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A New Chapter: Kent Hudson’s ‘The Novelist’

Veteran developer pursues independence in order to find a deeper meaning

Many independent game developers type their fingers to the bone while shouldering the work of dozens in an attempt to get noticed and one day make it big. More romantic, however, is the story of the veteran developer casting aside corporate success in search of a quiet outlet for their artistic expression.

This is the story of Kent Hudson, who after dividing more than a decade of experience between a list of companies that includes the likes of Ion Storm, Midway, and 2K Marin while working on titles such as Deus Ex: Invisible War, Bioshock 2, and the upcoming XCOM: The Bureau Declassified, gave up a steady paycheck to pursue his own dreams.

Hudson’s labor of love is nearly complete; The Novelist is currently scheduled to release sometime this summer. The game has already earned a fair share of interest thanks to its touching and unique approach to gameplay. The story centers around Dan Kaplan; writer, husband, and father of one. As Dan struggles to balance work, love, and family life, the player takes the role of a spirit who guides the narrative through choices which influence the story and affect the Kaplan’s lives.

Hudson’s goal is to engage the player through a series of meaningful questions which have no clear moral solution: do you spend time with your son, neglecting wife and work in the process? What about your own dreams and aspirations? How do you define success? The choices made affect how the Kaplan’s story plays out, driving home the game’s central question: can you achieve your dreams without pushing away the ones you love?

Gameplay meshes stealth and puzzle solving elements which drive environmental exploration as players work to gain insight into the thoughts, desires, and needs of the Kaplan family. The player guides Dan’s life from behind the scenes while taking special care to never be seen or noticed. While the ghostly premise sets up the game’s core mechanics, it also creates and interesting narrative contrast within the player’s role itself: the player’s character represents a major, driving force behind the Kaplan’s lives, however the family it guides and shapes is never aware of the character’s impact.

“Playing as a ghost who must remain unseen has the benefit of keeping The Novelist from being a game about haunting the family and creeping them out,” Hudson explains.

“Early versions of the game actually had some ghost-like abilities — causing objects to rattle, carrying things around as a disembodied force, etc — but it quickly became apparent that scaring the family completely drained any dramatic potential from the narrative. If the Kaplans were scared to death of a poltergeist making objects levitate, it would be impossible to believe that they were also pondering things like work deadlines or family vacations.”

It is no surprise when Hudson cites a lecture from the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference, titled Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There, as the game’s early inspiration. The Novelist is heavily invested in narrative and strives to reach each gamer on an individual level.

It’s easy to assume that similarities exist between the game’s setting and Hudson’s own life as an indie developer, but he is quick to downplay the most obvious comparisons.

“I didn’t start viewing the game through the lens of my own experiences until I started writing content for the vertical slice build, when I had to start putting into words the higher level concept of a man struggling to follow his dreams without pushing away his family. Once that process started, I began using my own experiences to give Dan’s struggle more emotional gravity.”

Hudson does confess a less obvious link between himself and the titular novelist.

“To be honest, my personal experience doesn’t come through in the career vs. family component as much as it comes through in Dan’s internal drive to create something that matters. I’m very aware that this could be my only chance to ever make a game all my own, and I want to make sure it’s something with gravity that takes some creative risks.”

Game designers impart their knowledge on their games throughout development, but growth often goes both ways. Working on a title as personal as The Novelist, it’s not surprising that Hudson learned a thing or two about himself in the process.

“Representing the career verses family struggle so directly in the game has caused me to think of it in much clearer terms in my own life, which has in turn helped me make more intentional decisions about ways to keep that balance in check.”

One particularly illuminating experience that Hudson describes revolves around the Kaplan’s son. Not having children of his own, Hudson was able to count on the experience of others to flesh out the character of the young boy and his role within the family dynamic. By interviewing a friend’s six-year-old son, for instance, he was able to better understand the game’s issues through a child’s perspective.

The experience of friends and family was further mined through the use of long questionnaires. The surveys included inquiries such as, “Is your child’s happiness more important than your own,” and, “Do you ever resent your child for getting in the way of your dreams?”

These are the types of deceptively complex questions that The Novelist looks to explore while weaving a story that is shaped and interpreted by each gamer on a personal level. It’s this type of game that led the veteran developer to the indie scene in the first place.

“I’ve tried pitching smaller projects at companies I’ve worked at, and most AAA companies are entirely uninterested in projects of this scope. Spending $1M to make a $3M profit doesn’t even register on their spreadsheets, not to mention the fact that the concept would be seen as ‘too weird’ for their target demographics.”

With a little luck, Hudson’s The Novelist may be poised to enjoy the best of both worlds; harnessing the creative freedom of independent development while also generating the kind of financial success that makes future development possible. Look for The Novelist this summer on PC and Mac. For more information, visit the games official site at TheNovelistGame.com.

Posted in by Steve R Gibson on June 28, 2013