LudoNarraCon 2020: Lost Words: Beyond the Page

If you’ve ever tuned into any of our GameBlast charity streams over the years, you’ll know just how bad I am at platformers. It’s not a genre I turn to regularly and when I do, my terrible reaction times mean it’s highly likely I won’t reach the end of the game.

It’s therefore a little strange that Lost Words: Beyond the Page caught my eye during last month’s LudoNarraCon. Although it’s being advertised as a ‘2D narrative adventure’, the screenshots available on the Steam page show platforming elements with the protagonist jumping across pillars and over holes. This initially put me off finding out more about the title – but then a detail caught my eye which made me try the demo for Sketchbook Game’s project myself.

You’ve probably heard of the name ‘Rhianna Pratchett’ already, whether that’s due to her involvement in the Tomb Raider series or through her author father. For me, I first came across her work when I played Overlord back in 2007. She won a ‘Best Videogame Script’ award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for her work on the title and it’s easy to see why: the plot first comes across as being all about dark humour and then reveals that it’s deeper than it first seems.

Lost Words features a story written by Pratchett and this drew me in despite my platforming reservations. It’s told from two different perspectives, the first being Isabelle’s journal entries (also known as Izzy). Her updates about what she has been up to feature the sort of things you’d expect from a young girl such as drinking tea with her mother and making jokes with her father; but underneath the lightheartedness, she knows her grandmother is in hospital after a stroke and you can feel her concern.

The other side of the plot takes place in a world created by Izzy and is the setting for a fantasy tale she’s writing for her gran. The apprentice heroine, who I decided to name Grace in my demo playthrough, is promoted to Guardian of the Fireflies when Elder Ava retires. It isn’t long before she’s called on to protect the land of Estoria after a dragon attacks the village and sets everything on fire. It’s up to Grace to venture out into the world, track down the dragon and bring the fireflies back home.

The gameplay is split into two perspectives also. Izzy’s sections take place within her journal and players guide an avatar across her written words to the exit tears on each page. You’re able to move certain phrases around to create platforms for her to jump on and standing on highlighted words can cause other paragraphs or images to appear. There were also a few choices to make in the demo including the Estoria heroine’s name, but the developer confirmed in their live broadcast that these are just for flavour.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, video game, Lost Words, Beyond the Page

There’s a lovely part where Izzy recalls a holiday in Wales with her grandmother when they went to the beach at night. At first the pages are a dark grey but reaching the triggering words causes watercolour waves to flow across them along with a very brief lesson on bioluminescence. It’s just the sort of experience that a young girl would look back on and remember with excitement, and the visual effects here perfectly captured the character’s feeling of wonder.

When the Lost Words transitions to Estoria, the gameplay takes on more of a standard platforming feel but there are still a few surprises. You’re given a book which holds all the magic phrases you’ve learnt and can use these to overcome obstacles. For example, once you know the word ‘rise’, you can use your firefly to move it over a series of stone columns to enable Grace to move higher as she stands on them. Later on, ‘repair’ helps you undo some of the damage caused to the village by the dragon.

As mentioned above, I’m not usually a fan of the platformer genre because my level of coordination often doesn’t meet the requirements. But I didn’t struggle with this game and there didn’t seem to be any penalties even when I failed. If you fall off words during Izzy’s sections, you simply reappear at the top of the page; and when you’re playing as Grace, missing a jump causes a tear to appear in the scene and you’ll fall through it back onto the last platform.

Following the storyline and gameplay, the artwork between the journal and Estoria is different. In the former everything is depicted in handwriting, line drawings and watercolours, and there’s a lovely part where pawprints appear after Pinky the cat walks across the page. In the latter, the style is more vibrant and what you’d expect from a platform release. Although it’s a 2D game, there’s a great sense of perspective and depth given by shadows and lighting.

The voice-acting is so good and possibly the highlight of the demo, although it’s tough to choose just one when you put it up against the artwork. I haven’t been able to find who plays Izzy but I think she deserves an award! You get the sense that the protagonist is a sweet, fun-loving girl and her excitement comes through in her voice as she recounts her days. And when she receives the sad news about her grandmother’s stroke, hearing the fear in her words is heartbreaking.

Lost Words truly surprised me. As mentioned above, I’m not really a fan of platformers and reading the description given on the Steam page gave me the impression that it would perhaps be a little too ‘cutesy’ for my tastes. But by the end of the demo, I was impressed: I get the feeling that this is going to be a very personal and heartwarming tale, with some big emotions coming that are going to feel like a punch straight to the gut.

It might not be the first game on my to-play list once it is released purely based on its genre, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Take a look at the official website for more information and keep an eye on Sketchbook Game’s Twitter feed for news on a PC release date.

LudoNarraCon 2020: a round-up

Although we’ve missed out on a few expos this year so far thanks to COVID-19, gaming events are continuing online. The spring edition of the Steam Game Festival took place in March with the next event scheduled for early June; and IGN are planning a Summer of Gaming too.

LudoNarraCon got there first though. Organised by indie label Fellow Traveller, the initial event took place in May last year and was hosted entirely on Steam. Forget lengthy queues and deafening noise (not to mention the sweaty bodies): here was a platform which celebrated innovative titles and replicated many of the benefits of a physical experience, but within a digital format. It was such a hit with fans of narrative video games that it made a welcome return and took place on 24-27 April 2020.

I was introduced to Whispers of a Machine after watching a broadcast by Clifftop Games and Faravid Interactive at the last event, and immediately bought the title so I could start playing it the following day. I also had the opportunity to play a demo for Neo Cab by Chance Agency and was sucked into its futuristic world of drivers-for-hire and emotional-tracking-devices; along with another for In Other Waters by Jump Over The Age, where you take on the role of the artificial intelligence (AI) rather than the controller.

LudoNarraCon, In Other Waters

That last game made a reappearance at this year’s LudoNarraCon and catching a session with the developer reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed the demo. I ended up purchasing it for myself and have been impressed so far. I love the way the controls are managed through experimentation and intuition, and the story is told through your scientific findings deep beneath the waves of an alien planet. I’m still playing it at the time of writing but there might just be a review coming in the near future.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, video game, Lost Words, Beyond the Page

Other games I tried for myself during the event were Lost Words: Beyond the Page and Ring of Fire. The former is being created by Sketchbook Games, a UK developer here in my very own Essex, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Platformers aren’t usually my thing and my first impression was it could perhaps be slightly too ‘cutesy’ for my tastes; but I was persuaded to play the demo after hearing that the story was written by Rhianna Pratchett and I really enjoyed it. More about this one coming on Wednesday.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, video game, Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire on the other hand was far grittier and I knew I was going to love it immediately. This detective mystery is the work of Far Few Giants and asks players to keep a pen and paper handy, because the clues given aren’t always obvious or repeated. The fact that some of the characters wore masks, and that most people in 2062 London did this and had a legitimate alter-ego, instantly made me feel as though everyone had something to hide. I can’t wait to become an investigator when the game is released and figure out their secrets – post coming on Friday.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, video game, The Flower Collectors

Although a demo wasn’t widely available, I spent some time watching a live broadcast by Mi’pu’mi Games about their recent release. The Flower Collectors is another detective title (they seem to be having a moment right now) but there’s something about the protagonist which makes the gameplay unique. His limited movement mean he’s only able to investigate crimes from apartment and balcony, and he must work together with another character to progress the case. You can find out more about this one on Thursday.

Perhaps my favourite title from LudoNarraCon this year was Beyond the Veil by Sun’s Shadow Studios. Thanks to a love of creepy stories (although I’m too scared to play scary games on my own) and a long-time desire to visit New Orleans, this text-based horror has earned its spot on my wishlist. Although much wasn’t given away in the live broadcast, the end of the alpha build made it clear that something bad was about to happen to the protagonist – and I’m looking forward to finding out what waits in store for her. Check out tomorrow’s post for more details.

LudoNarraCon is due to return once again in 2021 and you can join Fellow Traveller’s mailing list to stay informed. In the meantime, check out the gallery below to see some of the other games that were on display. Thank you to all the exhibitors for making it another great event!

LudoNarraCon 2020 photo gallery

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