This week we’re looking at The Novelist, a 2013 game about lots of sad feelings. Bit of a mood shift from Call of Duty, although – well. If you’re not familiar, The Novelist is about a family that takes a retreat in a cabin in the woods so that the father, Dan, can finish his second novel. You play, uh, a ghost – you know what, actually, never mind about that whole side of things. There are three people in this family (mum, dad, and a kid), and the basic gameplay loop has you figure out what everybody wants and then pick (at best) two out of three options. It’s honestly the hardest fucking shit in the world.
There’s a few things to go through here. The first thing I want to note is that the game makes the ‘morally good’ option more difficult to access. If you’re lazy, or bored, you take the easy option and get shittier endings. That’s a nice little metaphor about how morality works: doing the right thing is often hard. You put more effort into the principles that you believe in. It’s not that much harder, really, but there is some extra effort involved. As before, the idea is that you move around the house and figure out what everybody wants by engaging with their diaries or notes or whatever. If you figure out what one character wants, you can end the level immediately – but if you figure out what everybody wants, if you put in that extra effort, you can pick a compromise between the desires of two different people. That’s obviously a better outcome, because more people get what they want, but it also comes at the cost of extra work, even if it is only marginally more.
Second thing is this idea of compromise. Hoo boy, this is the good stuff. The Novelist is about how you use your time. None of us live forever, and so we have to pick what we want to do. The Novelist turns that problem into a game system by allowing you to fulfill two out of three family desires. Your kid wants to play with a kite, and your wife wants to spend time with you, but you also need to work on your novel. Who misses out? How do you make that decision? At the end of each chapter, you get a run-down of the different outcomes. You see your happy choice, maybe your other happy choice, if you made one, and then the sad person. It’s always last, so that no matter how happy or successful the rest of your day was, you always close with a focus on how you failed.
That on its own is a really compelling gameplay decision, even just as a one-off. The game puts you in a situation where you will always experience a degree of failure, and asks you to cope. It asks you to make decisions within the limits of your human frame, to acknowledge your shortcomings and the inevitable suffering and failure associated with those decisions, and then make them anyway. To go back to Call of Duty, one of the things we could say about those games is that they don’t understand what it means for the player to suffer, and so none of their narrative beats carry emotional weight. The player never comes under any emotional risk. The Novelist understands suffering. It constructs a system where success and failure are relative concepts, rather than absolute, and it offers you impactful choices by allowing you to pick the terms of your failures. Would you rather neglect your kid or your wife?
For Call of Duty, by the way, the closest parallel I’d pick out here would be from World at War. At the climax of the American campaign, you have to save one of your two battle buddies. The other will necessarily die. The problem with that scene, at least as contrasted to The Novelist, is that in World at War the enemy is the Japanese. Both soldiers are threatened with death at the hands of suicide bombers. Your intervention is about making the best of a terrible situation. It’s a positive intervention, in a way: the whole situation is bad, and you probably feel a little bad for arbitrating between the lives of your comrades, but ultimately it’s the Japanese who put you in that position and who therefore carry most (if not all) of the moral responsibility. The Novelist doesn’t give you those easy, xenophobic outs. You’re fighting against things like time, economic pressure, emotional energy. Most of those things are nobody’s fault. There’s no convenient Other Group to carry the blame. It’s just part of being human – we’ll never have enough time. Call of Duty wraps up our human limitations in the skin of inter-state conflict, and tells us that if we play well enough, if we shoot enough foreigners in just the right way, we’ll be Able To Win. The Novelist takes the opposite position. It tells us that our limits are too great, that every choice involves sacrifice and pain (even just the loss of the road not taken), and that the best we can hope for is to fail in ways we can live with.
And that’s really the final point I want to end on. The Novelist isn’t just about making a one-off decision and then moving on scot-free. It’s about how the decisions you made yesterday stay with you. When you fail, you wake up the next morning as someone who fell at that hurdle. Your friend still hates you for your mistake. That bridge is still burned. Your child still feels betrayed. And guess what, motherfucker: today is just another set of decisions. The iteration in The Novelist is easily the strongest component of the whole game. It doesn’t allow you to step away from your failures. Instead, they circumscribe and inform the decisions you’re able to make in the future. If your wife missed out yesterday, she’d better get a win today, or that relationship is gonna get even worse. It’s not just a game about staring down the barrel of your mistakes: it’s a game about finding the moral courage to come back the next day with the knowledge that you’ll make mistakes again. It’s a game about our willingness to live. It’s a game about our willingness to continue. It’s about grief, shame, family, love, and – I mean yes, there is this whole ghost thing going on, but – look just forget about it okay, it’s a really good game.