The Novelist is as much an exercise in emotional resilience as it is in storytelling.
Creator and industry veteran Kent Hudson demoed his latest project to Polygon during Indie Press Day, an event held in San Francisco for developers to showcase their in-progress work. According to Hudson, the game is his attempt to create a story where plot is not the reward. At its onset, The Novelist is the tale of Dan Kaplan, a writer struggling to complete his book. Or maintain a relationship with his wife Linda and his son. Or both. The game allows players to decide what they believe is most important and act accordingly. Chapters fall in a different order each time. Only relationships carry through to each new segment, which ultimately affects the game's ending.
This free-flowing format has already produced wildly different results with playtesters, Hudson told us. In one case, a tester and father of four had to put the game down and return to it a day later. The decisions were sometimes too difficult for him to make as a father and a creative thinker.
"People who have kids have a very different reaction to the game than people who are single or don't have kids," Hudson said.
Yet not all parents react the same. In some instances, mothers will side with Linda Kaplan's struggle to maintain her identity as a painter.
"I don't really hope that anyone identifies with a specific character," Hudson said. "This sounds corny to say, but I kind of hope that each person finds some way to connect."
"Part of making this game is that I don't know the right answer."
Hudson himself identifies closely with Dan the writer. Like Dan, he's struggling to create something. He has no children of his own, but he's married and faces many of the same challenges The Novelist presents.
"Me making this game is him writing that book," Hudson said. "I'm trying to do something that matters. I'm trying to do something that people like and that I can say is mine. But I don't want to get divorced while I'm doing it. The autobiographical part for me is just trying to follow your dream and still have a healthy relationship."
With titles such as Deus Ex: Invisible War, BioShock 2 and many more under his belt, Hudson is by no means a novice. The Novelist is, however, his first venture into the indie scene. It's a game he's been working on for more than a year, with inspirational roots taking hold as early as GDC 2011 when Hudson delivered a talk on how to give players more agency in narrative stories. The game began to take shape in a broader way: a household of six or eight characters players could influence into falling in love or fighting with each other.
"I got it working pretty quickly, but it was all very mathy," Hudson said. "These two people are friends because you can look at a screen that says they're friends. That has no emotional involvement to that, there's no context to it. It's just [making] numbers go up and down."
Hudson continued to shave that idea down in search of context people would instantly understand. He found his answer in family dynamics.
"You know what a parent is," Hudson said. "You know what it's like to have a kid, to have a job. You know what it's like to be in a relationship. When I first started whittling it down, I was like, 'What if I make it more specific to people?' ... Maybe there's a writer. Maybe there's a painter."
"Let's pick that," he added. "Let's make it about a writer and a painter. Good enough."
Players assume the role of a ghostly presence in the Kaplan house. Part of that deal includes avoiding detection by family members by sneaking around or jumping into nearby lights. If spotted, players will have a short time to escape. Wait too long and the game will reload to its last save state. The finished product will likely include a casual mode that makes the player totally invisible in order to appeal to non-gamers, Hudson said. For everyone else, the stealthy game play is "a little bit of an insurance policy" in case the narrative isn't engaging enough.
"I kind of find it dry if you're just reading text and clicking on stuff," Hudson said. "I wanted to add a little bit of tension, something that made you feel connected to the space. I still wanted the player to be playing something, making moment-to-moment decisions."
Although The Novelist features many different choices and endings — some far darker than others — there is no correct way to play. Choices are meant to be difficult, and Hudson calls it a failing on his part if one appears easier than another. After all, Hudson said, the game is more about asking questions than finding answers.
"It's all very much about real-life situations and those difficult things where you can't please everybody," Hudson said. "You have to make a choice. Part of making this game is that I don't know the right answer. Is your career more important? Is your family more important? When you're 80 years old and you're looking back, do you want to say ‘I've done great works,' or do you want to say ‘I had a wonderful family and people looked up to me'?"
"I don't know what that answer is," Hudson added. "I don't think most people do. Each person's going to find their own thing."