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How The Novelist seeks to examine some tough choices of life

by Ozzie Mejia, shacknews.com, May 30, 2013 11:45AM PDT

Not unlike many great writers, Kent Hudson found himself at a creative impasse. Having previously worked on major titles like Deus Ex: Invisible War and BioShock 2, Hudson wanted to flex more of his artistic muscles, so he stepped into the growing indie sector and founded Orthogonal Games. He unveiled his first project a few weeks ago, a story-based twist on the traditional god game called The Novelist.

"The Novelist is a game about a writer named Dan Kaplan, who's trying to achieve his dreams of success as a novelist, while also being a good husband and father," said Hudson. "The game examines the difficulty many people, myself included, have in trying to figure out whether their careers and achievements are more important than their relationships, or vice-versa. Throughout the game, the Kaplans find themselves in different real-life situations that highlight the tough decisions people have to make in the balancing act between career and family, and the player gets to make those choices and see what the effects are."

Interestingly, finding the right balance between work and family isn't entirely a black and white endeavor. "I'm the first to admit that I don't know the answer to the career vs. family questions posed by the game, which is why I'm making the game in the first place," Hudson continued. "I want to create an experience that asks the questions and lets each player find their own answers. The game doesn't give the player a score or push you toward a specific victory condition. I wouldn't be able to do those things without inserting my own judgment about what the right decisions are, and I want the game to be about each person's unique experience and set of choices. Instead of getting a final score or winning or losing, players simply play through the story and get to see the results of their decisions."

Hudson describes The Novelist as a chapter-based game, with each chapter finding the family in a different situation. However, the details of those situations won't be clear right off the bat, leaving the player to uncover them and move the story forward. The trailer showed some examples--Dan wanted a drink, wife Linda wanted to put on a record, and son Tommy wanted his father to put his pedal car together. Whether any of this gets done is up to the omniscient player.

"The choices are all mutually exclusive and have consequences," Hudson added. "If you were to start the chapter after what's shown in the trailer, Dan's book would be in a little more trouble since he didn't work on it, he and Linda would be a little more out-of-sync, because they didn't get quality time together, and Tommy would think his dad was a bit of a hero for putting together his cool new toy. The decisions in each chapter build up over time to create a unique set of relationships and history for the family, all based on the player's choices. There are other smaller chances for the player can influence those relationships between major choice moments, but I'm keeping those under wraps a little longer."

With family being a universal experience that all people can share, Hudson hopes each player will be able to relate to the in-game scenarios. Hudson recounts different types of people gravitating towards different parts of the game and he hopes that everyone who plays The Novelist will have a newfound perspective on their own lives.

"This is a question game," Hudson explains. "There are no right or wrong answers. I've simply tried to make a game where the characters react in a believable way and it's up to the player to live with his or her decisions. I think that can be useful in a few specific ways. Someone who hasn't started a family yet, but is thinking about doing so could play the game to get an idea of what kind of tradeoffs having a family can create. And people who've had a difficult family life could play the game in a roleplaying fashion, making the decisions they wish had been made in real life and creating the kind of family they wish they'd had. Those are a few ways that the game could really connect with people, but overall I've tried to create balanced scenarios without a clear right or wrong answer since that's how life usually works. That in turn leaves people room to add their own experiences and values to the game."

With so many variables leading to assorted outcomes, The Novelist will lend itself to multiple playthroughs. As such, Hudson estimates that each playthrough will last from three to five hours. "A number of people have told me that after finishing the game, they immediately went back and played through again to see if they could make different choices and get an ending they were more satisfied with, so replayability is definitely a goal of mine," he said. "The game's chapters come in a different order each time, and there are ways that playing carefully from a stealth perspective can give you more options in the narrative, so I've tried to make a game that rewards people for coming back and reconsidering some of their decisions in subsequent playthroughs."

The Novelist is clearly unlike anything Hudson has worked on in the past. While his new game may not have the mainstream appeal of a AAA title, it has reinvigorated him creatively. "When I left AAA I just wanted the chance to do something that was mine," Hudson said, "where I could challenge myself and focus on the creative aspects of making a game without worrying about stock prices or opaque decisions made by executives who don't even play games. A big motivation for striking out on my own was simply having accountability for my work, good or bad. It sounds funny to say, but if The Novelist is a failure, I'll actually take some solace in the fact that it'll be my failure, not someone else's. Of course, my greatest hope is that the story has a much happier ending."

The Novelist is set to arrive in summer 2013, releasing on PC and Mac through the Humble Store. Pre-orders through the game's website will offer an early discount and the soundtrack. Hudson will also bring his game to Linux at a later date.