story, with Tommy’s Drawings indicating either progress (or lack of) with the Father and Son relationship, the gameplay leaves me wanting something different. With just one single location, you move up and down a 2-storey house, going from room to room to see if there is anything new. And you repeat this every single chapter. The developer tried to introduced a stealth element into the game, where you have to make sure that you are not seen by the Kaplans but it quickly boils down to you possessing a lamp, flickering it to attract someone’s attention and then possess another further away so you can easily sneak behind them. It becomes very tedious a little too fast. Luckily, the developers has also given you an option of disabling the stealth option so that you can explore the house without risking discovery.

But it still doesn’t remove you from the fact that the core gameplay is too little to even consider it fun. Even with the backstory that tries to explain your existence, you can easily finish the game under 2 hours. Given the multiple ways in which your choices can go, if you are willing to look past the gameplay, you can squeeze another few hours out of it.

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If you love narratives, this could be your cup of tea. The treasure hunting is merely a distraction to the wonderful story that is being played out. But if you are looking for something more fleshed out then moving your mouse over everything and reading everything, then I would suggest you look some place else.

Even with all the flaws, if you treat this more like an interactive story than a game, it is a unique experience which I would recommend to anyone who likes stories. There is a genuine sense of choice, unlike the illusions that some games have (I am looking at you Telltale Games) and what you choose will surprise you and even tell a little bit about who you are.

In the end, I managed to fulfill all the desires of the Kaplans. Dan became a world-class author, saving his marriage and also propelling his son to become a great artist.

Now can someone tell me if this exist somewhere? I would love to have a ghost tell me what to do, if it means me becoming famous at the end of the day.

Verdict
Well-fleshed out characters and a poignant story, you feel like a genuine part of the Kaplan’s lives. If you can get past the tedious exploratory nature of The Novelist, you are in for a treat.