Video games rarely make people well up or shed a tear. OK, I may have gone glassy-eyed when we met Dom’s wife in ‘Gears of War 2’ and their was a moment in ‘The last of Us’ I can’t talk about, but generally I am pretty emotionless when gaming.
However, amazingly, I found myself nearly blubbing after playing The Novelist, a first-person voyeur game from Orthogonal Games. The story follows the troubled family of a novelist, who after some short-lived success after his first book is struggling to write his follow up novel. In an effort to gain inspiration and avoid distraction the whole family move to a secluded beachfront home in an unknown part of the world. The family is far from perfect and have all the issues and strains real families have such as finding time for each other, prioritising jobs and generally working together. In the beginning of the game you play as a ghost or spirit that inhabits the house. I know it sounds very mush like ‘The Shining’ at this point and there are some minor similarities. However, the ghost is not malevolent or evil but merely an observer of events with very little it can do to change its surroundings. Movement, on the whole, is achieved by jumping from light-fitting to light-fitting and whilst you can drop down into the main house and wander around, when in this form, you can be seen by the family. If you are seen too much it can effect the outcome of the story, spook the family and ultimately result in them leaving. However, in order to interact with the people and objects in the house you need to be in this particular view, which makes for an exciting game of hiding and seek and the constant worry that someone might walk in or simply turn around and see you.
The aim of the game is to direct the actions of the family based on your observations of the day. You are able to read the family members minds, enter their thoughts to see certain memories and find crucial items,which relate to their particular issue. When you have all the relevant information you can make your choice. Your choice is made by whispering it into the novelists ear as he sleeps. The following day you are given a dialogue of what the outcome of that choice is and the story continues based on that choice.
The characters are so simple yet so deep and you feel for them like in no other game, their pain is your pain and most people will find some area that you can connect with. Do you give the academically failing son Tommy the attention he needs? or support wife Linda in an artistic endeavor as she contemplates the future of their relationship, or do you push Dan to work on the novel and keep the wolves from the door. You only get one choice per chapter and the repercussions of each choice lands squarely on your shoulders.
The game is so intimate as you literally read their thoughts, listen to their woes and actively try to help them all you can but the tale, however positive, always has its downsides. It is ultimately up to you to get this family through these tough times and it will leave you both emotionally drained and awestruck as you sit back and re-evaluate the power to games.
There will be moments when you get a little bored and even times when you question whether or not you want a game to be an emotional roller-coaster but should you put in the few hours it takes to finish the story you won’t be disappointed, as it is likely to shift your perspective somewhat and make other games emotionally one-sided.
The game also has another story to tell as each night, before you use the subtle power of suggestion you find clues about yourself and your own harrowing tale around the house. By reading personal letters and finding newspaper clippings you are able to piece together why you are haunting this house and how to set yourself free of its confines.
Overall, this is a defining moment in gaming, the graphics are average, the setting is a simple three-bedroom house and the levels consist of a handful of chapters leading to its conclusion. However, the emotional connection, the agency that you have as a player have in the game is amazing and the weight of responsibility it impresses is unique. This isn’t a game you’ll want to play all the time, nor one you will you continually tackle to see the different outcomes but you will want to experience it at least once. The Novelist is 1000 miles away from any game you would find on a console and it will be out of a lot of peoples comfort zone, but if you really want to see the future of emotional gaming then definitely invest a few hours in this game.