We spoke to Kent Hudson, who, before stepping out of AAA development to create The Novelist, worked on games like Bioshock 2 and Deus Ex: Invisible War. We chatted about his beliefs, his goals for his work, and the struggle to make something that matters.
What core beliefs most motivate you?
Its hard for me to separate out core beliefs from personal motivations or drives but I have always felt a need to be doing something with my abilities in games, and other areas too. I can still hear my mom saying, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I have always felt the drive that if I am not doing something, I should be doing something. Its almost hard for me to take time off. When I am not working I feel like I should be working.
More specifically towards the most recent game I made, The Novelist, I definitely felt a pretty strong drive to do something that had some social value and had something to say beyond another alien invasion or the same old kind of thing you see from videogames. So I definitely felt a desire to do my small part to push games in a direction that is a little more socially responsible and more simultaneously personal for players. I wanted to make something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell people about who aren’t gamers.
How do your core beliefs impact the way that you approach game design and particularly, The Novelist?
The Novelist is the first game that I ever worked on that is my game. It is my “message” that is in the game. It is what I wanted to make. It is what I chose when I had complete creative freedom. Before that in AAA [development], I was always trying to work on stuff that existed at companies that was the most interesting to me, but it was always within a box. It was always limited by what existed in publically traded companies that exist that I can go work on. You are choosing from a fixed set of games. The Novelist was the first time I had the opportunity to make exactly what I want.
What do you hope a player gains from playing The Novelist? Why did you want to convey that message through the medium of videogames?
I don’t think of The Novelist as an answer game, I think of it as a question game. The game doesn’t have prescribed win condition. The goal isn’t making the couple’s lives as good as possible or being the best dad in the world. The ending is entirely up to the player. The player makes choices and they live with those choices and that is the story of the game. So from that perspective, there is no “message” to the game because I intentionally crafted it to be something where each individual player would find their own message.
The reason for that is that I don’t know the answer to core question I am asking in game. I don’t know which one is more important. Is it more important to be a great family member? Is it more important to have great accomplishments in your life? That is a question that I struggle with and think about a lot. It is something that I have certainly seen between friends and family. I have seen people go to all different ends of that spectrum. I have seen the outcome of those decisions. The reason I picked videogames is that it is exciting to me to be able to create a scenario where if I do my job right, I abdicate authorship so to speak. I get out of the way and let the player find their own message.
My goal in the game was to be as even handed as possible. I am sure that this doesn’t hold true in every chapter of the game, but my goal was that in every chapter, each of the three outcomes of the game would be equally sympathetic and you never felt like, “well this is clearly the right answer, this is an easy decision.” I wanted each chapter to present players with equally valid decisions. From the time that I settled on this context for the game, the way I always thought of it was: there is this really interesting question of what is more important in life. Is it your career or is it your family life and the family life is sort of split into fatherhood and marriage? Since I don’t know the answer to that question, I wanted to pose it to players in nine different ways so that by the end of the game, with the outcome that you choose, you have answered the question for yourself.
The personal impact that it has had with some people… you know some people haven’t been impressed by that at all, and some people think the game is too boring. A lot of people aren’t interested in slow paced, thoughtful games, which is fine, but the people who engage with The Novelist, they always feel like when they are done, they’ve gotten something personal out of it. It is their message and it is not something that I prescribe. It is not what I said is important in life, but it is their experience.
That is what I love about games, that you have the ability to really involve the audience in that way.
So in a sense, it almost sounds like you hoped to hold a mirror to the player as they played. Is that fair?
That is actually what I found so compelling about the game, because I think maybe this is an American thing, and maybe its not American so much as human, but in America we are sold this idea that we can have everything we want. You can have a great family, you can be a great husband and father and an extremely successful business person.
To me, if there is a message, to me that was it. You can’t have it all. And you have to come to terms with that reality, that you can’t have everything, there is always something sacrificed when we make a decision. Did you think about that as you made the game?
Absolutely. I am going to get nerdy on the videogame side for a second, but I was thinking about this idea for a talk I am going to do for the game hopefully at GDC. A couple of years ago I did a talk about player driven story in games. It wasn’t the genesis for The Novelist. At the time it was completely abstract. It was a call to arms of sorts. I made this big point about abdicating authorship and getting out of the way but I realized that I did that from a narrative stance or I at least tried to do that with The Novelist. I tried to make each one of these narrative situations equally sympathetic, but by the way that I designed the relationship to the system that “scores” the decisions you make or at least creates the reactions to them that sort of shape your relationships over the course of the game. I realized that my design of those narrative systems actually became the message. So the way that the game is structured is actually where my message comes through.
The person you choose, their relationship goes up a couple of points and the other two go down one point each, but it stays in equilibrium so that the system is always self-contained and has the same amount of energy or points in the system. I realized that by doing that, I was sending a message that life is this zero sum thing such that if you are good at something, you have to be bad at something else and that really bothered me because I think of the friends that I have that are great family people and do have awesome success.
So I started thinking about how come some people seem to “have it all” and i realized the people who really do seem to have it all, they really make the important things of their life a priority, and they just make the extra effort. If they miss their kids dance recital, then they pick their kid up from school the next day and take them to ice cream to make up for it. One of my friends told me, “the goal is to live a balanced life, not a balanced week.” I wanted to challenge players to think about how they would keep things in balance. I wanted to give them the opportunity to try to make up for later. That is where the compromise system came in. If you choose a compromise in each chapter, your relationship with that charcter doesn’t go up or down but stays the same. The effect that has is that if you play your compromises in every chapter, then over the course of the game, the quality of life points in each chapter slowly goes up. If you play well, you can actually have a happy ending for everyone. Its harder, its a more difficult way to play the game, but I like that metaphor because I think its the same in real life.
That was the genesis of the compromise system and that was the place where I realized that, sure I had abdicated authorship from the narrative of the game, but all that really did was move my area of authorship to how the systems were designed so that the actual game play became the message.
Do you have a role model?
Not really. I am kind of weird in that I don’t have heroes or role models. I have this weird thing where I isolate the person from their work. So there are people whose work I really love, but it feels weird for me to say that I am a fan of that person because for all I know they’re jerks [laughs]. I don’t know them as human beings. I’m like “I really like your book, but I don’t know if you are a nice person.”
I guess if I had to pick a role model I would say my granddad because he was a real salt of the earth kind of guy. He grew up on a tobacco farm, had to raise his family from the time he was 14, and you never heard a bad word about him. He always wanted to take care of everyone else. He was just a really stand up, super moral, loving dude. I would probably say that he would be my role model in terms of what characteristics and values I would like to see in myself. But I don’t have any famous role models. If I have to pick someone, I would say Ghandi, he seems awesome [laughs].
How do you feel about games addressing religious, spiritual, or philosophical themes?
I think its great. I wish there were more of it, obviously. The Novelist is a little more grounded in everyday life. It does have the one central question, but it’s obviously not a metaphysical or philosophical question.
But I do wish games dealt more with a much wider variety of issues. I think it’s too easy to say, “It’s a young medium, we will figure it out.” The capabilities are there to do all kinds of stuff. Like you could rewrite The Novelist to be about a religious struggle. It’s just disappointing to me that not enough people are trying those kinds of things with games. Disappointingly, part of that is the audience, since games tend to be seen as pure entertainment and since it does have a younger audience that is a lot more internet savvy that has a low attention span, blah blah blah.
In a lot of ways that is true of a lot of movies. People go to movies to just have fun and laugh or watch things blow up. Its like after a long day of work people don’t want to go home and watch Schindler’s List. I think every medium suffers from that, but it feels like in games there is not as much space for message-type games or serious games that make you think as there are in other mediums. Certainly in the indie game space, there are some really interesting games like Papers Please, but I’d love to see more games take risks with regard to religion.
Did you intentionally make a game that is more serious? Like for instance, there were times that playing The Novelist made me mad–like that angst of not being able to make it work and realizing I wasn’t happy with my decisions–it was frustrating in a really valuable way.
Right, but that is not an experience that everyone is going to rush home from work, saying, “I had a really long day at work, let me rush home to feel bad playing a videogame.”
Did the game arise out of some tensions you are feeling in life of trying to balance family and work?
It didn’t actually arise from that. It sounds weird to say but traditionally, I have come from a systems design or a game design background in terms of player tools and core gameplay. I am not a story guy. I am not a writer. I have never really gotten into any of that stuff on games before.
But you did have to get into writing with The Novelist didn’t you?
Yeah I did. I have a lot of writer friends who gave me a lot of help to whom I owe a great debt, but when I started this game, I always thought of it from a systems perspective. Originally the game was like 8 people in a house who were there because their friend had died, sort of like the Big Chill and you still played as a ghost and you still manipulated their relationships but it was like a toy, it was making two people become friends and making two people have a romance and making two people break up. It was much more like Sims where you are just sorta tinkering with these relationship meters and I realized that it didn’t mean anything. There was no context and no story and no reason to care. I kept thinking, “wow I made a toy with no emotional impact whatsoever.” I remember thinking I need to narrow it down to a managable number of characters and then I have got to have the game be “about something.” So I thought about making it about family tensions and I thought “what is a struggle within a family that is sort of interesting and isn’t black or white and I thought about the tension between personal aspirations and the time it takes to be a good family person. I don’t want to say stumbled into the concept of the game, but I definitely never sat down and said, “I want it to be about this.” Instead it was a process of finding a problem and fixing it. There was never an intention to put in anything autobiographical or my own personal stuff because it would feel very weird upfront because I would be sharing this personal emotional struggle with the world and that is really not my style.
I generally viewed the development from a systems design perspective but once I started having to write for the game, that is when I really started to identify with Dan and a lot of really personal stuff started coming out. A lot of the things Dan says in the game are things that I think about or struggle with. He spends a lot of time talking about wanting to write something that he will be remembered by and that means something. All those kinds of creative drive type things the he talks about are all examples of me putting words into Dan’s mouth about my personal stuff. You know sometimes he says, “sometimes it just feels too big and I want to give up.” I feel that as well. So a lot of the creative struggle stuff definitely became personal and became a way for me to process it, even to the point where some of that showed up pretty directly. There is a chapter where Dan has post it notes posted by his type writer and there is one chapter where Dan’s clues are all these post it notes that he has scattered around his desk of things that he has been saying to himself to motivate himself, like “you could have a real job right now” and “this is an opportunity not a burden.” They are almost corny motivational things but they were all things that were on my desk [laughs] that I use to motivate myself.
I reached a little bit of a writers block where at the end of the day I was so burnt out and I couldn’t decide what to put on my desk, so I decided to just put all the notes around my desk on Dan’s desk.
I definitely feel that creative struggle, so Dan’s creative struggle is the most autobiographical thing. I don’t have a kid but I am married and we are super happily married and so the marital struggles in the game are certainly not autobiographical at all. Thankfully.
Well as someone who juggles as many things as I try to, I am in the same boat, but I definitely connected with those tensions.
Marriage takes work.
Yeah absolutely. It was interesting to hear you talk about it because it sounds like making this game had a similar affect on you that you hoped players would get out of it: for players to come to terms with their values and think through those things. I think that speaks to the value of your game to players.
What I would say is that I am happily married and everything is cool, but good relationships and good marriages take a ton of work and good communication and honesty. My wife supported me in making this game. She was my biggest believer, and she kept a job while I was burning through our savings trying to make this game. That is why the game is dedicated to her.
But there were definitely times during the process where I was too tied to the game or working on it for too many hours and me and my wife weren’t getting quality time because of it. Luckily neither one of us is afraid to say, “hey we need to take a break here and have a night where the focus is just on us.” So we are good about communicating and prioritizing our relationship. I don’t know that a lot of that comes through in the game.
Well I think you’ve made a game that does more than just entertain. I am getting to a place in my life where I want to play games that make me think and that are going to offer me something of value. That is becoming more common but I think its still pretty rare.
Thank you for saying so, I really appreciate it. I am at a place where I am thinking about what I want to make next and it’s kinda depressing because almost every game I look at, I think I would not have wanted to make that. Life is short. I am 34 and will be turning 35 soon. It’s like, “Am I really, when I am 37, gonna ship…” well I don’t want to mention any specifics because I don’t want to make fun of any particular games, but I don’t want to ship something disposable or something that is a time waster or empty entertainment that won’t mean anything to anyone. Is that how I want to spend two years of my life?
But at the same time it was really emotionally difficult to make The Novelist because it is so serious. I had days where I spent the whole day making scenes about a disappointed kid [laughs]. It took a lot emotionally out of me to make this game. So I have this tension where I am like “I don’t want to ever make a game where I feel like I wasted my time or the game has no value or no meaning beyond carefree entertainment,” but I also don’t know if I have it in me to bite off another heavy socially responsible message game. Is there something I can do that is fun that isn’t as emotionally taxing to work on but is still socially responsible? I don’t know if other people who have worked on these types of games feel that way, but it certainly feels that way for me.
Well there is certainly a space for escapism. Right now I am playing Rayman Legends. I say I want more serious games, but I am actually a hypocrite [laughs].
Yeah there is definitely a place for escapism. We all need a bit of that. But I think there is a difference between killing half an hour playing a mindless game and spending two years of your life creating a game that people will play that way, because then when you are talking about the real currency of our limited time on earth and what you want to say you’ve done and the grand accounting and all that. To me, I struggle with knowing that I have only so many games I can make in my life and do I ever want to be like “yeah I made a fun little match three time waster.” I think I could do a lot more.
Then again, if you make the right match three time waster, you can literally make billions of dollars [laughs].
Yeah that’s true! And if we can take any message from The Novelist, it is certainly that money is the most important thing.