PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'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

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.