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The game is called The Novelist, and it deals with the question of what's more important in life: personal success or a loving family. You play as a ghost that observes the life of a novelist named Dan Kaplan, his wife, Linda, and his son, Tommy. As you learn about their lives you're presented with different situations that deal with the career vs. family question in some way, and you get to decide what they do. Your choices affect their relationships, shape their lives, and ultimately create a personal story.
Will The Novelist have a tragically gruesome ending like The Shining, or is that just my own association run wild?
I'm afraid that's just your imagination running wild. The idea of a writer alone in a house with his wife and son obviously has a lot in common with The Shining, but while I love that movie (and the book), The Novelist is an altogether more benevolent affair. There's no killing or violence in the game, although if you influence Dan to keep making decisions that are detrimental to his career or his family you can definitely create some ... depressing outcomes. Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
I spent over a decade working in AAA on games like Deus Ex: Invisible War and BioShock 2, so I've definitely experienced that side of the industry. I never had a specific aspiration to go indie, but I was never against it, either. It really just happened because in my last few AAA jobs I reached points where I was frustrated creatively and was unable to move forward on the things I cared about.
There's a lot of that going on in AAA as companies try to figure out how to be profitable, and unfortunately that tends to work against original concepts and creative risks. Working independently gives me the opportunity to focus on what's important to me, and it's been an incredible experience.
Do you miss any aspects or perks of working in AAA development?
Definitely. The biggest thing I miss is working around really inspiring people every day. I've always been fortunate enough to work around amazing people, and when you strike out on your own it can be very isolating. I've had to make a few changes recently in order to reconnect with people, like doing regular video chats with other indie friends and joining a co-working space so that I'm around other people three days a week.
I also miss the resources available at large companies. Being able to make whatever you want creatively as an indie is amazing, but the lack of resources compared to a AAA company is a huge constraint. I can't just ask for a new set of animations or have someone build a new level if I want; everything has to be very well-considered and you have to be careful with your time and money. That said, I believe strongly in the concept of liberating constraints, and some of the restrictions of independent work have forced me to come up with features that I love and can't imagine the game without.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
I see myself as a guy making a game he believes in, and I try not to make it any more than that. I don't like to bill my story as an "Indies vs. AAA" thing; there are plenty of other people carrying that flag into battle. I have extremely creative friends who work independently, and I have dear friends who are doing great things in the AAA space as well. For example, a ton of my old buddies from the Ion Storm days released Dishonored last year, and that's an incredibly well-done game that's creative and unique.
So for me it's not about movements or communities; I just want to be creatively empowered and work on things I believe in, and right now being independent is the best way to do that. But to me it's about the work, not a larger movement. In the end a great game is a great game no matter where it came from. I'm very practical in that way.
What inspired you to make The Novelist?
I've been interested in player-driven stories for years now (you can find out about that in much more detail here or here), so when I went indie I decided to try and put those theories into practice. I knew that this might be the only chance I ever get to make a personal game completely devoid of outside influences, so it was very important to me to make something I was proud of and that wasn't like everything else out there.
To a degree, yes. I made a conscious effort to make the game universal by focusing on a family, which almost everyone can relate to in one way or another, but the Dan character is certainly the one I identify with most. He's trying to write a book and I'm trying to make a game, but the challenges of balancing your creative dreams with your family life are largely the same for both of us.
What's the coolest aspect of The Novelist?
Although I think that playing a ghost and zooming around between objects in the house is really fun, to me the coolest thing about the game is the way it allows players to tell their own stories without following a traditional branching-narrative structure. Each chapter is a standalone dilemma for the family, and the chapters occur in a random order in each playthrough, so the narrative is created by each player's sequence of decisions, not a pre-scripted branching story that I wrote. It's a really player-centric game.
Sell The Novelist in one sentence:
Play as a ghost with supernatural powers as you explore the life of a family, make important decisions for them, and shape their lives.
Who knows? My dream, of course, is for The Novelist to make enough money to fund my next game. The idea for it is pretty fully formed at this point, and it's very different than The Novelist, so I'm just trying to make my current game as good as possible so I can pay for the next one.
The Novelist is slated to launch this summer, and is available for a discounted pre-order ($15, PC and Mac) here. It's also up for a spot on Steam Greenlight – if you like the idea so far, maybe convince your family to give it a vote, too.
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