One of the most interesting narrative driven indie titles in development is The Novelist. Players take control of a ghost who is able to use his abilities to influence the family within the game, we help choose how the family balances their relationships and workload as we see fit.
Kent Hudson is the man behind this interesting title, and we had the absolute pleasure to ask him a few questions about the games narrative, gameplay elements and the idea behind the games premise.
Jamie Briggs: So Kent what has driven your desire to get into game designing? Has this always been a lifelong dream? Or was there something that made it clear that game design was what you wanted to do?
Kent Hudson: It’s a really funny coincidence to answer this question today. I’m writing this on June 26th, the 13th anniversary of Deus Ex’s release, and Deus Ex is the reason I’m making games.
I was in college in the late 90s and early 00s, and during my freshman year I started downloading free SDKs and building maps for games I loved. The first map I ever created was for Doom 2, though during college I also worked on Quake 2 maps, Soldier of Fortune maps, and maps for a few other games that I’m now forgetting. I always saw it as a hobby, though, because I was majoring in political science and figured I would do something in that realm after I graduated. I didn’t have much of an idea what that would be, mind you.
But during the summer between my junior and senior year of college, Deus Ex was released and it changed everything for me. It combined my love of immersive, first-person experiences with a cohesive fictional world and expressive player powers. I had played (and loved) Thief and System Shock 2 prior to Deus Ex, but the addition of social hubs and story choices in DX made it something I couldn’t stop thinking about.
From that point forward I had a new understanding of what games could be, and I started working toward the goal of making games for a living. I was fortunate enough to get hired by Ion Storm Austin during my senior year of college, and within two weeks of graduating I had moved to Austin and was working on the sequel. Thirteen years later, here I am.
Jamie Briggs: I know the narrative behind The Novelist follows a Husband trying to juggle his career, while keeping a healthy home life. What was your inspiration behind this plot? Was it based on real-life occurrences?
Kent Hudson: I sort of backed into the autobiographical elements of the game, and I certainly never set out to create something based on my own experiences. The original idea for the game had a larger cast of characters and was much broader in terms of what kinds of relationships you could manipulate, but the more I worked on it the more I realized that it was too broad to have any meaning. I kept whittling it down and whittling it down, trying to find a fictional context that players would actually understand. That’s how I arrived at basing the game on a single family instead of a mansion full of unrelated characters. I realized that since everyone understands what it a spouse, parent, or child is, I could save a bunch of time explaining the relationships and instead create scenarios that examined them deeply and gave the player a chance to influence them.
Once I’d established that, I realized that I just needed a counterpoint to the family relationships, and I hit upon the idea of making it a game about balancing your career with your family. At that point I still didn’t plan for it to be autobiographical in any way, but once I started writing chapters for the game and really dealing with the emotional issues I realized that some of them resonated with me. I don’t have any children, but I am married so the question of how to balance my dreams with my marriage is very relevant to me, and my friends with children have been a huge help in making the parent/child relationships in the game believable. The old adage says to write what you know, and even though I didn’t start with that goal in mind I’ve certainly ended up there.
Jamie Briggs: My first impression of The Novelist, reminded me of Unfinished Swan. A game that provides fun gameplay, but yet underneath has an endearing mature narrative. How strong do you think story telling has become in gaming? Are they one of your main focuses with The Novelist?
Kent Hudson: I think storytelling has become very strong in some ways and incredibly weak in others. There are a number of recent games, mostly in the indie space, that allow players to be expressive and tell personal stories. Games like FTL and State of Decay create great water cooler conversations and encourage people to replay and create different stories, but the trend in the AAA space is unfortunately going in the opposite direction. Games have a unique ability to involve the audience in the story, yet for the most part the industry is moving away from that ability, focusing instead on funnelling every player through the same non-interactive stories. It’s not just that so many games now follow a repetitive “shoot some guys, watch a cutscene, shoot some more guys, watch a cutscene, drive to the next trigger, watch another cutscene” pattern, it’s that the cutscenes themselves are getting incredibly expensive to create. That means that studios can’t afford to let players change the story, so each player ends up getting the same experience as everyone else.
The Novelist is definitely a reaction to that trend. I think it’s a huge mistake to chase Hollywood and make games more and more like movies, and although I can’t hope to compete with large studios in terms of content and budget, I’m betting that involving players in a more relatable story and giving them real choices will more than make up for the lack of high-fidelity cutscenes. My game isn’t finished yet, but early builds have already had a strong emotional impact on playtesters, so my hope is that The Novelist can play some small part in refocusing the game industry on the interactivity that gives it so much potential. If you follow the current path of major studios creating increasingly-linear games with larger and larger budgets, we’ll end up making nothing but bad summer blockbuster movies with a few QTEs. That’s a future I hope we can avoid.
As you can probably tell, this is a topic I’m very passionate about, and anyone interested in a deeper examination of it might want to check out a talk I gave on this subject at GDC 2011, which is free to watch on the GDC Vault.
Jamie Briggs: The ghost within The Novelist is the players vessel for the experience, do we find more information about the ghosts past throughout the his journey to help this family succeed?
Kent Hudson: You certainly will. There are sequences in the game that give glimpses into the history of the ghost and the house itself. I’m still fine-tuning the story delivery in these mini-chapters, because I don’t want to tie everything up with a bow and hand it to players; I’ve always been a fan of leaving some mystery so that the audience has a chance to fill in the blanks.
AA: From the brief footage I have seen from the game, stealth seems to play a major part in navigating the household and a key aspect to finding clues. Was this feature a main focus from the beginning of development?
Kent Hudson: Definitely. When I started on The Novelist I knew a few things at a high level, namely that I wanted to make a game with a dynamic, player-driven story and that I wanted to make a stealth game. The main reason I decided to focus on stealth was so that I would have a firm foundation for the more experimental narrative gameplay. Stealth is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve also worked on a number of games with significant stealth components, so I was confident that I could execute on that portion of the game. That would in turn leave me lots of brainpower to devote to the dynamic narrative, which I had no idea how I would pull off. If I had tried to work in a genre with which I was unfamiliar, like real-time strategy or 2D platforming, I would have piled up too much risk and possibly started a game I couldn’t finish.
Another reason for choosing stealth is the fact that it keeps the player close to the characters physically without having the player actually be one of the characters. I originally worried that playing from a detached isometric perspective and clicking on characters with your mouse would make them feel like puppets instead of people you cared about. I wanted the player to be close to them, to inhabit the same physical space as them, and to feel more of a connection to their day-to-day lives … but making the player an actual character in the house would require more animations, a conversation system, and other features that were simply out of budget for me.
So in stealth, I found a nice middle ground. You can get close, but not too close, and it has the by-product of keeping the game from being a haunted house tale; it would be hard to believe that the family was concerned about a vacation or an art show if they were being terrorized by a ghost in the house. For those reasons, creating a game where the player has to stay out of sight felt like a good trade-off.
Jamie Briggs: We have been shown the abilities to possess light fixtures, read thoughts and even re-encounter the families memories. Are there any other abilities the ghost will have at its disposal during the game?
Kent Hudson: Definitely. In terms of stealth gameplay, the player can cause light fixtures to flicker, which distracts nearby characters and allows the player to avoid being spotted while exploring the house. This was put in as a direct result of early playtester feedback, and it’s given the stealth gameplay a more intentional feel. The player also has the ability to search for memory fragments within characters’ memories, which is different than the more straightforward memory exploration shown in the trailer and gameplay footage. These fragments offer the player more opportunities to influence the relationships in the game. I’m also playing with some ways to explore different types of memories, although I haven’t worked out the details just yet.
AA: The Novelist seems to be driven by choice, if I want to help The Novelist his book will prosper, yet his relationships will suffer. Will these choices lead to further consequences or different endings depending on how you decide to play?
Kent Hudson: Absolutely! That’s pretty much the point of the game in a nutshell. The Novelist is a chapter-based game, and each chapter offers the player a choice between Dan’s career, his marriage, or his role as a father. The choices you make persist throughout the game, shaping Dan’s career and his relationships. The game doesn’t have a specific goal; I haven’t created a victory condition like “Help Dan write the best book in history” or “make sure Dan is the best father ever.” Part of the reason I chose this subject matter is that the career vs. family question is very difficult, and I don’t pretend to know the right answer. I’m trying to create an even-handed game where every dilemma has three equally sympathetic viewpoints, which in turn means that each player has to make a decision based on his or her own values. There are no right or wrong answers; the characters simply react in a believable way, and over time a landscape of relationships emerges.
In many ways, making this game is my version of processing the career vs. family question for myself in the exact same way that I hope players process it. As each player goes through the game and creates a unique story, my hope is that they’ll learn something about themselves and will arrive at an ending that matches their values. And if they’re not happy with the story they’ve created, I’ve done some things that encourage replaying the game; I’ve had playtesters go through the game multiple times in an attempt to sort through their decisions and get an ending they’re satisfied with, which tells me that they’re internalizing the central question and analyzing their own values as they play.
Jamie Briggs: As an independent developer, what are your thoughts on Microsoft not allowing indie developers to self-publish games on the Xbox One?
Kent Hudson: It may be surprising to hear this from an indie developer, but I don’t really care that I can’t publish on the Xbox One. If it was 15 years ago, when all of the channels for selling games to players were tightly constrained, I would feel very differently. But in 2013 there are more platforms available to me than I can even support, so it’s not worth my time getting worked up about the ones that are closed to me. I can sell my game on the PC via the Humble Store, Steam, Desura, or the Amazon Indie Games Store, and so far it looks like the PS4 is creating a great platform for reaching the console audience. The OUYA just launched as well, so I’m definitely interested in that, and we haven’t even talked about the iOS and Android markets yet.
Corporations can only exist by serving their customers, and Microsoft’s recent reversal of the Xbox One’s online policy shows that pressure from the audience can enact real change. So I take a Darwinistic view of the landscape: console manufacturers and platform managers must evolve or die. The Novelist won’t succeed or fail based on whether or not I can sell it on the Xbox One, so if Microsoft doesn’t provide an avenue for self-publishing I’ll just choose from one of the many, many other channels that are more open and inviting.
Jamie Briggs: When can fans expect to see The Novelist released? And where will you be releasing it?
Kent Hudson: I plan to release the game this summer. I’m not quite close enough to the finish line to pick a specific date, though, so sometime between now and September 22nd is as much as I can say. The game will definitely be available via the Humble Store (you can already preorder it on the official site, with the soundtrack as a bonus), though I’d like to release it on Steam as well (the game is currently up for voting on Greenlight). I’m looking into the newly-launched Amazon Indie Games Store as well, and I’ll continue to evaluate other channels as I get closer to ship.
Jamie Briggs: Are you hoping to release on any specific devices, or is it still and wait and see?
Kent Hudson: The initial launch will be on Mac and PC, although once the dust has settled on the launch I plan to work on a Linux version as well. After that, I’ll take a look at how the game is doing and start thinking about other platforms. In no particular order, I’m also excited about the PS4, OUYA, and iOS.
Jamie Briggs: Fans excited for the release and want to know more, as soon as possible. Where should they go for all their Novelist information?
Kent Hudson: TheNovelistGame.com is a one-stop shop for all things Novelist-related. You can get the latest news (I try to do a blog post every Friday), get a link to the official Twitter account, read about the latest press coverage, preorder the game, vote on Greenlight, or subscribe to the RSS feed.
Thanks to Kent Hudson for providing us with a great interview.