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It's the Little Things in Life

The Kaplans are an ordinary family, and that's exactly what makes Kent Hudson's The Novelist so potentially extraordinary.

Life is about choices, and the consequences are not always clear. Hindsight may be 20/20, but there’s a reason it’s called hindsight: it’s in the past. Every day, there are little moments where we make decisions about how to spend our time, and, more importantly, how not to spend it.

The Novelist, the first independent game from systems designer Kent Hudson, is about these tiny junctures in time. There is no win state in The Novelist, and there is no way to lose (though you do play as a ghost, which I’ll get to later). There is only living, and living with what comes next.

The Novelist is full of quiet moments, where the player is focused on observation and reflection on the family.

Hudson used to work on some of the industry’s biggest games, titles that are the definition of AAA. Deus Ex. Deus Ex: Invisible War. Thief: Deadly Shadows. BioShock 2. Then, he walked away. Hudson last worked for LucasArts, where he was working on a still (perhaps never, given the studio's current state) unannounced game.

“At the last couple of companies I was at, I hit points where I was really, really frustrated creatively,” said Hudson. “and I started to think of my career and my ability to make games in a more finite sense. As in, I’ve only got so many years to do this, I’m only going to be able to make so many projects in my life.”

Fortunately, Hudson and his wife had been building a quit-your-job-and-go-independent nest egg for...his wife. After talking over his options, Hudson's wife stayed with her job, and he moved forward on his own.

There are three main characters in The Novelist. Dan, a husband, father, and struggling writer working on the biggest book of his career; Linda, a wife, mother, and aspiring painter; Tommy, the young child of Dan and Linda. The game is split into nine chapters, and within each chapter, the player makes a decision that will impact the next one. Does Dan attend a book signing that will raise his profile, or spend the day with his son at the beach? Does he have a drink and work through his book, or put a record on and hang out with his wife?

Every decision has a notable impact, though it won’t be clear what the impact is until it’s too late.

“Each chapter will have something that helps his [Dan’s] career, helps his marriage, or helps him be a better father,” said Hudson. “For example, if you choose your career in one chapter, then in the next chapter, your marriage will be a little bit worse, and your kid will be a little bit more mad at you. The relationships continue to evolve, so everything you choose has a positive benefit and then a negative benefit. You’re trying to keep all of this in balance.”

That’s where the ghost comes in. This is not Casper or Paranormal Activity. There isn’t a mythology explaining why there’s a ghost in the house, only that one is there and it allows for the gameplay mechanics Hudson is trying to build around. As the ghost, players can seamlessly jump from object to object within the environment, spying on the characters within, and getting a sense of what they’re thinking about on that day. Get close enough to a character, and you have a chance to hop into their memories. This information helps to provide you with the means to make a decision during the chapter, and move this family one step forward.

Hudson is deeply focused on perspective in The Novelist, and the tension between public and private. As evidenced when I played the game a few months back, you witness interactions between characters in the game that illuminates their relationships, but that’s only one side of the story. It’s crucial to find Tommy’s drawings, listen to what Linda says behind her husband’s back, and discover Dan’s innermost thoughts.

“You’re using all of these different information channels to assemble what each character thinks about the situation,” said Hudson, “and as the chapter comes to an end, you can basically make a decision about which way the family should go. That’s the choice between career, marriage, and parenthood.”

If a ghost sounds like a bit of a goofy premise for an otherwise serious game, Hudson gets that. He’s worked on stealth games in the past, and building the voyeuristic observation elements around a ghost fit thematically and was a slice of the game he could build without much effort. He could focus on the story.

“When you’re making an indie game, there’s so much risk and there’s so many unknowns and there are so many things that go wrong,” he said. “I tried to pick something where, since I’m trying some pretty weird stuff narratively, I wanted to make sure there was a big chunk of the game that I was confident in, that I knew I could make. I didn’t want to say that I’m going to try out this weird narrative stuff with this weird scenario setup and then also try to make my first 2D platformer or whatever. [laughs] That would be a recipe for disaster.”

The game was, originally, much more ambitious, and it wasn't the first game Hudson decided to work on after he quit LucasArts. He didn't leave the house of Star Wars to work on a dream project. For a time, Hudson was creating a tablet puzzle game, but after he was asked to consult on BioShock Infinite, a month-long distance helped him realize he hated the game. Unsure of the next step, Hudson turned to what many designers have in a notebook somewhere: a long list of potential game ideas. That’s where The Novelist was, though it was not called The Novelist at the time. It was, however, about a ghost who manipulates people.

In the original idea, which Hudson prototyped, a family comes home from a funeral to an ancient mansion.

“Which, of course, is a cliche,” he sighed.

This version followed eight different people, and allowed the player a grand amount of control, much more akin to The Sims. Want to make two people fall in love? Go for it. Do you want them to just be friends? Sure. There was substantial player agency, but he found there was very little attachment to what was happening.

“There’s no specific goal to the game. There’s no ‘ lose!’ if his book isn't good, or ‘you lose!’ if he gets divorced or ‘you win!’ if he wins father of the year at his son’s school or whatever."

“It was like, well, I guess these two people are friends because their relationship score just went to two,” he said, laughing. “The player can see the number two, and that doesn’t mean anything. Yeah, congratulations, I've made a game where you can click on people and change numbers.”

To that end, Hudson started drilling down and establishing specific relationships and archetypes.

“Everyone knows what a parent is,” he said. “Everyone knows what a kid is. Everyone knows what a job is. I don’t have to give you a ton of detail about why is this good or bad a marriage because you’re like ‘yeah, if you don’t pay attention to your spouse and you’re not for them emotionally, people get that it’s bad.’ I don’t have to explain much. I can immediately start with that shared context, and be able to go much deeper into it.”

To tell his story, eventually Hudson had to start writing it, and it's where he encountered a surprising turn in the game’s development, as The Novelist began including reflections on his own life choices. That was not intentional. (“I hope I never, ever, ever create a game because I think my life is terribly important or interesting.”) Hudson has a wife but no child. As a creative, it was easy to see himself in Dan and Linda, but the parent-child relationship foreign. For insight, he sent a highly personal questionnaire to close friends.

“I just asked them all these deep questions about ‘how does it change your identity? Do you ever resent your kids for compromising your career? Would you ever do it again if you had the choice?’” he said.

The answers were surprising.

“My friends were very, very honest, and it was really, really illuminating,” he said. “A lot of the stuff you see in the game about the parenthood side of things really comes from what [they told me].”

Right now, Hudson is in the home stretch of development, but the home stretch does not have a clear path. Based on past experience, he subscribes to the “once you finish the first 99%, all that’s left is the last 99%” philosophy of development, but he sounds upbeat about the finish line.

When I played a chapter a few months back, the game showed great promise in its ability to produce empathy from players out of life’s smallest moments, the seemingly mundane. There's no saving the universe.

“There’s no specific goal to the game,” said Hudson. “There’s no 'lose!' if his book isn't good, or 'you lose!' if he gets divorced or 'you win!' if he wins father of the year at his son’s school or whatever. You simply play through, and the story evolves from your decisions. When you get to end, it’s ‘here’s what you've created.’”

The Novelist is currently seeking votes on Steam Greenlight, and is available for pre-order directly on the game's website.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
44 Comments
Posted by wezzmonster

kewl

Edited by CaLe

Does Dan Kaplan have a gun in the house and can I make him choose to shoot the wife and kid? That's all I wanna know.

Posted by conmulligan

Sounds really fascinating.

Posted by CrossTheAtlantic

Hm. At first I thought it sounded like a more structured (maybe?) version of The Sims, but it seems like it could be really cool if it actually manages to nail the empathy aspect you mention, Patrick, and not just feel like a life-simulator.

Posted by Grissefar

Wow thats cool man, the little moments in life are infinitely more interesting than saving the universe for the 10000th time, even if it sounds pretty gamey to simply have to choose between career, son and wife. Also, Greenlight. Ha ! Ha !

Posted by Goldanas

The only problem I have with these kinds of things is when the major game mechanic conflicts with the story.

Your options are either "Write your book" or "Chill with Wife"? With so much time in a day you could easily allot time for both of those things, especially when you're a successful novelist. In my case, I go to my job during the day and then I spend time with my girlfriend in the evening. Sure this character has to think of his kid too, but I also have to think about all of my other friends and family who are in completely different towns and an hour or so away from me and each other. I make decisions to spend time with one or the other, but it's not like this one day is an entire month or the rest of the year. Within a month I can see or talk to everyone a few times and our good relationships are maintained and kept strong.

Games like this generalize the concept far too much to the point where it's just too artificial, and the breaking points are terribly obvious.

Cart Life makes sense because you have very granular control over your character and make many small choices throughout the day that aren't majorly impactful in and of themselves, but can snowball when all laid out. Additionally, the characters in Cart Life aren't even as remotely well off as this novelist.

Hinging too much on single choices breaks the illusion, and only serves your needs to funnel a "sorrowful" "story" down my throat.

Posted by umdesch4

You just gotta do what I do. Decide that "I'll sleep when I'm dead". Then you might even have enough time left over to walk your dog, and play a video game or two.

Posted by Murdoc_
Posted by Milkman

Voted on Greenlight. Good luck, dude.

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Posted by ozzier

I think the concept is a neat idea, and I'm really glad different games like this one exist. That said, I'm already dealing with most of these concepts in my daily personal life. Not sure I want to spend my already limited gaming time on a lateral approximation of similar issues.

Posted by Fattony12000
Posted by VarrosAnon

I hope it ends up being really interesting as you said the chapter you played was, Patrick. Because as it stands, the trailer and his words make it sound really, really slow and uninspired.

Posted by Breadfan

Keep sending these games our way, Scoops.

Edited by Space_Sandwich

I find this idea extremely interesting, but I'm also in the same camp as @goldanas. Boiling down life choices to what seem like binary "work vs family" decisions could easily break the empathetic impact Hudson is looking for.

Perhaps that's just by virtue of this setting's seemingly low stakes. The zombie outbreak and survivalist mentality prodding the narrative in The Walking Dead allowed for these decisions to gain significant weight. The same goes for the characters in CartLife and their struggles with remaining afloat in the lower tax bracket when time and circumstance are always stacked against you. Granted, aspiring novelists aren't in the greatest financial terms themselves, but if he's already attending book signings I have to wonder.

I'll have to reserve judgement until I get my hands on it to really tell if this is the case or if that's just how we're interpreting it. The Novelist sounds like it's gone through several iterations, and I'm sure -- or at least hoping -- that Hudson has considered this.

Regardless, the focus on smaller moments that influence relationships in the later chapters sounds greatly ambitious for a one man team to undertake, so kudos, and best of luck!

(Oh, and @patrickklepek, I think you have a typo in the seventh paragraph from the bottom. Shouldn't it be, "'I just asked them all these deep questions about ‘how does it change your *identity*'"? Great job on everything else!)

Edited by jiggajoe14

Sounds like a fascinating game to play. Hopefully the game is able to find a proper balance with how much each decision weighs on the outcomes.

Posted by Nicked

Seems like it could be cool. It's giving me an underlying religious vibe and I wonder if that's intended. In terms of the player's story you're a spiritual entity trying to help this family through life. I have to wonder if there's some intended religious commentary going on or if it was just an avenue that made sense for gameplay.

Posted by DonutFever

After watching that trailer, I think I'm gonna feel horribly guilty everytime I don't help out the son.

Posted by Pezen

@goldanas: You bring up a lot of what I started thinking about when he made the chapter choices seem so binary in a way. As of 1+1+1 can only mean 3. So either you min/max something or it's middle of the road.

That being said though, the concept and overall impression seems really promising either way from a narrative perspective and I hope it turns out well, looks like something I would enjoy.

Posted by altairre

Great article Patrick, seems like an intriguing concept.

It's a shame that you can't be a regular on the podcast anymore, especially now but as long as you deliver quality content like this piece, I have nothing to complain about. Keep it up!

Posted by BonOrbitz

On the outset, this article, the game's subject matter, the trailer, and the painting of Dan all seem so dark and depressing to me with no levity at all. That being said, I'd like to learn more about this game because I find the idea (and the possibility of pulling it off) intriguing.

Posted by Forderz

Missed you on the podcast, but I guess this can tide me over.

Edited by JJWeatherman

Sounds fascinating. Thanks for this article, Patrick. I may just pre-order the game.

Posted by Ricerx

I have a hard time making choices in these games, I think that says a lot about my own life. ART

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Posted by Budwyzer

Work on the book. Be a big-shot. Get a new wife and kid if you have to.

Posted by RonneyFan05

Great stuff Patrick. Love this piece.

Posted by BaconGames

I feel like more games like this are coming thanks to more notable games specifically tackling social situations and making decisions as its core gameplay. What's interesting, and where the entire game hinges its structure, is the element where you have more information than any one person has from a given perspective. Most games put you more or less in one person's shoes, even if they pull some theatrical tricks and "reveal" something to the audience via dramatic irony.

Thinking about it the design is very precarious in this respect because balancing the choices you can make, the information you can learn, and the level of influence you can have is all key. For instance, one possibility is for the game to really be about observation and learning about these people and the choices become incidental or a means to an end for that. In essence you're not "making" these characters or their roles so much as seeing who they really are regardless of the choice but seeing more because of the choices. A second possibility is for the choices to be the point and have that be the major points of role play and player investment but this is all dependent on how many choices you can make and how you make them. Too little and it severely limits the story but too many and the game gets too unwieldy to make.

Call me curious about how this one works out because I'm interested now that I'm thinking about it. At the very least it's a good think piece on what works and what doesn't with this kind of game.

Posted by Nardak

Kinda playing a game like "novelist" right now. Its called real life.

Posted by Minos

@cale:

Its actually a cell-shaded FPS with perks...lol

Posted by Jonny_Anonymous

This is really interesting and I'm totally gonna check this game out

Posted by Humanity

Interesting ideas but what will make me or thousands of other people want to actually buy it?

Posted by AlmostSwedish

Yup, seems like my kind of game. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Posted by EmuLeader

I just don't want this to turn out where every single decision is to either ruin your career or ruin or family life. I know the decisions should be meaningful, but those just seem like obvious choices sometimes. This could be really super creative, but a lot of indie games have started doing the "your life sucks no matter what you do" and hinge on always hurting the character no matter what.

Posted by TehBuLL

Awesome read. I'm always doubtful of games like this until I see other people's opinions...kinda why I'm here.

Edited by sravankb

@emuleader: Same here. I'm kinda tired of the whole "shit sucks irrespective of what you do" bullshit.

On a similar note, I think I'm done with depressing-ass games / movies / TV shows. It's been repeated to the point where a happy ending is actually rare.

Life has more than enough problems and issues for me to deal with; no need to see that nonsense in my entertainment as well.

Posted by JOURN3Y

All the social linking of Persona 4 without the dungeon crawling then? Sounds ok, but I agree with some of what the other duders have already said. I feel like most players would just follow a guide or something for the most optimal path.

Posted by Anwar
Posted by spraynardtatum

I want to play this so bad. What an amazing idea. I didn't know about this till now.

Posted by seanord

This sounds fascinating. Must play.

Edited by H8RAID

This is an interesting concept; I'm a husband, a father and a business professional. I have struggles with my own work-life balance and frankly I'm unwilling to play a game that has the potential to reveal uncomfortable parallels with how I invest my efforts.

Posted by Ravenlight
This totally looks like the Spy Party house, pre-party.

Posted by Rebellion91

@forderz: Patrick wont be appearing on the Bombcast regularly. He appeared in the Ryan Davis Tribute show to talk about his friend. I imagine the new lineout is Jeff, Vinny, Brad, and Drew.

Posted by Mikke

Thanks for this, Patrick. Sounds interesting.