Over the next couple of days/weeks we’ll be rolling out interviews done with MSS members conducted by Samantha Macy.
First up, independent video game developer Kent Hudson.
How would you describe The Novelist?
The Novelist is a game about the struggle to follow your dreams without pushing away the people you love. It’s about a novelist named Dan Kaplan, his wife Linda, and their son Tommy, but you don’t play as any of them: you play as a spirit inhabiting the house they’ve rented for the summer. You can’t harm the Kaplans, and in fact your job is to stay out of sight so they don’t know you’re there. By doing that, you can explore their different career vs. family struggles and decide what they should do; despite the ghostly premise, the game is focused on real-life dilemmas.
For example, what should Dan do when his agent calls to tell him that he has an important book-signing event on the same day as Linda’s grandmother’s funeral? What about when Tommy’s doctor recommends that his parents tutor him for two hours a day to overcome a mild learning disability, even though their busy schedules make finding that time almost impossible?
Each dilemma has three possible outcomes, each of which is sympathetic to one of the characters, and you as the player have to decide what the family should do. There’s no winning or losing; you simply make the decisions you feel are best and take an active hand in shaping the Kaplans’ story.
The hook is that none of the situations have a right or wrong answer – or, more specifically, as the game designer I don’t specify what the right answer is. Questions about career dreams vs. family life are difficult, and I don’t pretend to know all of the answers. Making this game was in many ways an embodiment of my own struggle with that question, and as a game designer it’s exciting to me that I can make a question game, not a message game.
Since The Novelist doesn’t advocate one specific viewpoint, each player has to bring their own beliefs to the game, and many players have learned about their own values through the choices they’ve made. It may be surprising to hear this about a game, but I get emails from players who were deeply affected by The Novelist and were often moved to tears by what they learned about themselves. It’s really humbling to hear that the game is having that kind of impact for people.
What does an average day look like for you?
With independent game development there isn’t really an average day! Some days I focus solely on PR work and interviews, and on other days I focus on business and industry stuff, but on most days I just work on the game.
Though when you’re focusing a personal project, even working on the game brings something different every day. One day I might be writing character dialogue, the next day I could be tracking down a weird bug that only happens on one person’s computer, and the day after that I might be trying to get the game’s UI to line up a certain way.
I spent over a decade as a member of huge teams in the AAA industry, which means that I had a specialized skill set and was focused on specific areas of the games I worked on, so the switch to independent development was a huge eye-opener. I had to learn how to do tons of things that I’d never done before – audio, music, UI, writing, managing contractors, recording VO, etc. – while also running the business and publicity side, things which were also completely new to me.
So about the only thing I can say about an average day is that I’m working really hard on something, and it’s probably something I’ve never done before.
What are some of the tools that you use?
The main tool I use is a game engine called Unity. It’s become very popular with independent developers because it’s a low-cost alternative to traditional game engines, and it’s also very flexible in terms of the kinds of games you can make. I also use a variety of software that isn’t game-specific, like Scrivener and Evernote. I actually did a write-up of all my tools for a blog post last year, so if you want the full breakdown you can check it out here.
What is your work space like?
I have a pretty simple setup at home, just a desk with an external monitor for my laptop. Since I work on a computer each day I don’t have many requirements beyond a power outlet, which makes it easy to switch back and forth between home and Makeshift. At home I have a bigger screen, so some types of game work are a bit smoother, but it’s easy to bring my laptop to Makeshift a few days a week. I just grab an open spot (usually at one of the big tables by the front window), get to work, and take advantage of the easy access to great coffee in the neighborhood.
What makes video games important?
Wow, that’s a big question! I’m stealing a bit from my answer to the next question, but I think that games are important because they’ve opened up new ways for the audience to experience interesting worlds and interact with fascinating people. You can watch a great story in a movie or read about memorable characters in a book, but in a game you can be one of those characters. You can explore a fully-realized world at your own pace, in your own way.
That isn’t to say that games can or should replace other mediums; each art form has its own magical qualities and unique strengths. But the ability to create your own experience, to immerse yourself in an amazing setting, to make meaningful decisions that shape not only the story, but the world itself? That’s a wondrous thing, and game designers are still in the early stages of exploring the full possibilities of the medium.
How does a video game offer different storytelling potential than other mediums?
In a word: interactivity. Games are the only major medium where the audience can take an active role in shaping the story, and that’s the central focus of The Novelist. Many games sadly don’t allow the player to affect the story, which has always struck me as a missed opportunity, so when I got a chance to develop a game of my own I knew that I really wanted to tap into what was unique about our medium.
The possibilities are incredible when you embrace the fact that the audience can play a key role in the work itself and make it their own, especially now that games are finally taking on more mature, relatable subject matter. There’s nothing wrong with zombies or robots – there are books, movies, plays, and TV shows about those subjects, too – but for a long time games didn’t do much to move outside of that kind of genre work. The indie game movement has really changed that in the last 5 years, and I’m incredibly excited to see where the marriage of personal subject matter and an interactive medium can take us.
What type of role does Makeshift Society play in your work?
The main thing Makeshift does is keep me from losing my mind. For the first year of independent game development I worked out of my apartment. I’m married, so I’d of course see my wife every day and see my friends out and about, but sitting in a home office working without human contact day after day really started taking a toll on me. I started keeping open lines of communication with my friends via IM and video calls, but it was no replacement for actual human contact.
So I started looking for coworking spaces in order to get out of the house and be around other people three days a week, and I was immediately drawn to Makeshift because it was one of the few coworking spaces I found in San Francisco that wasn’t knee-deep in tech startup culture. I may work on a computer all day, but I don’t want to be surrounded by tech heads chasing venture capital deals. I really dug the DIY vibe of Makeshift and the super-diverse set of professions you learn about there.
Makeshift is my excuse to get out in this amazing city, be around people from completely different industries, and add a little structure (but not too much!) to my life as an independent developer.