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.
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.’”