Wot I Think: The Novelist

The Head says

The Novelist is interactive fiction in disguise, and it’s difficult not to conjecture that the reason for its not being unadorned interactive fiction is raw commercial hunger, to gain itself attention it otherwise might not. A graphically sparse and variety-free tale of a fractured family struggling with whose needs to put first, it features no action or outcome that could have been just as – if not more – effectively realised in stark, powerful text alone.

Your primary purpose and interaction is to read letters and spy on very brief private thoughts, then with that information and the effects of your own sympathies make a decision as to whose interests you’ll prioritise in each of a string of domestic dilemmas, with varying degrees of triumph and tragedy depending on what you pick. Will you help creatively-blocked father Dan find the time and inspiration he needs to complete his next novel? Or put all efforts into assisting his son Tommy with his academic struggles and need for meaningful parental interaction? Or aid lonely full-time mum Linda in her search for new purpose? Is keeping Dan on the best-seller lists to the benefit of the entire family, or should he abandon his dreams of success in favour of doing all he can for those he loves most?

There is power and resonance in the often painful decisions to be made, and the sure knowledge that choosing one family member over the others will cause pain for someone else, and perhaps for them all further down the line. But it is such a small game, an increasingly tedious Find The Only Interactive Object quest spanning the same handful of bleakly unadorned and static rooms, never able to visit the beach and the woods which beckon behind the windows of the family’s austere Summer retreat. I’d much rather be able to simply choose options from a text prompt than have to trawl, with grim, glacial purpose, through the house for the handful of glowing letters and books that will result in the next snippet of information and consequence. I continue merely because I want to find out what happens, not because I’m being entertained or enraptured by the minute-to-minute experience itself.

An optional stealth system provides more ‘game’, though the fact you can choose to play The Novelist with this mechanic switched off speaks volumes about its true nature. You’re playing as some unseen, unidentified (answers of a sort are given, but I’d advise against investing in this as any sort of mystery) presence that is able to convince Dan to make particular choices over whether to help himself, his son or his wife, but if you’re spotted by any of the family as you traipse around their house, you’ll be blocked from making ‘their’ choices for the rest of that stage.

And so it is that you teleport between light fittings to remain unseen, only emerging to read letters and listen in on memories when unwatched; however, Dishonored or even Ghost Master this is not. The Novelist is laughably easy, and the stealth system achieves nothing other than to drag the game out. You might as well play the ‘Story’ mode, which allows full freedom of movement, for all the power The Novelist holds is within the personal dilemmas, not this stupendously superficial spectral sneaking.

The most obvious cousin of The Novelist is Gone Home – both wringing drama from domesticity and existential crisis rather than violence, horror and fantasy, but there the similarity ends. Gone Home is a masterpiece of tone control, forever hinting at something horrifying in the shadows of its unlit house, forever changing both the scenery and the context of its events, forever requiring the player to piece fragments of the past together to decipher answers rather than have them read straight to camera as this does, forever an unsettling adventure through somewhere entirely familiar but entirely unknown, building to a series of feints and a gutpunch conclusion.

This, however, is like a live feed of the Big Brother house at 4am; a fixed view of the same solemn scene, eavesdropping on occasional, staccato conversation about First World Problems, watching the inhabitants endlessly perform the same bored routines of television, small talk and sighing, and occasionally witnessing blatant, sometimes artificial attempts at emotional manipulation. It repeats and repeats and repeats and then it ends, and you realise that despite all the time you spend with these people and their problems, complaints and dilemmas, you really don’t know them at all. It will move a sympathetic soul, but it’s an awkward, drawn-out and often monotonous journey to make in pursuit of such fleeting moments of sadness.

The Novelist is out now.