Lost Words: Beyond the Page, the debut game from Sketchbook Games, with a narrative by Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge), dives into the power of words, sparking a story about the interrelated relationships between words, creativity, and a young writer’s coming of age.
The game follows a young girl named Izzy, her journal, and the fantasy world she creates on its pages. Lost Words explores the special relationship she has with her grandmother and her own budding interest in becoming a writer. It is a 2D puzzle platformer: Half the game takes place within the pages of Izzy’s journal, the other half in Estoria, the fantasy world she’s created. Though the environment changes depending on whether I play in the “real world” or Estoria — lined pages and doodles for the journal, a lush fantasy world for the latter — I still move along with keyboard and use the mouse to interact.
Lost Words opens with an introduction to Izzy and her new journal. Immediately, the voice of a bright, spirited little girl fills its pages. This is Izzy’s story, and she tells her journal about her life, her family, and — most importantly — about her grandmother. Her words scribble across the pages and I move her little sketched figure along.
The mechanics of Lost Words focus primarily on the power of words. In the real world — the journal — they are used as puzzle pieces and platforms. As Izzy, I move them around to progress across the pages. Passing certain doodles on the page unlocks little notes from Izzy about her family and her life. In one instance, to proceed to a new page, I drag the word “unlock” to a gate and it promptly opens.
These words directly reflect Izzy’s thought patterns. When she struggles to figure out what to write, ideas are scribbled and then scratched out. Once she decides on a genre, she still needs to figure out exactly what her story will be. More scribbles, more scratches — then the genesis of an idea.
The words on the page slowly transition into a beautiful watercolor landscape, and Izzy’s world of Estoria unfolds before me. Seeing a young writer generate her own self-indulgent fantasy world, I am reminded of my own childhood, of that moment where everything clicks and the ideas color the page.
Words continue to define Izzy’s story, and the gameplay. I can pick what Izzy’s main character’s name is, her favorite color, her personality — each of these things affects what happens in Estoria, from the aesthetic choices of the character’s cloak to the collectible items she comes across. There is a certain unabashed boldness to Izzy’s fantasy world, a kind of fearlessness in creativity that many young writers have, only to be crippled by self-doubt, insecurity, and society’s judgment as they grow older. But in her young age, Izzy is unafraid to be indulgent: Her main character is herself, she is a magical guardian, and the people of the land love her.
The game switches to Estoria, transporting me from the pages of the journal and Izzy’s little doodles into a lush fantasy world. Izzy’s words follow along, however, narrating the journey of her main character, the details of the world. I still pick certain words to guide the story along, like which gemstone to place in a new pendant, but words also take on a different, more literal power in Estoria.
In the fantasy world, words directly affect the environment. They are spells, written down in a spellbook entrusted to Izzy’s main character by the in-story equivalent of her grandmother. The first of these is the word “rise.” I drag it to a heavy rock, which raises into the air. Like certain words in the journal, they affect the environment; the difference, though, is that within Estoria they have more concrete power. To Izzy, this world is real and so the words affect it directly.
Lost Words illustrates this profoundly, beyond having the words as platforms, choices, and spells. Just the way the letters unfold across the screen, across the journal specifically, prompts a very visceral reaction in me.
When I return to the journal pages, Izzy learns that her beloved grandmother is in the hospital. The words shift and tilt, flipping upside down. Izzy’s words turn on her and she is unable to properly process what her grandmother’s stroke means. This revelation comes in just two pages at the end of a chapter, but somehow they convey emotions that almost make me tear up.
Even just a sentence across a page manages to evoke something deep. It is not just about the power of words, I realize, but about a young girl learning how to manipulate their power. Her grief is palpable in those two pages, but with her journal and with her fantasy world, with the words she writes across the pages, she will continue her story.
Words are powerful — and so are the young girls who know how to use them.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page is set for release in 2019 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC via Steam.