The Novelist is a dreary, manipulative exploration of selfishness. The player stars as a ghost that spies on a family of three and influences the father’s life choices by whispering in his ear late at night. This incongruous ghost is the arbiter of happiness and disappointment for the Kaplan family. Through this ghost, the player decides what’s best for each member of the family. By meeting father Kaplan’s demands and ignoring his wife’s, for example, the player can see his dreams to fruition while simultaneously decimating his marriage.
This makes The Novelist sound creepy, cruel, and strange, but it’s really quite mundane. That’s not a judgment, although the game’s ordinariness plays both strength and weakness. During each of the game’s chapters, the player explores a small house to collect clues — a note, a letter, a boy’s drawing of a grumpy dad — that hint at the nature of the family’s current desires. Clues collected and conclusions made, the player then decides who gets satisfied, who gets a compromise, and who gets completely disappointed. This structure never changes, and the house remains largely the same throughout, which makes for a static and, I dare say, boring experience, despite its brevity.
There are two gameplay modes: stealth and story. In stealth mode, the ghost has to avoid being seen by possessing lamps and sneaking behind backs. If caught more than once, the player can no longer make compromises during that chapter, which leads to a more depressing fate for the Kaplan family. There are no visibility meters or other helpers, but thankfully the stealth mode is optional. I suggest trying it for the first chapter and then turning it off. The game’s creator, Kent Hudson, worked on games like Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, which makes the inclusion of stealth unsurprising, but it’s not only poorly implemented, but completely uncalled for as well. The supernatural ghost gimmick draws attention away from The Novelist’s quotidian core.
The Novelist is all about making compromises and suffering the disappointment our choices create by their very nature. It’s an exercise in empathy that ought to help players be more aware of selfishness, but weak characterization makes those choices less powerful, and the game manipulates emotions at every opportunity. When I chose not to indulge the mother character, for example, she took a hike on her own in the forest. This might have been poignant if she had simply gone for a walk in the woods by herself, but she also twisted her ankle and returned home “alone and angry.” The result of almost every decision is similarly overwrought. The decisions and compromises are completely inorganic as well; more gameplay mechanics than narrative elements. The game also judges the player. After choosing to favor the father for a few chapters, the in-game text made a moral judgment on my decision, contrary to the purpose of a game like The Novelist that explores that uncertain realm between right and wrong.
The Novelist also lacks character development. The characters are too underdeveloped to be realistic and relateable. You might relate to being torn between spending time with your spouse and spending time on personal projects or some of the game’s other scenarios, but relating to the actual characters is difficult. They walk about the house like robots and interact only occasionally with a brief “Hey honey, what are you doing?” or similar stock utterance. They don’t feel like real people, and the spartan graphics and sound only aggravate the problem.
The Novelist posits an unnecessarily dreary world in which even a family of three is torn asunder by competing desires. Although exaggerated, there is a lesson here, and every player will likely come out of the experience with different musings on the nature of selfishness. It’s too bad the lesson is housed in awkward and monotonous mechanics and that the consequences to every choice are overwrought and emotionally manipulative. The Novelist is made with heart and good intentions, but its general clumsiness makes it imperfect, if not unrecommendable.