The Novelist is a brand new indie game by Kent Hudson through his one man studio, Orthogonal Games. After having worked on numerous big budget titles in the industry and feeling creatively frustrated, Hudson decided to try his luck and went completely independent. The goal of his first project is to create a game where a player’s choices matter to the narrative and help shape its outcome. The game centers around the character Dan Kaplan, a novelist who is struggling to keep both his family and career from falling apart. Players take on the role of a ghostly presence whose goal is to help the family become whole again by guiding them through the difficult choices that we all make in our lives.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Kent, and were able to ask him some questions regarding his game, inspirations, the current state of indie games on consoles, and where he plans to go next.
The Novelist is your current independent project, but what other games have you worked on in the past and what was your role?
KH: I started out as a level designer at Ion Storm Austin working on Deus Ex: Invisible War, and over the course of that project I started gravitating toward systems design. I also helped out on the PS2 port of Deus Ex and Thief: Deadly Shadows, mostly in level design and scripting roles near the end of those projects.
After Ion Storm Austin I moved to Midway Studios Austin, where I was the creative director on an open world heist game that unfortunately never saw the light of day. It was cancelled when Midway started to implode, although I gained an incredible amount of experience and some lifelong friends on the project.
After Midway I came out to California and joined 2K Marin, where I was a senior designer focusing on AI and a few other game systems on BioShock 2. I also helped with level scripting toward the end of the project, and after BioShock 2 shipped I worked for a time on the recently-released The Bureau: XCOM Declassified before leaving 2K Marin for LucasArts. There, I worked on a small concept team developing a game that was never announced. LucasArts was my last AAA job before I quit to go indie.
What inspired you to leave the AAA development scene and focus on creating a game by yourself? Do you see yourself going back in the future or do you intend on remaining independent?
KH: I left AAA when I reached a point where I was frustrated creatively. We finished BioShock 2 in late 2009, and after that I found myself in various situations where I wasn’t in a position to push forward on projects I believed in. After two and a half years of that struggle, I hit a point where I had to make a change. My wife has a great job in San Francisco, so moving to another town wasn’t an option, and at the time there weren’t any studios hiring for projects I was interested in.
So going indie basically won by default, because I knew I had to go somewhere that I could work on something I believed in. I was never against the idea of going indie, but it was never a specific aspiration either. I just hit the point where independent development was the only logical path forward.
It’s hard to say whether I’ll ever go back to AAA development, for a few reasons. First, I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that you should never say never. And there are definitely good AAA studios out there. But if I had a choice, I would stay independent because of the creative freedom it affords me. There are a lot of challenges to being an indie developer, but the ability to make whatever you want is hard to beat.
A number of people have brought up the interesting similarities between your game and the 2005 indie game Facade, an interactive drama where you attempt to save a failing marriage. Have you heard of or played this title before?
KH: I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never played it. I probably should have played it for research before starting on The Novelist, but now that I’m approaching my ship date it would probably be too late to make big changes anyway.
The Novelist is a unique game that seems to focus heavily on the concept of family. Did you draw from any real life experiences when creating it?
KH: Definitely, although when I started the project it wasn’t about family at all. The game originally had a much larger cast of characters, and it was only after a great deal of trial and error that I scoped it down to the current 3-character family format. Even then, I didn’t make a conscious decision to draw on my own experiences; at the time I was focused on the underlying systems and gameplay.
It was only when I started writing for the game that I realized I have a lot in common with the main character. I’m not a novelist, but he’s a creative professional trying to do the best work he can while dealing with the pressures of real life, so I started putting a lot of my own experience into his character. While not every struggle in the game is something I’ve personally experienced, there are certainly bits and pieces of my own life sprinkled throughout Dan’s scenes.
How does the procedurally-generated piano score work? Was it chosen to keep development costs down or to help create a unique experience with each playthrough?
KH: It was chosen for both of those reasons, but also for an even simpler one: I just wanted to see if I could pull it off. It was, and still is, a really interesting creative challenge for me. I had a lot of questions when I started that part of the project. Can I create music that doesn’t sound completely random? How would I emulate someone actually playing the piano? How much should the music follow a traditional song structure? Should it be an endless, never-repeating string of notes instead?
I’m a musician and a huge music fan, and I’ve written a lot of songs for personal enjoyment, so the thought of doing the score for my own game was exciting to me, especially when I decided to tackle the problem procedurally.
The role you play in the game is that of a ghostly presence. You mentioned previously that this will involve some elements of stealth as you try to remain undetected. What are some of the consequences for letting the family discover you? Does it have a large impact on the narrative of the story or is it game over?
KH: There are varying degrees of being spotted. When a character catches a glimpse of you, they say a “Huh? What’s that?” line that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a stealth game. At that point you have time to get away, either by going somewhere they can’t see you or by possessing a light fixture. If you stay out of sight the character will search for a bit and then go back to whatever they were doing.
If you don’t get away, though, the character will realize there’s a ghost in the house and the screen will fade to white as they freak out about seeing a ghost. At this point the game automatically reloads your previous checkpoint. The game saves very frequently, so you won’t lose much, if any, progress.
As for how this affects the narrative, it comes down to the mood of the characters. The reason the game does a full-on reload when you’re fully spotted is that it would make no sense for the Kaplans to stay in the house if they knew it was haunted. So the reload mechanic basically goes back in time to a point before they saw you.
But even if you get away before having to reload a checkpoint, the character will know they saw something and will start to get suspicious. If you’re spotted too many times, the character will get outright spooked, which puts them in an agitated emotional state. This in turn means that you’ll have fewer opportunities to help them be happy in the story: they’re so upset that their deeper desires are pushed into their subconscious, where you can’t access them.
So if you want to help the family the most, and create the happiest ending to your story, it pays to be careful and stay out of sight.
Have you considered the idea of bringing The Novelist to home consoles? On that subject, what do you think about the support from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo for indie developers on their respective platforms?
KH: I’ve thought about it in the abstract, but right now I’m just focusing on getting the Mac and Windows release done. The idea of bringing the game to a larger audience on consoles is very exciting to me, because I’m a console gamer myself. As soon as I finish the Mac/Windows version and port the game to Linux I’ll look into consoles more seriously.
As for the three main manufacturers, I think Sony has taken a clear leadership position. They’re the only company that seems to have taken a proactive approach regarding indie games, by reaching out to the indie community and actively pursuing smaller titles. That means a lot in my mind.
I’m not familiar enough with Nintendo’s plans to comment on them, but in recent years Microsoft has been outright dismissive of indie games in a number of ways: burying indie games in the Xbox Marketplace, charging tens of thousands of dollars for patches, requiring a retail publisher for digital releases, and so on. They only recently changed their stance on publishing indie games, but as far as I can tell that was done purely as a response to pressure and as a reaction to Sony’s success in the recent months. It doesn’t strike me as a proactive, enthusiastic effort.
It’s not impossible that Microsoft is legitimately excited about and supportive of indie games, but I’m in an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode regarding the Xbox One. If I hear from other developers that Microsoft is serious about pushing indie games and is treating developers well, I’ll definitely give the new Xbox a look.
Finally, where do you see yourself after completing this game?
KH: I have no idea, frankly. My dream is for the game to make enough money to fund my next game and let me stay independent, but that’s largely out of my hands. All I can do is make the best game I can and hope for the best.
We would like to thank Kent for this interview and if you’re curious about the game, definitely take a look at the official website for more information. The Novelist will be released in late Summer 2013 for Windows and Mac.