Time is scarce these days, but I finally finished my first play-through of an indie game called The Novelist, developed by Kent Hudson. The game is essentially an interactive drama that chronicles the lives of one family during a summer on the Oregon coast, revealed from the viewpoint of some kind of spirit (a.k.a. you) that inhabits their vacation rental home. Dan Kaplan, the father, is a writer struggling to complete his latest book. Linda, the mother, is an aspiring painter. And their son, Tommy, is a young boy having a tough time with school, his parents’ evident preoccupations, and the isolation of their temporary summer place. As one learns, Dan has brought the family to this beautiful but secluded location in order to dislodge his writer’s block, so as each chapter of the game unfolds, he must make difficult, often heartbreaking choices between the demands of his career, his marriage, and his child. Each narrative episode permits only one primary desired outcome (Dan’s, Linda’s, or Tommy’s), as well as one subsidiary compromise–in other words, one family member will always be disappointed, and another only partially mollified. Though the exact options shift from segment to segment, Dan always faces the same basic dilemma: work on his book by sacrificing quality time with his wife or his son, or not.

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Dan Kaplan ponders the imponderable as he looks out at the Pacific Ocean. Screenshot from thenovelistgame.com.

First, let me say that this game hits uncomfortably close to home for me, having just moved my own family across the country for my career as an academic. Like Dan, I often feel paralyzed by fears of mediocrity and the inevitability of letting others down. (SPOILER ALERT) Frankly, when the last decision Dan must make was revealed as whether or not to accept an assistant professorship in literature, which would require relocating his family and thereby squelching his wife’s painterly ambition and his son’s tenuous progress in school, I nearly groaned aloud.

I could take issue with the game’s ruleset, or its assumptions, of course–why must life be zero-sum, with someone always gaining via someone else’s losing? Should I experience a certain schadenfreude now that fathers can apparently join mothers in the murky depths of career-family negotiation? But I understand that the game’s constraints are designed to wound. They are inflexible to the extent that deadlines, schedule conflicts, and human potential itself require us to pick and choose. Though we might like to reassure ourselves that, were it us, WE would find the time to tutor Tommy between insanely productive bouts at the typewriter, while also helping Linda with her art show, this game renders its choices starkly. We could even say that The Novelist is foremost a resource-management game, if we consider Dan’s attention the scarce resource in question (something that Kate Hayles has argued is a feature of our contemporary media- and technology-saturated environments).

Perhaps most interesting to me is less the game’s branching textual structure or dramatic content than its use of matter and environment. Ordinary objects take on numinous significance, including a whole host of documents (diary entries, letters, shopping lists, post-it notes, magazines, books, etc.), images, and personal belongings. Some of these are manifestations of the creative process, like Dan’s scrawled ideas for plot points or Linda’s half-finished canvases. Others are prized possessions, like Tommy’s favorite toys. Some are conduits for particular activities, like firewood for a campout on the beach; and still others are almost threats, like the whiskey Dan begins to overindulge in as his deadline draws closer. Many of these are actionable, their glowing or flickering forms indicating to the player that they may be read or otherwise inspected. Often, the window of their narrative efficacy is short–a single chapter–so at all other times they lurk in the background as evidence of decisions already made or still-to-come. The story advances when, in each section, after exploring all the available options and discovering each character’s preferred outcome, you select an object that will set in motion the outcome you deem best (e.g. Dan’s jogging shoes, instead of the whiskey bottle, if you want him to lay off drinking and revert to a healthier lifestyle).

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An epistolary game. Screenshot from thenovelistgame.com.

As the presiding player-spirit-author-voyeur, you may quickly roam the house by “possessing” lights or choose to “emerge” from the nearest incandescent bulb to creep about. The game can even be played in stealth mode, so that the family members can actually spot you during their peregrinations.

While The Novelist isn’t an ecological game, since the player-as-spirit stays resolutely bound to the home, it is arguably an environmental one. Beyond the clear metaphorical importance of the game’s isolated forest setting and spectacular but also eerie coastal bluff views, it is because the game emerges through the hidden lives of objects, rather than explicit conversation, that it seems to celebrate the nonhuman. The characters’ default verbal exchanges verge on the inane, but in their memories and thoughts, and the emotional and historical residues of the property, surprisingly profound situations unfold. In fact, though the story is ultimately a human one, The Novelist might qualify as an example of speculative realism, or object-oriented ontology.

Want to try it yourself? It’s on Steam.