What are the compromises we have to make to be happy? How many dreams do we have to kill before we resent the people we sacrifice for? Is there a way to have it all? The Novelist reveals the invisible compromises we make every day between the people we love and the dreams we harbor. Despite the deals we make, in the end, we can’t have it all.

The Novelist is another game in the emerging genre of first-person exploration in the same vein as Dear Esther and Gone Home. As a ghost haunting a cabin in the woods, you find yourself caring about the people living in your former home, the struggling novelist desperately carving out time for his writing, cutting from building romance with his wife and time from his impressionable and mentor-hungry son.

With no way of physically interacting with the world, you are left to whispering desires into Dan’s ear. You learn more about the family member’s inner desires by exploring their memories and sneaking peeks in their diaries or doodles. You then use that knowledge to manipulate the family toward the decision you think is best. And while you can make a compromise between two of the three family member’s desires, such as either for Dan to spend some time on his novel, his wife to pursue an art showing, or take your son to the beach, at the end of each night someone goes to bed with their emotional needs ignored.

While I want to argue that The Novelist is a simplistic and binary representation of the choices we have to make, at some point the truth seems just as obvious, sometimes you have to choose between people and projects.

At first I thought the game was speaking about selfishness. Dan’s journal reveals his ideal life, “unattached” to write without “distractions”. But seeing his wife’s hidden desire to share a bottle of wine after Tommy goes to sleep stirred something in me, maybe the guilt of ignoring my own wife after spending an evening locked up in the office? The night turns out beautiful, one thing leads to another and an evening of listening to records leads to tipsy lovemaking. However, more detective work reveals Tommy dreams of spending time with his dad at the beach. My wife and I are trying to have kids ourselves, and so again my heart leaped at the chance to pour into his little life. It was a good day, but at the price of ignoring Dan’s typewriter and the thought leaves a little piece of resentment deposited in my heart.

The cabin itself is a house on a cliff where inches are the difference between safety and falling. Small, selfish choices with our time reveal our priorities.

At night you find the pages of another diary, someone who used to live in the cabin on the edge. A woman, Claire, wrestles with the decision to marry a man she loves, but also choosing between a safe, comfortable, life with a man who loves her, or a chance to pursue her passion for music free from obligations.

Am I the ghost of Claire? Why does she linger? Why am I driven to whisper in Dan’s ear every night? What does Claire regret? Did she live her dream or pour her time into her husband, while watching her other love whither and die? Or did she live alone with her accomplishments on the cabin on the cliff before becoming a restless spirit that couldn’t move on?

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Despite my own affinity for Dan, because of my time with the Kaplan family I found myself pouring Dan’s time into the lives of Tommy and Linda. Exploring their dreams and memories, I felt compelled to supress my own inner novelist rather than see Linda’s paintings go unfinished, or Tommy’s smiling face.

As the game nears it conclusion, I am struck by Linda’s final journal entry, that whether for good or ill, this will be a summer her family will never forget, memories of going to the beach, or of half finished pedal cars and a father locked in the study. As my wife and I begin trying to have children, the implications of maternity and paternity begin to weigh on my mind. What does it mean to stop working on our home business, what does it mean to put your life “on hold” for a child? I watch the results of a stalled dream as Dan’s priorities slowly began to change. I urge him to help his wife with her dream to become an artist; Dan becomes closer with Tommy through my influence to spend more afternoons together, even as his novel withers and dies on the page.

As a ghost you don’t have life outside the Kaplan family, and it becomes clear how hard you have to work to really understand someone without the power to read their mind. We so easily become oblivious to what other people want; you have to leave the confines of your own world. It’s clearest at Christmas time, standing in the aisles looking for presents and realize you have no foggy clue what your family would like, wishing uselessly that you would have paid more attention the rest of the year.

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In the end, the Kaplans leave the cabin and I’m informed of how their lives turned out based on the way I influenced them. Dan and Linda continue to have a romance most couples only dream of, Tommy overcomes a learning disability to rise as a prolific comic artist, but Dan’s novel suffered my own worst nightmare, it never came to pass.

I am angry at first, even depressed. I want to start over, make better compromises, ignore Tommy and Linda a bit more, and settle for mediocre relationships with them at the chance of seeing the novel succeed. It’s not really fair, to sacrifice so much for others, if they truly loved Dan his family would support his dreams as well. But more than anything, I realized I have to be willing to put a home business, even my own aspirations as a novelist on the altar. Like Abraham’s hardest lesson, it’s easy to forget nothing should be beyond sacrificing. If we’re not careful, we don’t even realize the relationships we kill by small choices.

We can’t have it all: a booming home business, a finished novel, and thriving relationships with all our friends and family members. At some point, our goals are going to conflict with our relationships and priorities. While I want to argue that The Novelist is a simplistic and binary representation of the choices we have to make, at some point the truth seems just as obvious, sometimes you have to choose between people and projects.

A passion to write a novel or start a business is not evil, but the inability to lay a desire on the altar is. In the end, we must all lovingly make compromises, husbands, wives and children. If we’re willing, a scapegoat or compromise will eventually make itself known. After all, a writer who is also refuses to be an emotionally giving lover or parent, will never enjoy the fruits of his labor at the expense of these relationships. It’s when we become trapped in our own world, unable to see anything but our own desires that we are in danger of falling off the edge.


Steven Sukkau

 
Steven Sukkau is a reporter at his local newspaper and believes the print medium will never truly die. When he's not uncovering the human stories around town he's writing about videogames. You can follow him on twitter @stevensukkau.