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.