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Note: The following article contains major spoilers for The Novelist and moderate spoilers for Fahrenheit (2005) and Late Shift.
When games implement narrative choices, each choice is typically exclusive with no middle ground between them. For example, in the 2005 adventure game Fahrenheit, there is a moment when the girlfriend of one protagonist tells him she'll be moving from New York to Florida and you, as the player, have to decide whether to go with her or stick with your detective job in the city. You cannot half go to Florida; by making your way down one road of the plot, you barricade the other. Another example: In the 2016 interactive film Late Shift, there is a beat in which the protagonist, Matt, approaches a gunman while holding pepper spray and the shooter tells him to drop it. You can either dispose of the canister or keep it, but there is no discarding and keeping the pepper spray.
Explicit narrative choices are frequently designed as binaries, or at least, as exclusives, to make them hard. In Fahrenheit, if there were a way to be with our girlfriend and stay in our current employment, we'd choose it, but such a choice existing would rob that scene of its tension, the moment of baited breathe when you have to decide to abandon your career or your partner. In Late Shift, if we could have the safety of keeping the pepper spray and the security of not enraging the shooter, we'd opt for it, but in forcing you to sacrifice one kind of protection for another, it engineers vulnerability. However, although such exclusive options create tension, they also generate stories devoid of compromise between options. Finding a balance between choices is something human beings have to do a lot in the real world because it's common that people have to work together even when their goals don't align. The classic example being that marriage requires compromise, and so, it only makes sense that, being a game about a stumbling family trying to get back on their feet, The Novelist is a game about compromise.
The family under the spotlight in this story is the Kaplans who consist of tortured author Dan, budding artist Linda, and their child son Tommy. The last few months have not been kind to the Kaplans: Dan has published novels to modest acclaim, but writer's block has paralysed him as he's tried to pen his breakout masterpiece. Dan and Linda's marriage has grown stale, and divorce is on the cards; meanwhile, Tommy has found himself a victim of bullying and is falling behind in reading class. Seeking an escape from their problems, the Kaplans leave the city behind to spend the summer in a holiday home in rural Oregon. However, it was never the scenery around the Kaplans that was the fundamental cause of their problems; it was their clashing personalities and routines, and they can't just run away from them. Dan is still an unproductive writer; he's just an unproductive writer by the coastline now. He and Linda's marriage is still on thin ice; it's just on thin ice somewhere else. And while Tommy is now miles from the peers who picked on him at school, his parents have introduced change and therefore instability to him at a crucial point in his development.
The Kaplans are stuck in a rut, and their lives are not going to alter course without an outside force acting on them, but through the magic of player agency, we become that force. The game hands us the controls for a ghost which has long haunted the holiday home the trio are staying in and lets us teleport invisibly between the lightbulbs of the house. As the spirit, we can also walk around the rural retreat freely which is necessary as the game tasks us with reading the diaries, notes, and drawings that the Kaplans have left out to get an idea of their current concerns and demeanours. We must also creep up behind the Kaplans and enter their memories to replay their recent interactions with the rest of the family. Discretion is required for both tasks as a state of shock washes over the family members if they see the apparition.
The Novelist segments its story into days, and on each day, every one of the Kaplans has a personal desire that we can discover by perusing enough of their documents and memories and then reading their mind one last time. We might find that Linda wants Dan to fill out some forms for her that day, so we select the forms, or we could learn that Tommy wants to fly his kite with one of his parents, so we interact with the kite. After choosing which wish we're granting for the day, the clock flips over to night time during which we can read about the home's previous residents, and select an extra family member to help. Although, no family member that we spooked that day is eligible for this aid. The Kaplan we show pity on during the night phase does not have their goal fully realised, but some effort is made to accommodate it. E.g. Maybe Tommy can't spend all day at the event in town, but perhaps he can spend half the day there, or maybe Dan can't be chained to his typewriter every waking minute, but he can still put in a few hours. At the end of the night, we visit Dan as he sleeps, and whisper the plan for the following day into his ear. The game plays out this plan and shows us the family members' emotions in the face of being supported or left out in the cold, and then the cycle starts anew. After three in-game months of this, we get a custom ending that, based on how we prioritised the family members' wants over the summer, unveils the future of the family.
While The Novelist may greet us as a stealth game, it quickly becomes apparent that with minimal caution we can sneak past the Kaplans every time. The safest way to scurry around the house is to wait until we can't hear the occupants' footfalls any more and then make our move. But that doesn't mean that the game is imposing a pointless exercise on us by asking us to move stealthily through the space. In those moments where we are waiting for everyone to stop shuffling about and can only watch instead of act, we enter the same relaxed, contemplative mindset that grips the Kaplans as they aimlessly wander the rooms, staring forlornly out the windows. If games can have flavour text, then this stealth system is one of many examples of a flavour mechanic. The creepy voyeurism of The Novelist's camera angles mixes with the premise of the haunting and a wistful piano-led soundtrack to give you the same unease that the Kaplans must feel with their family on the line. After finishing the story, it seems almost nonsensical that so many other stealth games have us staring at scenes that are not all that stimulating.
As The Novelist doesn't make you expend all your brainpower on staying out of the characters' line of sight, you can dedicate more of it to working out how to organise the Kaplans' lives; this is where the compromise comes in. Again, this narrative doesn't ask us to choose A, B, or C in each chapter; we pick which goal we want to give our all to, which one we want to partially complete, and which one we want to forgo entirely. Because each activity is connected to a character, the choice of which activities we prioritise, which we compromise on, and which we neglect, is also a choice of who in the family is prioritised, compromised on, or neglected. Neglect has been a recurring pattern for the family, and most of it happens because of one member in particular. After a couple of days bunking with the Kaplans, it's unmistakable what their main problem is: He's called Dan. In every single scenario, Dan wants to put working on his book above everything and everyone else. In one of the story's most telling moments, he tries to write a schedule for his day-to-day, but that timetable doesn't have a slot for spending time with his wife and child. They're at best relegated to the 8-10 p.m. stretch of "Edit + Decompress + Life". It's also true that Linda doesn't have much of an instinct for taking care of Tommy, but she never eschews that responsibility with the extremity that her husband does. Just as Dan loses his cool trying to keep a hold of all the threads of his novel and find a structure for it, so he comes unbound trying to pay attention to all of his obligations. And as he puts it, "Something's got to give".
The game is adamant that you can't keep a family emotionally healthy without work-life balance. There are endings in which Dan can publish the next great American novel, but in two of them, Linda walks out on him, and in all versions of this conclusion, he spends the rest of his life trapped in a loveless marriage with his son growing up to be asocial and maladjusted. As The Novelist sees it, works of art are not just the refined output of talent and dedication but may also rely on the sacrifice of human bonds and family well-being. We've all seen the game credits in which developers thank the people they love for being so patient with them while they spend nights away from the dinner table and at the office. To the extent that The Novelist can be boiled down to a binary choice, it's a choice of whether Dan should be that kind of worker; whether he should nourish his career or love his family. As one of Linda's friends puts it, "Love isn't a feeling, it's a behaviour". The ludonarrative says that being a good mother or father isn't just about feeling close to your family but acting on that emotion even when it's to your detriment. It's what the characters do rather than what they think that defines their relationships.
But the game is coded about how Dan gets from being a second-rate novelist with fraying family ties to either one of America's most respected authors or a full-time father and husband. Under the most literal read of the plot, this is happening because a ghost is whispering a life plan into his ear every night. It's not a particularly satisfying explanation because it's difficult to relate back to the everyday life that the game is otherwise speaking to and because the ghost is barely a character. But if we incorporate some of The Novelist's symbolism into our analysis, we can see the Kaplans' lives as being directly changed by us, the player. The chapters of the game open and close with passages on the Kaplans' lives being banged out on a typewriter and the tale always ends with Dan unable to shake the thought that he's a character in someone else's book. This hints that the eponymous novelist is not the father of the family but us. However, we don't have a personal relationship with the characters, and the game is more about exploring real-world issues than the way we interact with virtual texts, so we don't get much out of that interpretation.
To me, the most engrossing read of the ghost's link to Dan is that it represents his unconscious. Even when our troubled writer tries to lock himself away in his study, on some level, he remembers what his family thinks and wants, and his best ideas come to him when he is unconscious, as though whispered into his ear while he sleeps. Like any creator, he is reliant on ideas being thrown up to his conscious mind by a turbulent magma of memories and motivations lurking below, but just as he can use his unconscious inventiveness and empathy to write compelling fiction, he can also use it to the end of fixing his marriage and fathering his son. Pages from a typewriter may appear on the screen, but Dan is the character who spends his days in front of the keyboard, suggesting it's him who is writing the future of the Kaplans. The story believes wholeheartedly in the idea of a single turning point which can definitively decide your future; it's baked right into its format as short-form choice-driven fiction.
The Novelist says the choices that decide how we live are not just about the major decisions like whether we make our family move to get a new job but are also about the habits we choose to splice into our daily routine such as whether we spend time with our spouse or get to know our child. The decision to commit to recurring everyday patterns is not one that comes up in many narrative-driven games, but it's the bread and butter of life, so it's what The Novelist presents you with. It also warns that decisions about how you treat your family, which might seem trivial at the time, can have an influence which reaches far beyond your current horizon. Dan not choosing to support his son is a tiny choice he can make every day, but those choices add up to mighty consequences. He always perceives loving his family as something that can be put off until tomorrow, failing to recognise how fragile their relationships have become and acting oblivious to the fact that this mentality is what made those connections so tenuous. The air of house is often hot with discomfort because it is simultaneously meant to be a workplace and a living space. Sometimes people asking for kindness and affection are seen as interfering with the production of art, other times family members burying themselves in their creations are viewed as mechanistic and work-obsessed in the place that they should be loving. In spite of this, The Novelist is a fairly optimistic game.
Whatever configuration you decide is right for the Kaplans' lives, there have to be casualties; casualties like Dan's novel, Linda's paintings, or Tommy's childhood development. But considering that the family was teetering on collapse at the start of the game, you can get them to a relatively healthy state by the end. Because compromise involves making decisions for the benefit of more than one person and The Novelist pivots on the concept of compromise, more than one person in it can get a comparatively happy ending. In my initial playthrough, I ignored Tommy multiple times to zero in on other family members, but he still grew up to become a famous graphic novelist. It's perhaps the most ingenious of all the endings: Tommy's strong connection with his mother who is a painter and his father who is a writer leads to a synthesis of the two art forms as he becomes a comic book creator. This and other surprisingly achievable "nice" endings also feel like a reassuring hand on the shoulder of couples and parents. They're a recognition that sometimes your child can have a tantrum, or you can have an argument with your spouse, but that doesn't mean all is lost; in fact, all might still be on the table.
The game uses some psychological fancy to coax you towards giving the Kaplans roughly equal attention and so chances are you'll get one of the endings in which two of them go on to live comfortable lives. At the close of a chapter, one of them will likely be left with tears in their eyes or a knot in their stomach because they didn't get to achieve their objective, and so in the next chapter you feel more inclined to put that person first which means a different Kaplan will have to draw a short straw, but then in the next cycle you'll want to show them some compassion, and so on. Playing in this balanced style will lead you headlong to a crossroads where you must pick one of the Kaplans' futures above the others (Dan's professorship, Linda's painting, or Tommy's studies); the game detects that you are dodging commitment to one family member and so makes you choose. However, that doesn't mean you can't do something positive for one of the people on the sidelines. The Novelist says that life often means not having options to please everyone, but that if you find yourself in such a state, compromise is still your best friend. It pushes you into a pattern where the trio must meet each other in the middle and then shows you the benefits of doing so.
But I'd encourage everyone to think about whether the malleability of the Kaplans' life gives Dan too much credit. No matter the chapter, we can always persuade him to do the generous thing instead of the selfish thing, and in his writing, we can see he does earnestly care about Tommy. However, some would argue that to make a make family work, you have to want it to work, and that broken homes come not just from failings in childcare, domestic upkeep, time management, and communication, but fundamentally because the caregivers have more concern for themselves than they do for their loved ones. The Novelist says that it's always possible to suppress selfish impulses in order to do the altruistic thing, and it may be correct, but it's worth at least considering that people may act according to their motivations, and if, like Dan, your primary motivation is always to serve yourself, then you're not going to be a good father or husband. Linda's friend may say that love is a behaviour rather than a feeling, but what if it's instead a feeling from which inherent behaviours follow?
Even if The Novelist is wrong about that corner of human thought processes, however, I wouldn't accuse it of coming from a place of ignorance about families. The credits tell us that the sole developer, Kent Hudson, interviewed a lot of parents in putting together the script. We're used to hearing that people producing media spoke with military or even scientific consultants when working out how to make their art authentic, but writers must also speak to those who have a more directly human connection if they're to represent more directly human histories on the page or screen. I think it's highly likely that those first-hand experiences of the interviewed are where the game is drawing from when Dan says that he sees Tommy changing in a hundred ways every day or when Tommy's parents patiently help him with his reading exercises. And one of the things to love about this game is that it does reward you lurking in the shadows, observing the house, with all sorts of subtle and socially-insightful signals about where the Kaplans have found themselves. Whether Dan sleeps facing towards Linda or away from her is reflective of how intimate he currently is with her, and when characters bump into each other in the lounge or on the landing, they will greet each other with a tone that reflects the wavelength they're on. This sort of contextual intra-AI dialogue is underrated in games. Lastly, when the Kaplans begin to put up emotional walls, they will shut themselves off physically, closing the doors between their private workspaces and the rest of the house. As the ghost, this makes them harder to reach, symbolising how people can close themselves off because they feel distant from people and then become harder to understand and talk to because they're closed off which only exacerbates the issue.
In fact, the game is so forthcoming about characters' motivations and moods that that extra step of scanning a family member's mind is patronising after you've studied all their texts and memories for the day. When you find a letter saying Linda's grandmother has died, all of her recollections are of her grieving, and she writes in her diary that she wants Dan to come to the funeral, we don't need to be a telepath to know that she wants the support of her husband after her grandmother has died. Or any time there's a magazine left on the coffee table for an event Tommy might be interested in, you know long before you've peeked into his brain that he's yearning for a day out at that event. There are countless games that tell instead of show, but the curious foible of The Novelist is that it's supremely talented at showing but then tells you anyway. I understand that reading characters' minds is meant to let you know what object you need to prod to choose their goal for the chapter and that this is done with their possessions rather than options on a menu to sustain player immersion and connect us to the environment. But there are other ways to hint at what object we need to select without beating us over the head with character motivations, e.g. breadcrumb trails to the target items.
You can also usually guess what the output of your telepathy will be because most of the characters' desires don't change drastically over the course of the holiday. Dan always wants to breathe more life into his novel, and Tommy almost always wants to play. The only character that keeps you guessing is Linda because she is striving for a more varied life. Sometimes she wants Dan to go on a health kick, sometimes she wants to dress up for her parents' visit, and sometimes she wants to exhibit her art. But because Dan and Tommy always return to the same wells, the game has a capacity to feel repetitive. Having said that, the similarity between the character wants in each chapter is not a failure of Hudson's. You can enjoy the details of the game but to able to do that you have to be able to appreciate the difference between Tommy getting to go to the air show and Tommy getting to go camping or the difference between Dan taking time to edit his novel and him taking time to advertise it.
When writing about The Sims, I said that that game created an experience that no other fiction has by focusing on the everyday actions that make up our lives. They're actions that often come across as too mundane for other media to consider spending time on. In The Sims, every jot and jolt of life is worth getting excited about, no matter how commonplace, and in The Novelist, we see something similar, although not quite identical. Where The Sims says that small decisions like which room we spend our time in or whether we eat dinner with our family are significant in themselves, Hudson's game says that they are important because these seemingly innocuous choices add up to decide the trajectory of a person's career or who in their household feels loved. Artists working in celluloid and print tend to depict a life as being defined by summers of love, the cold evening when someone announces divorce, and other hard-and-fast beats in our lives, but The Novelist teases out a neglected realism by seeing peoples' futures in the space and provisions made for them in their own family; in the routines and talk of the everyday. In that, there's both fragility and power. Fragility because decisions we may not give a second thought to could be corroding our relationships and the happiness of the people we love, but power because, like the Kaplans, we can all change our routine and so, change our lives. Thanks for reading.