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The Novelist review

Katharine Byrne
1 Feb 2014
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
12
inc VAT

The stealth mechanics feel a little superficial at times, but this moving exploration of family life is decision-based gaming at its best

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Dan Kaplan has a problem. His new book is going nowhere, he’s drifting away from his wife Linda and his lonely son Tommy is falling behind at school. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also just rented a haunted summer house in the middle of nowhere in a last-ditch attempt to try and get his family life back on track.

In another developer’s hands, this would have horror game written all over it, but fortunately for Dan, the resident poltergeist in Kent Hudson’s affecting study of fraught family life is a friendly sort of spectre with a knack for making hard decisions. By reading their thoughts and taking a sneak peek at their memories and journal entries, you’ll be able to discover what each character wants over the course of their three month stay and then decide whether to make those desires a reality.

The Novelist

These come in the form of various objects around the house, such as a bucket and spade for Tommy or a notebook for Dan. It sounds simple enough, but there’s rarely an easy answer to found in The Novelist, as you only have the ability to satisfy one character per chapter. This means someone is always going to be disappointed and upset, causing their relationship with Dan to deteriorate even further, but as long as you find out what they want, there is a chance to at least compromise with the remaining character on their desired outcome, meeting their needs halfway.

It’s frequently heart-breaking, but it’s finding that delicate, tentative balance in the Kaplan’s family life that makes The Novelist such an entrancing and engaging game. The choices you make aren’t anything out of the ordinary – Linda might want a quiet night in with her husband with a glass of wine, for instance - but when you combine them with two other sets of variables that seem equally important, whether it’s Tommy wanting to play a racing game with his dad or Dan wanting to shut himself away in his office for the night – you quickly find yourself slipping into each characters’ shoes and wondering which decision you’d make in the same situation.

The Novelist

If you let things get too out of hand, you might not even see the end of those three months, as The Novelist isn’t afraid to pull the rug out from under your feet and deal you a rotten hand of choices if life gets too sour. As family life deteriorates, it’s not just the tone of the Kaplan’s letters and diary entries that take a turn for the worse either. You can hear it in the short, curt grunts of a greeting between father and son and the cursory, fatigued acknowledgments between husband and wife. Even the house itself feels like it’s shrinking into itself, as doors that were once wide, open, friendly gateways into family life suddenly become impenetrable fortresses that only open when someone reluctantly leaves the room.

Concentrating too much on one character at the expense of others can also yield some truly unexpected insights into their respective personalities. We don’t want to spoil too much, but on one playthrough, Tommy became so worried about his parents’ fractured relationship that his thoughts revealed that he actively didn’t want his dad to help him build his toy car in the hope that it might instead give Dan the time to repair his relationship with Tommy’s mother.

The Novelist

This took us completely by surprise, as up until that point we’d assumed that each character would still ultimately want their own way regardless of what was happening around them, and it lent the subsequent chapters a real weight and sense of authenticity that we’ve rarely come across in other narrative-based games.

Sadly for every great moment of empathy, there’s also one that’s equally superficial, particularly for those playing the game on Stealth mode. In this mode, the Kaplans are able to see you and will get irreparably spooked if they catch you creeping round the house, shutting off the chance to find their desired outcome for the rest of the chapter. This forces players to hide inside the plentiful supply of light fixtures around the house before venturing out to take possession of their memories, but the game’s underlying mechanics often rise a little too close to the surface to make the Kaplan’s everyday life seem wholly convincing.

We can excuse Tommy and Linda wandering around the house as they flit between painting and playing games to chilling in the living room and staring out the window to fill up their days, but Dan’s constant restlessness just doesn’t quite sit comfortably with his supposed dilemma of trying to crank out a novel at the last minute. If it were us, we’d be chained to that typewriter all day long.

The Novelist

Their rigid movement patterns also make it a little too easy to ambush them and you’ll soon come to memorise which rooms and lights are the best combinations for distracting and possessing them. While the gradual addition of turned off lights throws a little extra challenge into the mix, the best places to creep up on them are always in their respective bedrooms, leading to a slight repetitiveness over the course of the game’s nine chapters.

It’s a small irritation overall, though, as The Novelist’s affecting and constantly adapting story more than makes up for any slight feeling of monotony. It’s a much quieter affair than other narrative-based games, but there’s still a palpable tension whenever you step foot into the Kaplan’s realm, and it only increases with every decision you make. With so much replay value to be had as well, The Novelist is a must buy for fans of narrative-based games.

Details

Price£12
Detailswww.steampowered.com
Rating****

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