This is the forty-eighth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

It’s time for another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s The Novelist, by Orthogonal Games. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

A game about life, family, and the choices we make.

Reader, I’ve heard of this one! I read a piece on it years ago over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and vaguely remember that the writer found it affecting despite having some issues with it. Players must guide the titular novelist as he balances his career and his family and must make some hard choices. Very well, I will make some hard choices. For you, my readers.

The Novelist is a narrative game, all about making choices that will guide the future of the Kaplan family: Dan, the novelist in question, his wife Linda, and their young son Tommy. They’ve rented a house on the coast for the summer, hoping the new environment will help Dan finish his next novel and provide a nice summer vacation for Tommy. Set in the pre-internet era, the time of rotary telephones, written letters, and novels punched out on typewriters, this change of scenery is a big one, and it’s up to the player to determine how it pans out for everyone.

What I’d completely forgotten is that The Novelist is not presented in a text-heavy, visual novel format like one might expect. Instead, players control a mysterious outside force, exploring the fully modeled 3D house from a first person perspective as they read the family members’ thoughts and memories and peek their personal correspondence, all while avoiding being seen. The safest way to do this is posess the light fixtures in the house, flitting instantly between any other light in view in perfect safety. But occasionally players must emerge from these safe points to round a corner or inspect a convenient journal that’s been left on a table, and therefore risk being spotted. Spooking one of the Kaplans will limit players’ story choices for that chapter, but in practice it’s easy to stay undetected and even to hide again safely if anyone does get suspicious. Doubtful players can even turn off the stealth aspects and roam freely without fear if they wish.

It’s an interesting framing device, at first. I liked the hints about what my role in the story was, dropped via bits of history about the house and its earlier inhabitants. Soon, however, it’s all too clear that each chapter of the game simply involves scouring the house for a few objects that can be interacted with, until enough clues are gathered and the story choice can be made. This adds a bunch of aimless wandering to the game, when it would have been easier to just tell the story without having to search around for it. The Novelist isn’t too long, but moving through the house gets boring well before it’s finished.

The structure of the game is also strangely formulaic. Every chapter, each family member has something they want, and the player must choose who gets it. If players were thorough enough in their explorations, and didn’t spook anyone, they can also compromise with one other family member. The result is that someone is happy, someone is mollified, and someone is disappointed every time, and the course of the story and its ending are clearly determined by who was favored the most. This rigid structure felt at odds with the narrative focus of the game. Sure, it makes it clear what the ramifications of each decision will be, but real life is far more fluid, with space to work out more solutions than the simple choices offered here.

Which brings me to the writing itself. It can certainly be effective, and I pondered for a long time over some of the decisions, frustrated that I couldn’t please more of the Kaplans. But I also found it hard to sympathize with much of it. The central dilemmas revolve around whether it’s possible to chase artistic dreams without harming family and loved ones, about working for one’s own fulfillment versus supporting others. These questions resonate, but they are presented here from a privileged point of view. The Kaplans are very lucky: Dan has already established himself as a novelist, Linda used to paint full time and is considering doing so again, and Tommy is able to get the special tutoring and aid he needs in school. Many people around the world can only dream of having such opportunities, and it stands out in particular for a bundle focused on issues of systemic racism and racial justice. It should go without saying that the Kaplans are white.

I found Dan the hardest to sympathize with. At the opening of the game, he is struggling to write his new novel, after enjoying success with his previous one. Right away, the act of writing it is presented in a negative light. He’s frustrated and angry, feeling that nothing in the book is working, and unable to make any progress. I didn’t get the sense that he actually enjoyed writing (although that is handled better later), just that he was under pressure from his publishers and desperate to turn things around. Contrast this with Linda, who has just started painting again after putting it on hold to raise Tommy, and who is filled with excitement and hope for her art. Or with Tommy, who is looking forward to spending time with his dad and playing on the beach. My initial decisions were almost automatic: dude, take a break, you can’t just brute force your way through writer’s block. Spend some time with your family.

It’s also weird that all decisions go through Dan. After collecting all the story pieces, players whisper their decision to Dan while he sleeps, and this determines how the chapter ends. Even if Linda or Tommy is the one getting their desired outcome, it’s framed as Dan graciously allowing them to have it. The story is clearly written from the male viewpoint, and the writers seem to expect players to automatically connect with Dan’s predicament, putting in less effort to justify it and often placing Dan’s wishes more clearly in opposition to everyone else’s. But I started out not understanding Dan’s side of things, so I found it easy to prioritize Linda and Tommy over him. When choices that seemed clearly better for everyone, including Dan’s own health, meant that he continued to struggle with his novel, it just seemed a further sign that his dreams of writing are self-destructive. I threw him a bone occasionally, but not enough for his novel to succeed. Yet, the resolution of the story in my case was pretty great in every other respect, and still felt to me like the best outcome for Dan.

I worry this has been overly critical so far. For all the issues I discuss above, The Novelist has its moments, and I did get invested in what would happen to the Kaplan family. It’s also a slick production, feeling smooth and responsive during play and featuring full (and high quality) voice acting throughout. The developers have a lot of experience making games, and it shows in myriad details, like the subtle changes in color palette that indicate whether players are safe within a light fixture or exposed in a room. The framing of the story is interesting if awkward, and while the tale might have worked better as a traditional visual novel, its pacing may have suffered without the free exploration aspects. Most importantly, The Novelist may work better for players who have artistic and creative aspirations themselves. It certainly struck a chord with the writer at Rock Paper Shotgun (that piece was written in two parts, the second of which seems to have been lost in a recent site redesign but described how The Novelist spoke to many aspects of the writer’s own life). I write a lot for this blog, but I don’t do any creative writing, and don’t have a deep understanding of inspiration and creative impulse. Someone who does may get more out of the Novelist.

If you are intrigued, and missed it in the bundle, The Novelist is sold for a minimum price of $4.99 for Windows, Mac and Linux.

That’s 48 down, and only 1693 to go!