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'The Novelist' makes a game out of the writer's life

August 13, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • In "The Novelist," players try to help a writer named Dan Kaplan make sense of his complicated life.
In "The Novelist," players try to help a writer named Dan Kaplan… (Kent Hudson )

I’m not a gamer, but for a long time now -- going back to “Grand Theft Auto” -- I’ve been interested in the narrative possibilities of role-playing games.

It’s not that they represent the future of fiction, or anything like that; as Tom Bissell (who understands this territory as well as anyone) explained earlier this year to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, “I guess I think the highest purpose of fiction is to show that all people are fundamentally worthy of mercy. Carrying that imperative over into a game ... is a harder project.”

Literature, after all, is not goal-oriented, exactly; we read not to achieve anything but empathy, which can't be measured in missions and scores. And yet, Bissell suggested, there are certain similarities, beginning with immersion and the idea that every reader re-creates every book in his or her own image, just as a player determines, in a very real way, the outcome of a game.

I’ve been thinking about this in regard to a new game, “The Novelist,” which is due to launch before summer ends. Designed by Kent Hudson, who spent a decade working on games such as BioShock 2, it’s an attempt to develop a different kind of game -- quieter, more interior, with an outcome as ambiguous as a life. The protagonist, as GalleyCat reported Monday, is a novelist named Dan Kaplan, and players lurk like ghosts in the corners of a house he shares with his wife and young son, as he tries to balance the competing pressures of his world.

“There’s no winning or losing,” Hudson observed in an interview with the gamer’s guide Kotaku. “[M]y hope is that as you’re presented with the same fundamental question ... over the course of the game, that you start to learn about your own values. And by the end ... maybe your guy has written the greatest book ever but his wife left him and his kid is getting in trouble at school all the time. Well, I guess when push comes to shove, you’ve decided that career’s more important than family. Or vice versa.”

That’s a vivid construct for a story, and by extension, for this sort of game. What’s long fascinated me about role-playing games such as “Grand Theft Auto” or the recent “L.A. Noire” are the worlds in which they unfold; rather than try to achieve some objective, I’m more compelled by the possibility of exploring, say, the fictional city of San Andreas, or a virtual 1940s Los Angeles.

“The Novelist” appears to encode this curiosity, this reader’s sensibility, into the very marrow of its action, as we watch, and gently influence, the interplay between Dan and his wife and son. At the same time, I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t I have my reservations, at least about its portrait of the writing life.

As seen in a gameplay demonstration, Dan and his family occupy a large house in what looks like the Pacific Northwest or Northern California, heavily forested and with an ocean view. Whatever their pressures, money appears not to be an issue, which makes them distinct from nearly every writer’s family I have known.

To be fair, Hudson’s purpose is to zero in on the balance of work and love and commitment, an emotional landscape that every one of us must navigate. In watching the demo, however, I can’t help but be reminded of the playwright Wallace Shawn, who in the 1982 film “My Dinner with Andre” offers what is perhaps my favorite summary of the creative life.

“I grew up on the Upper East Side,” Shawn declares, “and when I was 10 years old I was rich! I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I'm 36, and all I think about is money!”

This is the subtext, what it means to be a writer (or any kind of artist), the struggle between art and necessity.

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