Making ‘The Novelist,’ a Story About Family and Ghosts

January 30, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s Game Plan feature asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Kent Hudson of one-man studio Orthogonal Games about The Novelist, a thoughtful game in which players must find a balance between one character’s career and his family life.

The Novelist will inevitably resonate with some players much more than it does with others. It’s less true every year that most gamers are young males; still, we make up the majority, and young males don’t usually have a wife and kid, a mortgage to pay, and a deadline to meet. And that’s what The Novelist is about: determining how one familial patriarch will divvy up his time among his various responsibilities over the course of a single summer.

Mustachioed Dan is a family man who’s struggling to write his second novel. Linda, his wife, wants to get back into painting as their young son Tommy begins to grow up. The three travel to a remote beachside home for the summer to facilitate Dan’s writing, and—this is where it gets a little weird—that house happens to be haunted. You play as the inhabitant spirit, nosing about the family’s personal effects, exploring their memories, and whispering in Dan’s sleeping ear to influence his most pivotal choices. Creator Kent Hudson tells Animal:

It started as a reaction to games I was playing as a fan. I just got so sick of games telling the same story to every single player, and unskippable cut scenes, and all the linearity to games. It started making me mad that we have this interactive medium and yet they’re just turning into movies more and more. The big budget games that are getting a lot of attention are so linear—just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, hit a trigger, watch a cut scene that you can’t skip.

Hudson has a history working on the big budget games he derides, including blockbuster series like Deus Ex and BioShock. But as he got “increasingly bummed” about the games he was working on, he realized he needed to make a change. So he quit the big studios and “went indie,” barring a single month spent working on Irrational Games’ blockbuster BioShock Infinite—and that was mainly for the paycheck. Hudson says:

During that month, when I got back into the triple-A machine, it made me realize: dude, if you’re indie and you get to make your own game, you need to make something that you believe in and something that you actually want to make a statement with.

In The Novelist, Dan struggles with writer’s block and a faint drinking problem while trying to maintain a failing marriage and his relationship with his lonely son. Gameplay is highly passive; as the house’s resident ghost, you act only once per chapter, to coerce Dan either to concentrate on his writing, spend more time with Linda, or pay more attention to Tommy. To avoid detection you possess lightbulbs, flitting from fixture to fixture. When the family has their backs turned, you can inhabit their minds, exploring their recent memories in the form of ethereal manifestations of past conversations.

By the end of the summer you’ve helped shape all three characters’ futures. But contrary to what players might assume, given the game’s highly personal tone, The Novelist is not autobiographical. Hudson is married, but he has no kids, and he gets along famously with his wife, he said. He does identify with Dan’s story, however:

God forbid I ever think that my life is interesting enough that I should make a game about it. But when I had to sit down and actually start writing the characters and thinking scenarios and thinking their backstories and their struggles and their desires I quickly realized: this dude’s sitting in an office writing a book while I’m sitting in my office at home making games. It’s basically the same thing. A lot of his angst is just me typing through him.

Hudson almost began his independent career by creating a small puzzle game, but he quickly shelved that project in favor of doing something that strives to be grander. The Novelist took shape first as a story about eight people living in a house, where players could influence their relationships with one another, almost like The Sims. But as Hudson started to write the characters’ backstories he realized that a smaller cast—a family, even—would work better. He says:

When I got it down to those three people all I really knew was that I wanted it to be a question about family life versus career. The interesting question of the game to me is whether it’s more important in the long run to have done great works, and maybe be famous, or have accomplished something creatively, or maybe you’re curing cancer—any kind of great thing for society—versus being a good family person.

If I’m going to get one shot in my entire career to make exactly the game I want, without any executives, without any producers, without any other people putting all these constraints on me, I don’t want to come out at the end of it and be like, ‘Yeah, I made a quirky zombie platformer,’ or whatever. And, you know, there are good zombie games. I’m not trying to crap on anyone else’s work. But I wanted to make something that was different and unique and hopefully means something to the people who play it.

The Novelist is available now at thenovelistgame.com and on Steam.