Jess should be writing his book.
With one unknown novel previously published, he is about halfway through what he hopes will be a resonant, breakthrough second novel. To accomplish this he’s created a writing-centric lifestyle: quit his job, left most of his friends, moved to a city where he knows few people and has no other obligations than putting words on a page; the exact conditions he thought would be most productive.
Instead, he’s playing a game called The Novelist.
The Novelist, from indie developer Orthogonal Games, is at once an incredibly simple game, both in concept and execution, yet an extraordinarily complex one in how deeply these sketched figures may reflect our choices and priorities. It may not be entirely accurate to even call The Novelist a “game.” It’s more of an interactive meditation on life and decision-making presented in the form of an interactive novel, somewhere between the Japanese visual novel and a choose-your-own adventure story, except that there are no high school girls to romance, no combat and no death, with implications far into the future rather than immediate.
The Novelist’s most game-like aspect occurs in the player’s first decision to play in either stealth or story mode. In stealth mode, the player’s presence as a resident ghost must not be detected by the characters within the story, accomplished by possessing the light fixtures and sneaking up from behind or at night. Story mode allows the player to move freely without fear of detection. In either mode, the result is that the player is less a central figure of the story than an influential observer of it.
It’s this ghostly presence which serves as The Novelist’s most defining aspect, and the one which makes it resonate within the emotions of the player. This ghost, or more precisely the player behind it, functions as a limited omniscient (insomuch as omniscience can be limited) third-person narrator. There is no first person character, leaving the minds and memories of each character as open as the rooms they occupy. Yet, like any good narrator, there is little control over the characters’ actions. The narrator tells the characters what they should do but not how they should do it. The result is often very different from what the player may expect it to be.
This may expose the limitations of the game itself, offering little in the way of character development, each following a predictable chain of desires throughout (Dan wants time to write, Linda wants time and support to save their marriage, Tommy wants time with his parents and friends), but it’s also consistent with how stories are told. While the narrator ultimately has control of what happens, stories are at their best when the characters go about their own lives while the storyteller moves around them, subtly pushing the characters in directions they are already inclined to follow. As though whispering in their ears.
It’s through these choices that The Novelist reveals more about the player than the characters. The tagline reads, “A game about life, family, and the choices we make.” This is accurate. Every decision bears some weight in how the game develops. While one person is happy, someone else is disappointed. As in life, compromises make it possible to take two lesser options than one big one, but can also diminish the quality of both, and with three characters it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. Someone always gets screwed. It’s in these decisions that the player demonstrates their own priorities. Does the player favor Dan’s dreams of becoming a renowned and successful novelist, Linda’s hope for a better marriage and a supportive husband, Tommy’s need for parental guidance, or some lesser combination of two? Making all three happy simply isn’t possible.
How the player feels after making these decisions depends on how deeply they invest in the characters. In every chapter the player gathers clues for what each character wants, explores their memories, reads their thoughts and then decides who gets priority at that time before night falls when compromises are possible (along with information about the nature of the house which the player haunts) and the narrator nudges the story. This pattern never changes, and once repetition sets in the desire to speed through a chapter rises, making callousness an easy option.
Without empathy for the characters, the player may take the first choice available or favor one character consistently. However, when invested, each decision becomes potentially devastating. There’s the thrill of Linda or Dan’s success, followed by the crush of Tommy’s disappointment in not getting to spend a day at the beach with his dad. It’s in this way that The Novelist becomes simultaneously emotive, dreadful, enlightening, at times boring, and, for some players, disturbingly relevant. This isn’t the easy, escapist fantasy of a video game. This is a strikingly profound, potentially portent, mirror of the player’s own life.
By immersing and then compacting into its tiny world, where choices are simplified and consequences magnified, the player’s options strip down to only what is most essential. In the same way abstraction, such as the characters in Art Spiegelman’s brilliant Maus, allows the reader to inject their own interpretations and experiences onto the page, The Novelist allows the player to project their priorities and values into its characters. How supportive one may be of their spouse’s wants over their own, how much attention are they willing to give their children instead of their work, how much give is possible before the only compromise is in quality.
In this way, The Novelist moves away from its titular profession and moves toward a more universal quality of give and take, self versus others, one’s dreams opposed to one’s reality. The game isn’t about the characters, it’s about the player. The title doesn’t refer to Dan.
As someone who has frequently sacrificed for his work, greatly disappointing people who wished for nothing more than some of his time, Jess figured he would gravitate more towards Dan’s desire to write the best book he possibly could, even at the potential loss of his family. After all, pain is temporary, art is forever, and professional success should, he hopes, have a positive impact everywhere. Yet seeing how such selfish decisions impacted Dan’s marriage and parenthood, two commitments Jess intentionally avoids, caused him to compromise more than he originally considered. Based on the game’s outcome, it was both reassuring yet frightening that while a life of solitude was not necessarily destined for Jess, it was unclear if he was capable of the kind of cutthroat decisions and instincts to succeed.
In the end, Dan became a literary sensation, Tommy grew into a successful artist himself, and Dan and Linda’s marriage was loveless and pitiful. An immensely satisfying end for some, a hollow one for others. Perhaps, even, a frightening vision of a real future. It all depends on priorities.
Jess should be writing his book but instead he’s writing about a game called The Novelist.
He’s thinking about everything he’s sacrificed, the options he didn’t choose, the career choices he passed on, the friends and lovers he’s pushed away, the people he may have hurt over the course of his own narrative. He worries. He wonders if these decisions were right. He keeps trying because there is no alternative at this point. The story has already progressed too far.
And unlike in The Novelist, there is no option for “New Game.”