Despite "game" being in the official site's domain name, I think recommending The Novelist as a game would be difficult. There are lots of games whose gameplay I don't get on with which others adore, but the gameplay here seems a bit too simple to be enjoyable.

You're confined to a single, small environment throughout and you carry out the same hide and seek game for the entire one or two hours the game lasts: hiding from the occupants, and seeking clues. It's a rudimentary stealth game, and there are games that do this much more successfully if that's what you're looking for.

The core gameplay itself isn't perhaps the point though.

In The Novelist, a family are on a summer retreat, staying in a slightly unusual house. You're some ghostly presence that's confined to the walls of the house, and able to observe the family, read clues that are scattered around and even characters' memories.

You're not entirely free to roam around. With the stealth gameplay option enabled, the family can spot you, and you need to keep hiding out of sight. As I mentioned, this didn't engage me at all — there's little challenge — and I quickly turned it off having played through the first couple of chapters with it enabled,1 instead opting to explore freely.

What you quickly learn is that there are ongoing struggles over the summer: the titular novelist wants to focus heavily on writing his novel, his partner wishes him to spend time with the family and wants to try and get back into painting, while their son is isolated and struggling at school. At various points over the summer, there is some way for the novelist to make one of the family happier, albeit at the expense of the others. As the player, you take on the role of decision maker and see what happens following that.

If the fundamentals of The Novelist are based on choices alone, you might argue that it could be equally served by text. What then does the scenario add? Wandering around and exploring for clues adds a pacing to the decision making process. Instead of making a snap decision, it gives time to reflect on clues you've already discovered. You're also confined to the small, slightly claustrophobic domestic setting the entire time; like the ghost restricted to the house, the novelist and his family are also trapped along certain paths by their choices.

The Novelist could be compared to Passage as they deal with similar themes. I don't recall being as affected by Passage. Maybe because I'm almost a decade older since I played Passage, or maybe because you have a greater involvement in the characters' lives, a couple of hours rather than a couple of minutes.

Decisions here certainly do feel like they have consequence. Choices you make can be a big influence on where life takes the novelist and those around him. Stated like that, that's an obvious conclusion to take away from the game: you may face sometimes difficult decisions where there are one of several mutually exclusive outcomes that you must choose from.

Many games feature decisions to be made by the player, but often fail in making the decisions feel consequential. All too often, they reduce to a simple choice of whether the player's character will appear on Santa's nice or naughty list.2 It can also be easy to reverse these decisions too. In some games, inflicting retrograde amnesia on every non-player character in town is sometimes possible by, say, donating enough money (thanks Fallout 3).

Certainly these types of difficult choices do arise in the real world. However, one thing perhaps missing here is that many choices are the result of more casual decisions made over longer periods of time. Do I go out and do something different, or stay in and save money? Do I spend more time on this hobby or that? Should I be spending more time with friends and family, or work harder on personal projects? Over time, where you set the balance on those choices can end up cementing into concrete consequences. But that kind of subtlety might be more challenging to bring out in a short game.

Playing The Novelist did bring to mind this article which I recently read:

Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?

Tacitly nodding in agreement to printed words is one thing. Experiencing that through role playing a section of someone else's life in a heavily time compressed form is another. That's what The Novelist does so well.

  1. The other reason for turning it off was to minimise my time in the game. First person games sometimes induce nausea in me, and this was no exception. Often, increasing the field of view helps, but unfortunately there's no option to do so here. It points to the game's strength, and perhaps its brevity, that I stuck with it. 

  2. Hey, it's Christmas Eve, so there's got to be some concession to that here.