Every day, we make difficult, potentially life-altering decisions, though we may not always see it that way. Do I work late to make a good impression on the boss and end up having to cancel on an important dinner party? Do I stay home to decompress from a difficult week and skip out on a networking opportunity? Regardless of what your life is like, one assumes that when you choose to start playing a game, you’re looking to escape the pressures and demands of life, and if so, The Novelist is absolutely not for you.
Somewhat of a cross between Beyond: Two Souls and Gone Home, The Novelist puts you in the shoes of an unseen ghost who haunts a quaint, cell-shaded cliffside house. If you choose Stealth mode, you’ll have to flit from light fixture to light fixture to avoid spooking the three members of the Kaplan family; in the pure Story experience, you can focus simply on finding and reading the various scraps of writing that have been left around the house. The game suggests that this will help you better understand their desires, allowing you to reach a resolution at the end of each of the nine chapters, but in actuality, it only helps you to understand how boring it must be to be a ghost.
Each night, you’ll whisper in the father’s ear, nudging him toward resolutions that will either further Dan’s writing career, encourage the free-spirited Linda to feel satisfied with her marriage, or help their struggling child, Tommy, to catch up in school. The catch, of course, is that you can only really satisfy one person (at best, you can compromise between two of them): Someone’s always disappointed by the result. The main element of gameplay in The Novelist, then, revolves around crushing someone’s hopes and dreams.
At least The Novelist makes bold moves, automatically saving your progress and forcing you to begin all over if you want to see a different outcome. This at least distinguishes it from other home- and relationship-wrecking simulators, like The Sims, which could care less about consequences. But this clashes with the gameplay, which is so mundane and repetitive that few people will muster up the energy to spend a second playthrough (roughly 90 minutes) clicking through the house. These mechanics aren’t broken so much as literally insane, in the sense that each chapter requires you to do the exact same things, somehow expecting different results. There are never any additional rooms to explore and never more than three people in the house. The one variation appears to be which particular lights are turned on, and are therefore available to hide in; if anything, this only makes roaming even more time-consuming and tedious.
Even the patient, story-driven gamers who played through Dear Esther may struggle with The Novelist’s rather drab approach: The visuals are muted, especially at night, and the scant seven rooms you can explore begin to feel a bit like prison cells after you’ve floated through them the first several times. The few flourishes—the way in which the key objects you’ve chosen slowly and intimately accumulate throughout the house—don’t compensate for the repetition. Moreover, the story can be hard to follow at times, especially the historical accounts that have been left behind by the house’s former inhabitants, as these fragments, disassociated from the main plot, have no emotional impact.
However, if you can make it past the game’s awkward structure, generic anecdotes, and bland voice bacting, there’s something nonetheless compelling in seeing how your whispered suggestions change the Kaplans. Although my playthrough ended with Dan’s novel failing and his marriage surviving in a joyless ennui, I was relieved to learn that at least the love I’d directed toward Tommy had led him to overcome his handicaps and become a successful artist. The Novelist may not be developer Kent Hudson’s Great American Game, but perhaps there might be just a little room for mundane video games after all.