Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

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Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

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The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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