The Novelist
Gameplay 7
Graphics 7
Sound 7

While The Novelist is rather limited as a game, it does pack a great story that is engaging enough to forgive the repetition involved. Playing as a ghostly presence that becomes embroiled in the lives of the Kaplan family is engrossing stuff and the game knows how to tug at the heartstrings. Although short you will want to go back for more if only to see the consequences of making different choices.

Gameplay: The focus is definitely more on the story than on the gameplay.

Graphics: The painterly look fits the game well.

Sound: Mellow music and decent voice acting

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The Novelist

Developer: Orthogonal Games | Publisher: Orthogonal Games | Release Date: 2013 | Genre: Adventure / Casual / Indie | Website: Official Website | Purchase: Steam

Dan Kaplan is having a tough time focusing on writing his latest novel as he knows it could make or break his career. The stress has taken its toll on his marriage and Dan is also lagging in his efforts to be a good father. The Kaplans decide that spending the summer at a remote coastal home might be just what the family needs to get back on track. What they don’t know is that their summer abode is not as vacant as they think and that the events of the summer will have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.

In a twist of events you don’t play as any member of the Kaplan family, but instead embody a ghostly presence that roams their residence. This gives you the unique opportunity to not only observe the family, but also delve into their thoughts and explore their memories. The game is set in an era without computers or cell phones so the Kaplan’s regularly leave letters and journals laying about that can be read for even more information.

The apparition you play as does not appear to be malevolent so instead of terrorizing the family you must help them navigate through some of the difficult choices they face. Dan really wants to focus on his novel, but at the same time strives to be a supportive husband and caring father. His wife Linda sacrificed her career as a painter to take care of their son Tommy but is becoming estranged from her husband and yearns to paint again. Meanwhile Tommy has some learning disabilities and is bullied at school, but misses his friends. I was definitely able to identify with Dan and the choices he has to make which means some of the emotional punches that the game packs really hit home with me.

The game takes place over a period of three months and has a branching narrative so the choices you make have an immediate impact on the family. As good as the story is the actual gameplay is rather mundane and prone to repetition, but seeing the consequences of your decisions at the conclusion of each chapter makes it all worthwhile. Being a ghost you can possess any light source in the house that is switched on and teleport between light sources in the blink of an eye. While possessing a light you can observe your surroundings or move to a new light source, but you can’t interact with objects beyond making the light flicker. To read the notes and letters that the Kaplan’s leave lying around you need to step out of the light and move around the house.

If you are playing in “Story” mode leaving the light sources is no issue as you remain invisible to the family and they simply go about your business while you poke around. I preferred playing in the “Stealth” mode however as this means you are visible to the family when outside the safety of a light source. Being spotted by a family member will spook them and can close down some branches of the story which adds some tension to the game. It also means that you have to be sneakier as in later chapters, some of the light sources are switched off, forcing you to leg it to certain areas while remaining out of sight.

Your actions in each chapter remain the same; you basically have to find every scrap of paper, note, letter, journal entry or drawing by the family members which reveal what dilemmas they are facing. You then delve into their memories and read their thoughts to see what it is that they desire. You can then choose which of the three people you want to get their desires and end the chapter by whispering the outcome to Dan in his sleep. You can select a compromise for a second person if you know what their desires are and you didn’t spook them by revealing yourself, but no matter what you do someone is always going to end up feeling bitterly disappointed. I don’t want to spoil any of the choices that you have to make as these are the highlights of the game but suffice to say none of them are easy. Seeing the outcomes of your actions can be heartbreaking and while I started the game with the intention of guiding Dan towards writing the best novel of his career I found myself placing his needs second more often than not. I did replay the game to see the results of finishing the novel above all else but the results were not pretty.

The game is not very long and can be completed in an hour or two, but it is definitely worth replaying to see the outcomes of different choices. I genuinely felt bad about some of the choices I made, but the auto saves meant I couldn’t just quickly reload the game and do something different. I had to stick it out to the end and deal with the events that I set into motion. While I wasn’t moved to tears as some other people were I definitely had a lump in my throat a few times which is a testament to the great writing. There is no puzzle solving or any interaction with the gameworld beyond hunting for objects to read which gives the game a very slow pace. The two floor house can also start to feel very confined after a while as you make your way through the same rooms over and over again.

The game has a very nice painterly visual style with subdued colors that fit the rather somber atmosphere. It is not as detailed or interactive as something such as Gone Home but the focus is on the family and not on exploring the location. Dan, Linda and Tommy wander around the house on occasions, but their interactions with each other are limited to a quick greeting when they pass each other. The game is made almost entirely by one person, which explains the limitations however. The audio is good with some atmospheric piano tunes and distinctive sound effects like the clatter of Dan’s typewriter. The voice acting is also very good and despite sounding flat on a few occasions the actors deliver some heartwarming performances.

The Novelist is a tricky game to recommend as it’s obviously not going to appeal to everyone. The experience is very much narrative driven so if you can appreciate a good story you will enjoy the game. Obviously, if you can relate to the characters and connect with their trials and tribulations the game is going to be even more memorable. While not perfect, The Novelist is a thought provoking experience with characters that remained in my thoughts long after the credits rolled.

*Review originally published December 2013.

System Requirements

  • OS: Windows XP SP2 or higher
  • Processor: 1.8 GHz
  • Memory: 2 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 256 MB VRAM video card
  • Hard Drive: 800 MB available space
  • OS: Windows 7
  • Processor: 2 GHz
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 512 MB VRAM video card
  • OS: OS X Lion (10.7) or higher
  • Processor: 1.8 GHz
  • Memory: 2 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 256 MB VRAM video card
  • Hard Drive: 800 MB available space
  • OS: OS X Mountain Lion (10.8)
  • Processor: 2 GHz
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 512 MB VRAM video card
  • Processor: 1.8 GHz
  • Memory: 2 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 256 MB VRAM video card
  • Hard Drive: 800 MB available space
  • Additional Notes: Built with Unity 4.3.4, tested in Ubuntu 12.04 and 13.10
  • Processor: 2 GHz
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM
  • Graphics: 512 MB VRAM video card

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