The Novelist: Reconciling Game and Story

And so brings the New Year… my thoughts on one of the most highlighted games of the new ‘exploration’ genre, Kent Hudson’s The Novelist.

I was very excited for this game when I first heard about it because as I mentioned in my quickfire post about completing the first section (month) of the game, I had listened to one of Kent’s talks at GDC some years ago.  What Hudson said he wanted to do and the kinds of things that I was discovering on my own research path were almost the same.  While my thesis project was never able to dive deep enough into these concepts with a polished build, the research and the iterations of work that was done thus far was still, I think, valuable. There were many hurdles that my team came up against when trying to explore the intersection of traditional game mechanics telling and interpreting complex stories.  At the end, we realized it’s a lot harder than we thought.  Unfortunately, The Novelist hit the same problems we did and did not break through the many barriers.

Mechanic is the Message?

I skimmed early reviews of the game and some said that the pacing of the game was much better without having to play with the traditional stealth mechanic.  I’d have to agree.  There are a few possibilities for this:

  1. Narrative will always just be the reward of executing a game’s mechanic successfully.
  2. The stealth mechanic in The Novelist was not fully fleshed out and was therefore an unneeded distraction to the narrative focus of the game.
  3. The stealth mechanic cannot convey any narrative element.
shadow-of-the-colossus-7-27-2012
Shadow of the Colossus, one of the best games that demonstrates how a mechanic can be used to deliver a powerful emotional message.

The first possibility is the harshest and while true for many games out there, is also false.  I argue this because while a game’s mechanic may be simple, and perhaps alluding to the third possibility that a mechanic cannot carry any narrative meaning at all, the mechanic can be properly supported by tertiary elements of a game like its narrative.  In a way, both the mechanic and narrative can prop each other up.  Some games do this quite successfully with smart set up and subversion like Shadow of the Colossus.

This leads me to think that possibility #2 is the culprit here and that the stealth mechanic wasn’t well thought out, constructed, or supported by the tertiary elements of the game.  With that out of the way, let’s talk about what I really enjoyed about the game.

The Groundwork Laid

The Novelist tries to focus on those dialogue interactions and builds an entire game around them.  To make that interesting for several hours is no small task.

This is a game that tries to focus on the decision making process that is found in many RPGs where you build relationships with other NPCs.  A traditional RPG, though, had many other mechanics and things to do around those dialogue trees.  In fact, perusing dialogue trees is oftentimes a very small portion of these games.  In a way, The Novelist tries to focus on those dialogue interactions and builds an entire game around them.  To make that interesting for several hours is no small task.

The game is about the realistic struggles of a 3 person family: father, mother, and child.  Each character’s wants and desires mixed in with how it affects each other family members’ goals becomes the narrative mechanic of the game: managing compromises of each person.  This is real life.  Life is a series of compromises and I think that Hudson was able to capture the spirit of the decision making process very accurately.  It’s painstakingly hard to put off your kid to meet an important deadline.  While I may be personally more disposed to thinking like like a parent (I have a dog), the game puts you into the shoes of what it is to be a parent raising a child.  It’s at truly unique feeling that has begun to crop up in popular video games of late.  Unlike such fictional settings as zombie-filled Walking Dead series from Telltale Games, Hudson reels us back into hard-boiled reality.  No decision is easy to make in this game and it really feels like a time bomb waiting to go off at any second.

The Kaplan family
The Kaplan family

Everything on this front was done very well.  I was immersed in this family’s story and the kinds of things that each family member was trying to gain out of their summer vacation.  At the end, as a gamer, you want everyone to be happy.  In fact, I’m totally guilty (I’m so sorry, Kent) of save scumming on multiple occasions (nothing can beat the force quit!!).  The narrative was decently effective at grabbing my attention—we’ll get back to this.

While there was a lot of work put into developing the family, there was also work done to give backstory to the player avatar—a ghost, of sorts, pulling the strings and influencing how the family behaves.  This was very interesting, but there was something jarring about all this when paired with a very traditional stealth game mechanic.

The Meaning of Stealth

I really enjoyed the artifacts left around the house during the night.  I wanted to know what I was controlling, what the role of this ghost was.  The meaning of its existence.  This all made a lot of sense to me and I was quickly just as invested in looking for the ghost backstory tidbits as I was invested in making sure to find all the clues to unveil the family story.  However, from the tone and content of these left-behind letters from the past it seems like the ghost never made its presence known.  Hold onto that thought.

To hide, you posessed a light fixture like this one in the kitchen ceiling.  From fixtures, you can stalk the family members and hear their thoughts.
To hide, you posessed a light fixture like this one in the kitchen ceiling. From fixtures, you can stalk the family members and hear their thoughts.

The way that the stealth mechanic worked in The Novelist was that if you were spotted by the family members, you would have no influence (could not pick their want/desire in the decision making process) over them.  It’s like a magic trick or hypnosis, if you know what the trick is then it’s much harder to believe or suspend your disbelief.  By revealing your presence to family members, you relinquished your power over them.  Power is a very important theme in traditional stealth mechanics.

Oftentimes in stealth games, the player avatar is weak against enemies or is unable to complete an objective when approaching them head on or face-to-face.  Instead, the player must rely on skulking in the shadows and take their prey by surprise.  This surprise element flips the table and gives the player complete dominance over their enemy or objective.  It’s a classic role reversal that serves to impart a sense of extreme power upon the user.  In Metal Gear Solid, Snake can perform silent takedowns where he sneaks up behind enemies and chokes them out.  The enemy is completely helpless.  Batman in the Arkham Series is even more dangerous—a face-to-face encounter is a viable option meaning Batman is already powerful, using stealth only amplifies the dominance that Batman exerts.  On the opposite side of this spectrum is that stealth is used to make the player feel helpless.  The player uses the shadows to avoid an extremely powerful enemy.  Horror games like Amnesia are great examples where the player is the victimized.

But where on the spectrum does the ghost of The Novelist lie?  Are you a helpless soul at the mercy of this family about to exorcise you into nothingness?  Or are you a powerful being with the ability to manipulate the family in ways untold?  It’s clearly the latter.

The problem is that the mechanic’s metaphors don’t match correctly with the The Novelist’s NPC reactions to you.  In traditional stealth games, when you come face-to-face with an enemy a fight will ensue and you will probably die.  You lose.  However, The Noveslist doesn’t present itself in the same fashion.  Your avatar doesn’t really die, instead the family becomes resistant to your influence.  Now, I haven’t played the game with the intention of breaking it and just being discovered all of the time but I really should.  The thing is, the game offers you the option to play it without stealth.

Be the Butcher

Red flags.  It means that the stealth mechanic and its metaphors aren’t really necessary, they don’t mean and don’t add anything to the game.  It’s a big problem because stealth could be more than 70% of your actions during the game, just trying to avoid the gaze of the family while you hunt the house for clues.  This is bad authorship.  I live by “trimming the fat,” meaning that if anything does not add meaning to your message it must be cut.  In older blog posts I talked about vector.  Everything, at least, must have a vector that points in the same general direction as your underlying message.  If a vector doesn’t move you towards your end goal, you have to consider cutting it.  If the vector moves you in the opposite direction, well you should definitely cut it.

While there may be exceptions to the vector rules, I don’t think stealth brought anything to the table in The Novelist.  The game should have shipped without stealth mode and just with story.

Funny thing is, Hudson worked on Deus Ex 2 so he should be really familiar with what stealth means.  Mechanically, the stealth worked.  While playing the game in stealth mode, I appreciated the tension (which was one of Hudson’s goal, instead of front loading exploring and back loading decision making) that the interaction with architecture and AI pathing interacted.  In fact, I was extra impressed when in later parts of the game some of the lights weren’t possess-able—that really shook things up.  However, these are just mechanical considerations.  Outside of the actual performance of the stealth system, it brought no additional meaning to the game.  In fact, I’d argue that they were a little confusing if you thought about them too much like I did.

The game should have shipped without stealth mode and just with story.

A System Too Transparent

The issues of cohesion don’t stop there.  Another  gripe was that I was that the system and its interactions were too simplistic and therefore too predictable.  I touch upon this in some of my other blog posts about how knowing the results of your actions can actually create a worse narrative experience because your mind is trying to reconcile logical/analytical systems navigation with the emotional/surprising element of story.  I can’t be too hard on the game because it’s an indie title with extremely limited budget but the rinse and repeat actions of the game was taxing.  I hate to admit it but I really pushed myself to finish this game when I really didn’t care that much.  The system bared its skin for all to see—it wasn’t just a skin slip here or there, there was no teasing, there was no foreplay.  There was no mystery and that’s unfortunately boring.  The system was exposed and there wasn’t anything palpable in the narrative itself that made me want to come back.  Maybe it’s because the game is about difficult compromises and the reality of the excruciating process of decision making—maybe the game just nailed it square on the head and I didn’t want to experience it.

One of the toughest and most gruesome parts of The Walking Dead game
One of the toughest and most gruesome parts of The Walking Dead game

But other games made me make difficult decisions, too.  The Walking Dead is a perfect example.  I had to do a lot of things I regretted.  People died at my hands.  Part of it was because the outcomes of the choices I had were unclear.  Part of it was because I had to make a snappy decision (artificial stress induced by a timer).  An opaque result is usually bad in games but they work incredibly well in The Walking Dead and other games that rely on social dialogue tree navigation, especially if something is at stake.

The system bared its skin for all to see—it wasn’t just a skin slip here or there, there was no teasing, there was no foreplay.  There was no mystery and that’s unfortunately boring.

What confuses me further is that games with even fewer decision points still manage to keep you wondering and engaged.  Games like Gone Home have, in fact, no decision points!  You don’t get to decide much of anything, the ending is always the same!  In spite of this, I was hooked.  I turned that house upside down to learn as much as possible about the people and try to figure out what happened.  It was spooky at times and nostalgic at others (I’m a 90’s kid!).  At the end of the game I shed a few tears because it was tragically beautiful.  There was something intense at stake and I had no agency on how the situation resolved itself… I didn’t care and I still don’t care.

Building Investment through Roleplay

So stealth didn’t really do much for The Novelist and neither did its rinse and repeat mechanic of decision making.  Obscuring some of that decision making process and investigation would have helped some but I think the one thing that this game lacked was the player was not in the game.

Games are inherently a selfish medium in that the player embeds him or herself in the story that is being told or the action that is happening on screen.  You defeat Bowser, not Mario.   You are Clementine’s caretaker and anything that happens to her is your fault.  You are Sam, whose sister suddenly went missing in the middle of the night.  Whether you play as yourself or put yourself in the body of a space marine, the player always invades the video game space.  You don’t play anyone in The Novelist.  You play a ghost that haunts this particular house, for better or for worse.

There is nothing at stake for the player.  You’re just some ghost.  An omniscient god-like entity that messes around with the house’s inhabitants.  In fact, The Novelist is very much like a god game.  You’re toying with people with no consequence to yourself.

Games are inherently a selfish medium in that the player embeds him or herself in the story that is being told or the action that is happening on screen.

This is fine but even a god must have a meaningful relationship with its subjects.  If you don’t, what stops you from calling biblical storms and killing everyone?  Where is the empathy?  Where is the compassion.  Because The Novelist is a game that depicts a real family going through real problems, assuming that the player has a shred of humanity it’s obvious that they want the family to “win’.  Of course you want everyone to be happy.  Of course you want to get the best ending possible.  But there is absolutely no relationship between the player-ghost and the family besides this meta urge to have them ‘win’.  There is absolutely no buildup.

Roleplay can help you establish this gap between player and subject material.  It makes it easier for the player to empathize and draw real connections to other characters or situations on screen.  A proper relationship is created that also must be cultivated.  This bothers me a lot because these concepts are bread and butter to existing genres like movies and books.  Why does it not happen in The Novelist?  Sure, these are real people and I can relate to them but what makes me actually care about their situation.

Conclusion

Unlike games of its genre—the Dear Esthers or Gone Homes—The Novelist does something very important in that it maintains player agency.  It is still a game unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home, you actually get to decide how the game will end instead of the end passively happening to you when you jump through the right hoops.  I’ve picked on the stealth and the lack of urgency or personal stake in The Novelist, but Hudson takes a brave step in maintaining a game inside a very interesting genre that I hope grows.

I pick on this game a lot because it’s a lot like my own experimentations—all of the possibilities, all the challenges, and many of the failures… tying game and story together is very difficult.  In the future, when trying to make games like these we can learn from The Novelist and others on how to improve.  Here is a short list of things that I’ve touched on in this article.

  • The mechanic’s metaphors must tie into the story of the game.  No stone must be left unturned when taking apart every action and reaction to the mechanic in relation to the greater setting of story and narrative.  All fat must be trimmed.
  • The decision making system and gating mechanism can’t be too transparent otherwise the system will be abused and the game become solved.  A story-driven story relies on decision-making so that system must be robust and present challenge and difficult just like any other game.  More importantly, pace the decisions and what needs to be done to make them.  Front/back loading is boring.
  • A player must feel that they are personally invested by either playing as themselves in the game world or inhabiting the shoes of someone who has something at stake in the game world.

While I pick on this because it’s similar to my own dead project, the fact is that Kent Hudson left the security of a full time job and took a stab at answering these questions by self-publishing what comes out to be a pretty good game.  He took the risk and he succeeded in pushing this genre (seriously, we need a good name for this) forward more than I ever did.  That’s balls.

Even with its flaws, everyone should buy this game and play it through to see what the possibilities are and how a restrained decision space focused on just story can still be very compelling.  We don’t need to dress up story with a crap ton of shooting or make you solve a million puzzles just to get to decide who you’ll romance.  It can all happen without that.