Lost Words: Beyond the Page

Lost Words: Beyond the Page

Written by Eric Hauter on 3/30/2020 for STA  
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I’m not sure what I expected from Sketchbook Games' Lost Words: Beyond the Page, but it sure wasn’t what I got. In a recent post on the Stadia Community Blog, Lost Words’ creative director Mark Backler described the game like this: “[Lost Words is] a moving story about a young girl named Izzy struggling to face the reality of her grandma’s illness. Escaping to the fantasy world of Estoria within her diary, players use words themselves to solve challenging puzzles and make decisions that shape the story.”

Backler’s description is accurate, but it isn’t complete. Lost Words goes to some unexpected places, and in doing so, elevates itself beyond what that surface-level description might imply. There is an emotional weight to this seemingly light game that surprised me. I just wasn’t ready for this little puzzle-platformer to make me all teary-eyed. I mean, I know Backler said “moving,” but I didn’t give that much credence. He meant what he said, friends. Lost Words: Beyond the Page is moving.

Lost Words: Beyond the Page allows players insight into the mind of its protagonist, Izzy, through the pages of her journal. Izzy’s age isn’t explicitly stated, but I would guess that she is around 12 or 13 years old. Izzy is old enough to make bright observations about the world around her, without having the life experiences to contextualize events when life inevitably goes off the rails.

Izzy’s journal pages are at first full of loving depictions of her family life, centering mostly on her much-adored grandmother. Lost Words pops liberally back and forth between Izzy’s journal entries and a fantasy story she is writing. In the story, the protagonist Grace (also a young lady about Izzy’s age) has recently inherited the magical ability to manipulate the world around her through the use of her magical word book. This ability gives her great power, but also great responsibility, as the person to wield this book is expected to defend the town and the people within.

Much like Izzy’s journal, the Grace storyline is light and enjoyable at first, with Grace reveling in her new abilities while jumping around the forest and generally having a good time. But when Izzy’s grandmother suddenly takes ill and is hospitalized, the Grace storyline takes a corresponding dark turn. A dragon appears and devastates Grace’s home village, sending her on a quest to find the dragon and recover the magic fireflies that the village relies on for…things. The story is written by a kid. It’s allowed to have a little fuzziness around the edges.

I don’t want to say much more about the story, but I will say that both Izzy and Grace are eventually put through the wringer, facing emotional trials that the opening moments of the game do not hint at. I was initially playing this game with my seven- and three-year-old in the room, but when the three-year-old peeled off, I was happy to continue without him. Some stuff happens in this game that I wasn’t prepared to discuss with him on a rainy Saturday. The seven-year-old was all in, but the three-year-old was much better served by sitting in the other room with Pete the Cat.

That’s not to say that this is or isn’t a kids’ game. I would more qualify it as “all audiences, with guidance.” My daughter found it fascinating, but some rather mature themes are at the forefront of Lost Words. Both Izzy and Grace have to overcome self-doubt, guilt (real, though perhaps misplaced), and the inevitable changes that life brings. Through these experiences they learn self-reliance, perseverance, and gain a newfound sense of confidence. And yes, all of this takes place in about four or five hours, in this little indie puzzle-platformer.

Mechanically, Lost Words is…easy. Smooth like butter. Nothing to it. That’s not to say that the game isn’t well designed. It just doesn’t pose much of a challenge. Experienced gamers ought to be able to whip through Lost Words without a moment’s hesitation. The puzzles will likely not challenge you, and the platforming is light. It all goes down so easily that it soon became clear that—by design—an inexperienced gamer could pick this up and make it through. There is an accessibility to Lost Words that might make it seem like a bit of a pushover for experienced gamers, but the narrative is really the point here. The mechanics are a means to an end.

The journal sections of the game behave differently mechanically than the fantasy sections. It is all extremely clever. As Izzy dictates to her journal (“Hello, Journal!”), the words appear on the page—certain phrases and passages highlighted. A small character is on the page, able to jump around on the blocks of text. By guiding the little Izzy-character to the highlighted words, you trigger the dictation to continue. Some platforming is required, and occasionally some light puzzle solving is needed (dragging words around to cause actions; putting pieces of a puzzle in order), but its nothing that should pose much of a challenge. It is, however, very charming. I may dare to even call it delightful.

The Grace sections are somewhat different. Grace inhabits a storybook world, full of color and life. The art in the Grace portions of the game is stunning at times, hand-drawn and absolutely gorgeous. As Grace marches forward on her mission, the text that describes her actions, feelings, and motivations appears in the landscape. The effect is very much like a storybook come to life, and like the Izzy/Journal portions of Lost Words, the Grace portions are entrancing.

Grace has a book of words (usually around three, never more than six—they tend to come and go) that she can draw on at any time to solve environmental puzzles. “Break” will knock down rocks that are in her way. “Repair” will repair bridges that have been washed away. “Ignore” will let Grace march right through gates that are blocking her path. Controls to manage which word Grace is using, and where she wants to apply it, are all very smooth and intuitive. This is a game that simply oozes polish.

Though I found it entrancing, Lost Word: Beyond the Page probably isn’t a game for everyone. First-person shooter fans, for example, probably won’t get much out of this one, and impatient players might want to look elsewhere. Izzy gets a little long-winded at times, and some of the story sections creep by at an almost glacial pace.

But for me and my seven-year-old daughter, Lost Words: Beyond the Page was a remarkable way to spend an afternoon. She absolutely enjoyed the puzzles and mechanics—is was the first time she had seen anything like this. I think she must have recently learned the word “clever,” because she kept saying it over and over again while discussing Lost Words. A beautiful, intelligent game featuring a bright and inquisitive female protagonist learning life lessons about perseverance and overcoming regrets? Yes, please. More of this.

I was greatly heartened when my family piled into the car to go for a walk at a local park this afternoon. I heard my daughter shuffling around with something in the back seat. I glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw that she had brought with her a small journal and a pen. Then, in a tiny voice (with her best British accent), she said, “Hello, Journal! Today my family is going to the park. We aren’t allowed to go anywhere else right now, and we can’t play on the playground, but its still nice to go.” And so on.

Well done, Sketchbook Games. Well done indeed.

Sketchbook Games' narrative platform/puzzler is appropriate for all ages, but that doesn't stop it from going to some surprisingly dark places. Though the platforming and light puzzle solving are enjoyable (if none too challenging), the story and artwork are the stars of the show. Impatient players might want to stay away, but for those interested in a life affirming story about overcoming obstacles and learning to deal with regrets, Lost Words is a beautiful experience.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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