Welcome to “At a Glance”, a series in which I give my first impressions of a title and tell you if it’s worth a look or best forgotten. This time we are looking at something a little different, ladies, gentlemen and struggling writers, I present to you The Novelist.
2013 was a massive year for games. That’s an understatement! We soared through the sky with Booker and Elizabeth and we killed hundreds of zombies with Joel and Ellie but the year wasn’t all about guns and explosions, no, we also had some very human, real life stories in there as well. Stories like “Gone Home” and “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” both told very well crafted and beautiful stories, with no massive budget. The Novelist is another in the line of experimental games that challenges the normal way of looking at plot in video games. This time with focusing on the everyday problems of a family trying to get by in life.
On paper the Novelist already sounds intriguing. You play as a ghost looking over the Kaplan family, each of which has a certain problem that needs resolution. You can play the game in a stealth option(In which if the family notices you, they become startled) or just play as an invisible figure instead. The Stealth gameplay works quite well, you move around the house by possessing light fixtures that are spotted around the home, you begin to learn the layout of the house through lamps and it is done very well. The game is split up into chapters, each of which tasks you with finding what each family members want. You do this by finding notes, drawings, diary entries, lists and letters around the house, each of which then helps you into figuring out what they want.
Along with these clues, you can read each member of the families thoughts and even see into their memories. The problem is that you can only choose one family members needs, unless you find all three then you may pick a compromise, which gives that family member a small part of what they wanted. In each situation, someone will be left out, and that’s what makes the choice aspect so interesting.
The choices that you make change the story and the characters as the game goes on, in interesting little ways. Every win for a character is real, its something that could happen to you or me. For example, one early choice is that Linda(Wife) wants to reconnect with her husband. If you choose her want, then she and Dan spend the night together drinking wine and catching up on things. It’s a small normal every day scene, but it is rewarding none the less. On the other hand you have the choices that aren’t made. The ending of each chapter shows you the result for a family members choice, but also what happens to those who don’t get there way. Say if Tommy(s0n) doesn’t get to spend enough time with his dad, he will cry in his room for hours, which will negatively effect his development. The entire game is about balance, and sometimes that balance breaks. It is this constant feeling of stress that drives you forward in the game and the choices get very dark at times.
The major selling point of the game is it’s atmosphere. It presents itself as a very cold yet hopeful story about a family just trying to live together. Dan wants his book to get off the ground, Linda wants to paint and Tommy… well Tommy just wants to be a kid. The game asks some tough questions about childhood, marriage and trust, and never feels ham-fisted. A major part of this is down to the well done voice acting from each of the family members – Linda in particular. The characters tell their deepest secrets and wants in their memories – the voice actors did an amazing job and some of the story beats would never have worked without them. Along with the superb voice acting there is the ambient piano music that plays as the soundtrack. The music blends perfectly into every scene, filling the house with atmosphere, each piece is beautifully arranged and are a joy to listen to. You can purchase the soundtrack at the website’s SoundCloud page here!
The setting for the game is also quite interesting. The entire game takes place in a beachside house in which the Kaplan family is staying. The house is brilliant in not only its visual presentation but also in it’s construction on a gameplay mechanic side. Seeing as you will be spending a lot of time possessing different light fixtures, you would imagine it would feel a little gimmicky or annoying but its the exact opposite. Each lamp or wall light is angled perfectly, allowing you to see into every room or another lamp. All of this works perfectly, and somehow still doesn’t take away from the visual presentation of the house at all.
The Novelist is a remarkable look into the everyday life of a middle class American family, even if they are a fictional one. It is a game about small every day victories and devastating failures. However you plan and play, the story will change, just like life itself. Everything in the game was crafted with love, from the placement of the light fixtures to the ambient soundtrack to the inner monologues of a tired father struggling to find time for his family. It’s not for everyone, but if you are interested in a game that deals with family issues in a smart and sincere way, then The Novelist is well worth a look.
You can pick up the game on the official site here or on Steam
Be sure to check out our ArcadeTV special in which Declan takes us through his first time with the game: