Reviews

'The Novelist': Gaming Work and Family

The game is about juggling a limited resource alongside the needs of three people -- and that resource is, of course, time.


The Novelist

Publisher: Orthogonal Games
Rated: N/A
Players: 1
Price: $14.99
Platforms: PC
Developer: Orthogonal Games
Release Date: 2013-12-10
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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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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