In The Novelist you play as a ghost residing in a seaside house that for the summer is rented to the Kaplans, a family taking respite from the cacophony of their real lives in order to get themselves back on track. You possess the lamps and light fixtures in the house as you spy on members of the family and explore their recent memories. Despite the 3D spatial navigation and light stealth elements, The Novelist is a work of interactive fiction.
Most of the game is spent reading notes, letters, or diary entries left around the house while no one is looking. Once you have looked at enough documents or pictures relating to a certain character and reading their memories, you can read their thoughts and learn what they want. From there, you make a choice to influence who Dan, the father, will satisfy. Will he make way in repairing relations with his wife, work with his son who was bullied, or will he focus on the book that his agent and publisher are hounding him over? Once your choice has been made, the game will fast forward to the middle of the night, a time in which you can choose a compromise option if available. Each chapter ends with a small recap of how those choices affected each of the characters, represented in sepia-toned, static images, as a text from a clacking typewriting goes into detail about the images.
Each chapter roughly represents a week in the life of the Kaplans. Time meanders as you can then move about gathering information about what happened in the intervening time between your last choice and this one. The actual influence and effect that your actions have on the narrative is solely represented by those choices. The rest of the time in the game is then spent watching the Kaplan’s go through some basic animations as they loaf about the house and saying hi to one another — a typical lazy Sunday afternoon. The player is left to absorb the texture of the status of the characters reflected through the young Tommy’s drawings, Linda and Dan’s memories, as well as some subtle environmental storytelling that I didn’t realize was occurring during my first playthrough.
Since the choices are represented by objects around the house that have to do with what each character desires, a rebuffed desire causes the object itself to be shunned, whereas a desire fulfilled causes that object to be highlighted later on. Early on, Tommy wants to play a board game, and if you choose to do so either as the main choice made during that segment or as a compromise, the game’s box will remain on the bedside table. If not, the game ends up shoved under Tommy’s bed for the remainder of the summer. Another example is the prominence of Dan’s writer’s notebook or the liquor bottle on his desk. If the choices associated with those objects is selected, they are present. Otherwise, they remain absent. And should you push too far in one direction, characters will shut themselves in rooms away from one another, cutting the player off from their ability to move about and find clues as to their desires. Indeed, the game will cut short should things push too far in one direction or another.
The game is about juggling a limited resource alongside the needs of three people — and that resource is, of course, time. The choices pit Dan’s writing against his marriage and his son’s well being. All are in his thoughts at all times. The player’s influence comes in what is prioritized. Just saying it out loud, it would seem like writing a novel isn’t on the same level of importance as caring for your child’s mental health and well being or your strained relationship with you wife, but writing that book is his job. The family’s livelihood depends on satisfying the publisher (or the next advance wont be as big) and effects the sales of the book. It is about the balance between work and family life, but the work is far more complicated and time consuming than a normal 9-to-5 job.
The Novelist is quite different in literary genealogy than works similar to it, like The Walking Dead or even Gone Home, despite some similarities in play structure and mechanics. Whereas The Walking Dead is fairly plot intensive and Gone Home is essentially a young adult mystery, The Novelist takes a page from suburban literary fiction. It is enraptured by the profundity of the mundane and how one can step back and see the interlocking pieces of life often missed by those embroiled in it. The most interesting part about the game is noting how the small decisions of the day-to-day can effect big changes down the road. Interactive fiction allows you to play with that to varied results.
I personally like The Novelist, but I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. Your mileage with it will vary upon whether you can accept the type of story that it is trying to place you in. While you play as a disembodied entity, nevertheless, Dan is the main character, so one needs to understand that this family drama is firmly in the father’s hands and everyone else exists to react to his choices.
Thus, while it makes sense that Tommy’s desires often revolve around getting time to spend with his father or some activity that necessitate either his involvement or supervision — a boy wants to spend time with his father — it is strange and rather retrograde that a few of Linda’s decisions revolve around the behavior of her husband or other characters. Very few concern her own personal desires, like those of the other characters. Honestly, the only way for it to make sense is to think of The Novelist taking place in the 1970s. There’s nothing in the game that counters such a supposition, and the technology on display certainly doesn’t convey the present day. It also goes a long way to explaining a few minor details that would feel just a little out of place in any other decade.
The Novelist certainly is interesting in its brand of interactive fiction and worthy of your time if you accept the caveats that go along with it. At the same time, there is no hurry to play it. It will be much the same if you play it now or a few years down the line, which could be due to the universality of its message or because it’s an experiment locked in time and representative only of that time. As with the fates of Dan, Linda and Tommy, the interpretation of the player will be the determining factor.