The Nov­el­ist

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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.

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