Kent Hudon’s new game, The Novelist, came out today. I met Kent some years ago at GDC when I rage quit David Cage of Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain). I liked Heavy Rain a lot but when it came to Cage’s talk, I couldn’t disagree more. Across the hall was Hudson speaking about player generated stories. I believe that talk was the impetus behind many of the ideas in The Novelist as well as many other games in the past year (Gone Home, Dear Esther, and even my own MFA thesis game). I’ve been waiting for Hudson to show us what he wanted to do. He was with LucasArts at the time, and now that’s gone.
But now we have The Novelist. So far, it’s pretty awesome.
I just finished the first arc of the story, the first month of a summer long getaway for the Kaplan family. Needless to say, everything after the jump is a huge spoiler.
Hit the jump for more…
Like games of this type, the narrative exploration genre, The Novelist implores players to explore a narrative through the objects of its environment. Evocative storytelling, they call it. However, Hudson’s experiment adds some interesting element to the mix. The first that jumps out is the stealth element. You can either play in stealth mode where the three characters can get spooked by your ghostly self (yes, you are a ghost that haunts their summer home!) or story mode. Spooking people out too much reduces the number of meaningful decisions you can make at the end of each night where you do the inception thing by whispering things to Dan Kaplan, the father in the game, while he’s sleeping. Things you whisper are unlocked by exploring clues in the environment, possessing the three characters to explore their memories in the environment, and then by interpreting their thoughts. If you don’t spook people out, you have a maximum of two choices to make. Each choice satisfies one character’s desire. Therefore two choices satisfies only two characters, leaving the third by the lonesome.
The construction of the game is simple, yet it’s math makes a lot of sense. A father, a mother, and a single child. Three people to satisfy. Two choices. Every single night you have to make a hard decision regardless if you explore everything in the game. The father needs to finish his book, the mother worries about divorce and her painting, the child has a busy father and no one his age to play with. These are all things that happen in real life and carry an immediate gravity to them. This is not an easy game to play.
The interesting aspect of stealth that’s added breaks up the monotony that is common in exploration games. Walking just takes too damn long. The ghost can possess the lights in the house. This is pretty smart. It quickens the time it takes to travel inside the house (the entire game, so far, takes place in the house) and at the same time allows the game space to be small. Gone Home’s house was absolutely huge, it takes minutes to get to one place to another. Teleporting through the light fixtures is very quick and becomes a kind of meditation or process that you quickly learn to do on instinct. Need to get to the study from the kitchen? Zip zap zoop (wtf zoop?). Done. I’m there.
I’m unsure whether or not stealth and the exploration mechanic is working together as Hudson hoped. I see both systems isolated from one another. Upon reaching the 2nd month, the game told me some of the lights turned off so I can’t teleport around as easily now. Now that’s really exciting. I can see now that the stakes have been raised. While the teleportation and stealth seemed gimmicky and unrelated to the narrative mechanic, the fact that I am now at risk of spooking characters out more (and having less things to incept) then I’m going to be very careful.
Does it feel to actiony? Is it taking away from the gravity of the story? I thought I wasn’t as taken aback by the emotional punch—these are serious issues, ones that could happen to me. Gone Home really got me with every piece of information I got, but the experience was very different overall. It could be the writing. It could be the setting. It could be my over excitement.
All I can say is that I had to stop playing because I need to get to sleep and will surely try to finish all the way through the next time I play. One major difference between The Novelist and other games is that I didn’t savescum but I’m also more than willing to replay the game for different endings. For some stupid reason I thought that month one was it and I was done with the game. It felt like an okay place to conclude and I was fine with playing that short 30 minute sequence all over again.
Thankfully there’s much more and I will definitely give this multiple playthroughs, something I never do.