The Kaplans are miserable. Dan, an author of modest repute, is struggling badly with his new novel. His wife Linda is a frustrated painter, and their marriage is on the rocks. To top it off, his son Timmy is being bullied and having a rough time in school. Hoping that a change of scenery will help, they move to a remote hilltop house that’s a steal for the price – for very good reason: the Kaplans quickly start to suspect they’re not alone. They’re right. Which, naturally, is where you come in.
They’ve got good reason to be scared. If you can see them, you can read their thoughts; sneak up behind them and you can access their memories. Yet while The Novelist is at heart a point-and-click adventure played from a firstperson perspective, a layer of gentle stealth gives it enough mechanical complexity to make it feel like more than just an interactive novel. You can possess light fixtures, flitting unseen from one to another, jumping back down to terra firma to read journals and private correspondence. You can make a possessed light source flicker, luring whoever’s in the room to it so you can reach an object of interest. Get it wrong and they’ll notice you and give chase: the screen fades to white and you can’t hide in the wiring until you break line of sight with your pursuer. Get spotted once and they’ll become suspicious; mess up again and you’re done with that family member until the next chapter.
In fact, the Kaplans, and the scores of owners and tenants who’ve gone before them, had little cause for concern. You’re a benign presence, interested only in your housemates’ needs and wants and how they might be met. Each of The Novelist’s chapters begins with a basic narrative outline: news of a busy weekend, for instance, with a writer friend of Dan’s, Linda’s parents, and one of Tommy’s few friends all wanting to come and stay. From there you move around the house reading the Kaplans’ thoughts, memories, diary entries and letters to friends back home, and discover what each of them wants from the situation. Those desires take the form of objects dotted around the house. If Dan needs to focus on his work, it’ll be his typewriter or office door; for Tommy it might be a kite to be flown at the beach, or a bundle of sheets for building a fort in the living room. You make your choice, then you skulk about the house after dark – this time reading much older journal entries that fill out the history of the house – and whisper your decision to Dan as he sleeps.
This is where things get tricky. We expect games to reward successful play, but here every victory is followed by a crushing defeat. You can only choose one family member’s desired outcome: if you’ve identified what another one wants, you can select it during your night-time wander and half-meet their needs with a compromise, but it’s never going to entirely satisfy them. And it means, of course, that someone is always going to be disappointed, feeling unwanted, unloved, their anxiety deepening still further. Each chapter ends with three static scenes with captions that lay out the consequences of your decision, always in the same order: good news, OK news, then – bang – heartbreak. You’ll resolve to make amends in the next chapter, but a fresh set of circumstances almost immediately moves the goalposts and, with them, your priorities.
There is never a right decision. The game’s title dictates that your early loyalty will be to Dan – the family’s escape is initially pitched to you as a way for him to finish his novel free of distractions – but that soon changes. Linda, too, is a frustrated creative, but she has much more on her plate than her single-minded husband. She frets endlessly in letters home about the state of their marriage. She worries about her husband’s drinking, her son’s schooling, and how her devotion to both of them has seen her put her career to one side. Her needs are, for the most part, simple – a bottle of wine on the couch with her husband, a weekend camping with the family – but that also makes them dangerously easy to ignore. Then there’s Timmy. With no sibling to play with, he’s left to his own devices. Where his parents relay their emotions in their letters and diary entries, he puts crayon to paper and tells his story through drawings. Pay attention to his needs and he’ll sketch happy scenes – flinging a frisbee at a playmate in one, playing boardgames with his dad in another – but neglect him and he paints a different picture. A pair of bigger boys point and laugh at him outside school. He stands helplessly by as his father slumps, head in hands, over his typewriter. When news arrives of his falling behind in reading comprehension, his frustration is made clear in a sketch of a blue book which he covers in furious red scribbles. When you choose to let him down, you’ll wish you could explain – that if he’d flown his kite his parents would have inched closer to divorce, that if he’d had a friend to stay his father risked losing his publishing deal – but that’s never an option, neither for your mute, ghostly presence nor for his troubled parents.
The Novelist, then, is a game of endless compromise, and in that sense it is a quite remarkable simulation of family life. You work through it the best you can, trying to keep everyone happy but knowing that there will be triumphs and disappointments along the way, and that the best you can really hope for is to land somewhere in the middle. Only at the climax does the game break its rules, removing the chance for compromise and forcing you to make a final decision that’ll affect not just the end of the Kaplans’ summer, but the rest of their lives as well. To sweeten the pill it gives you the bad news first, and ends on an up note. After all you and the family have been through, you’ll need it.