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Making compromises with The Novelist

Game design

The Novelist is a videogame about compromises. We make compromises for our characters but must also make compromises for ourselves. We make these choices for our tight family unit and everyone has to make sacrifices. That is how family works, how life works, and for this rare exception, how a videogame can work.

Meet the Kaplans: Dan, the titular writer struggling to eke out a follow-up novel over the course of a single summer; Linda, the supportive and artistic wife; and Tommy, their gifted young son. For each of these characters we have an opportunity to create their ideal summer. We are only an orb floating listlessly around, over-explained contextually throughout left over notes (oh sure, the place is haunted). And yet we have some determined influence over the outcomes for the Kaplan clan.

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We have come here for the writing and the writing will take precedence. It was going to be a productive vacation. Compromises would have to be made and the novel would have to be finished. The intention of the design is written within the title, here is the way we are meant to play. This is a story about a novelist with two supporting actors.

And so we set into the work. It is the reason for the vacation house that becomes our strict confines, our prison of moral outcomes, for the following summer months. What we can experience through these limitations is directed character growth. Other videogames might find some sense in borrowing from this restrictive diorama. The walls are painted with our choices. Our boy Tommy, he’ll draw many pictures of his fine relationship with his father and his mother will sadly be left out. It is the way of things. Items will accumulate in accordance with our choices. The whiskey next to the typewriter is a story within itself.

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The nature of The Novelist is in the voyeurism. We are not a part of the tight family unit but a floating orb that makes the choices for them. And we decide this through possessing them, exploring their memories throughout the vacation, reading their thoughts, and selecting the outcome that offers the safest compromise for our directive.

And that is all special and sweet but very limited and where is the agency and free will of the family, that might ultimately determine the success of relating to them in any personal way. The Novelist instead cynically views the function of the family unit as a series of compromises wherein one member always gets what they want, another finds a middle-ground for future fulfillment, and one is inevitably left disappointed. It is sharp, pointed because it is a true thing about the dynamics of a pair and the choices that we push are likely choices that we have all navigated throughout life. And so maybe it is not much of a videogame by classic definition. There is not any room to create, the Kaplans do not have much agency to justify the vouyerism, but through our limited choices, The Novelist presents new ideas about how we can develop characters.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

Gentle persuasion

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