Played on Xbox Series X
Not many titles get a shout out from Phil Spencer on Twitter. An indie game based on wordplay getting this kind of attention was intriguing to say the least and made the staff at XboxEra sit up and take notice.
The first thing that struck me about Lost Words: Beyond the Page is how very English it is. Narrated impeccably by a girl with an English accent whilst displaying a watercolour design aesthetic and for large sections being sound tracked by softly played classical music it gave me the feeling of how Sunday afternoons used to be when shops stayed firmly closed and families spent time together.
This was obviously what the designers ‘Sketchbook Games’ intended as it quickly became apparent that the game has been designed to explore and at the same time evoke different emotional responses. With the ability to be Joyous, harrowing and hard hitting this is clearly not your everyday 2D Adventure Platformer.
The game takes place in two different forms. The first form consists of a physical Journal that a young girl called Izzy is given by her Grandmother in order to encourage her creative writing ambitions. The second form is a story that Izzy is writing within the journal which is told via the medium of a scrolling platform game.
Through this journal we learn about the current situation, family set up and what is happening to Izzy in her own words. The close relationship between Izzy and her grandmother is the primary subject and this then moves onto the influence the old woman has had on her when she is suddenly taken ill. Making sense of the unfolding medical situation and a first brush with mortality is then interwoven with memories of previous time that the two of them had spent together. Words and drawings that are entered into the journal become platforms that a small avatar of the heroine needs to navigate across in order to exit the page and get to the next entry.
Entering a new page in the top left hand corner gravity pulls you straight down towards the bottom of the page, if you fail to land on a word, you fall off the page entirely and appear back at the top in a repeatedly falling loop.
Jumping across the sentences being written on the page to splashes of colour causes drawings or small notes to appear giving further texture to the information. Certain words can be moved with the cursor (which resembles a firefly) to carry out that function on the sketches in the book. For example, a pair of doors are sketched in a closed position until the word ‘OPEN’ is dragged onto them. There are several things to do in the style of a simple puzzle within the journal such as washing up, burning bad homework and jumping across piles of stones which make this a multi layered storytelling experience.
The style of watercolour artwork really comes to the fore within the pages of the journal. Used to explain bioluminescence by having the sea ebbing back and forth across the page it looks simply stunning. A gorgeous painting of a forest gave a clear nod to Ori and the Blind Forest and many other beautiful pieces of artwork just amaze from the pages.
The story being written by Izzy within the journal is based in the land of ‘Estoria’ and tells the tale of a girl who is hunting for the sacred fireflies from her village after they are scared away by a dragon. In a nice touch the fireflies are dead ringers for the one acting as the players cursor (that I mentioned earlier) and can be collected as you journey through the levels.
After choosing a name for the girl, dressing her in the appropriate colour scheme of your choice (I went for ‘Prince’ purple) and making decisions about her personality you set off to retrieve the fireflies and save your village.
Using ‘Word Magic’ allows you to solve puzzles and journey across the platforms that make up Estoria. Words appear at certain times in the gameplay and are added to your magic book to be used for a certain period of time. Using the word IGNORE was a novel way of getting past locked doors as was using BREAK to smash statues and turn them into bridges across chasms. The word BURN was particularly helpful to me in a dark tunnel section as it could be used to light torches or the very cool explosive Boom Shrooms. You get the gist of how other magic words such as REPAIR and RISE work in this context.
This story is very pleasant to work through but on another level is in fact a metaphor for what Izzy is actually going through in real life and is the way that she processes the new experiences and changing mental states that she is going through.
Meetings with various characters such as a grumpy Djinn in the desert, an extremely angry fire demon in a cave and others enable the girl in the story to learn how to deal with what these characters represent and how to move forward emotionally. For example, the djinn blocking the girls path represents the anger that Izzy feels about her gran having a stroke, while the black dog that later follows her every step in Estoria is actually the sense of guilt (a black dog of depression) that is overshadowing everything in her real life at that point.
Adult subjects are adeptly dealt with here under the guise of a fantasy story about a girl who likes nothing more than sliding down slopes and climbing things. At one point a beloved character has to be sacrificed in order for the girl to move on to the next area and it left me feeling as if I had genuinely lost a friend. Clever lessons about life, loss and coming to terms with things are being imparted to anyone choosing to play this game but they are not overbearing. You could choose to play the game completely on face value and let the deeper stuff go straight over your head but as a resource for a child that is going through the illness or loss of a grandparent for the first time this game could prove to be an extremely useful tool.
The game moves back and forth between both game modes and as Izzy continues to face new issues and events in real life, we work them out in the world of Estoria. I found a few parallels between this game and another platforming game that I really enjoyed called Gris. The Izzy avatar that jumps across the journal sections is remarkably similar in design style to that of Gris in general and both games deal with the journey from the depths of depression to the brighter skies of good mental health.
During my playthrough I was genuinely surprised by the strength of the emotional responses that the game was able to draw out of me. If you have lost family members or friends the subjects covered here can bring back memories that not only bring a smile to your face but can also be painful reminders of what you no longer have.
Don’t get the wrong impression though, there is a great deal of fun on display here as well, such as when we discover from the journal that not only is Gran a gamer but she is also a big Star Wars fan. She even appears in a watercolour reproduction of Darth Gran in Izzy’s imagination when she is wearing an oxygen mask. Izzy also flies a spaceship across the pages at one point which was certainly an amusing touch.
The end titles are probably the best ones I have ever seen as they continue in the fashion of the journal entries. I had an enjoyable time jumping down them trying to hit all of the stars to uncover the pictures. An achievement is available for watching the end credits so for the first time ever it is actually fun to sit and watch them scroll past as you can do something on screen at the same time.
In conclusion, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a vastly different example of an adventure platformer. It can be played on both a superficial or a deeper meaning level and has a design aesthetic to marvel at. Although not the most complicated or difficult game to complete it will stay in my memory for longer than many other games. It seems to me that this project fully deserved the shout out from Mr Spencer.