The last few years have been exceptionally difficult for me. In the span of two years, I’ve lived through the loss of not just my closest Aunt, but of my father as well. I’ve been at my wife’s side as she’s lost a grandfather and a grandmother. Loss is a reality of life that we must all endure and deal with. As an adult, it’s relatively easy to reconcile this morbid inevitability and finality of life, but how do these tragic events impact the minds of our children? How does a young and impressionable mind deal with loss of someone they love so dearly? What goes on in the mind of a child as they internalize and come to grips with the pain brought on by the passing of a loved one? The developers at Sketchbook Games attempt to answer those very questions in their debut game, Lost Words: Beyond the Page.
Narrated by the protagonist of the game, Lost Words tells the story of Izzy, a child of undefined age, and her desire to be a writer. Presented through a series of interactive journal prompts and a side-scrolling platformer with light puzzle elements, Izzy begins writing a story about a girl in the make-believe land of Estoria, who, after a passing of the torch from the village elder, inherits the mantle of the “Firefly Guardian”. As she begins her journey as the villages new protectorate, Izzy soon learns that not all is well in the world, and she’s soon forced to deal with a new threat. What starts off as a heroic and grand adventure turns into a frantic rush to recapture the lost fireflies in a desperate effort fight off an evil dragon and save the world from total destruction.
Back in the real world, Izzy starts on her next journal entry. The events in her personal life begin to materialize in her writing, and after a tragic depiction of an ongoing struggle, Izzy’s story takes on the role of an allegory for how she deals with the fallout of a very real, and deeply painful loss in her personal life.
The game is played in two distinct styles; the first of which is the interactive journal, where players are given the opportunity to lightly customize their version of Izzy’s story. These are cosmetic and superficial decisions, but still work to give the story a more personal feeling. These decisions come in the form of multiple-choice answers to questions such as, what’s the name of Izzy’s heroine, what’s the color of her heroine’s dress, or who inhabited those ancient ruins she found in the desert? I went with Georgia, whose favorite color is purple, and the temple was built by philosophers. These choices, while ultimately trivial, gave me a real connection to the story, as I was able to see bits of my own daughter in the writing of Izzy’s story, including her favorite color, purple. Those connections effected how emotionally invested I became in the storytelling as it was being presented.
The other style of gameplay is the aforementioned light-puzzle platformer. As the “Fairy Guardian”, Izzy (or Georgia, in my case), obtains the power of the “word journal”, a powerful tool that lets your guardian interact with the world around her by using various words (spells) to affect the environment. Words like “rise”, repair”, “break”, and “burn” are used to lift up gates, repair broken bridges, shatter obstacles, and burn away debris or light the way as you make your way across Estoria.
It dawned on me, as I progressed through the campaign, the underlying message and theme of what I was experiencing. Izzy is, in a time of personal loss, living through the stages of grief, and each chapter sees her character progress from one phase into the next. As the story progresses through each chapter, swapping between Izzy’s journal narration and her personal story of Estoria, her emotions are felt and visualized in increasingly spectacular ways. In her journal, her penmanship begins to falter; the sentences that act as platforms for the on-screen character to navigate across become less stable, sometimes falling apart or disappearing as you make your way across. As Izzy expresses frustration or anger, she switches to a red pen, writing in large font across the pages.
In her fantasy world of Estoria, the colors become muted, or in some cases, entirely loss when Izzy hits a personal low point. Her anger and depression begin to take on physical manifestations that her storybook character must deal with or escape from. As the story nears it’s climax, about 3 hours into the 4 hour campaign, I found it harder and harder to play. Not because of anything wrong, but due to the very real emotional impact I felt for Izzy, I was beginning to feel emotionally drained
Thankfully, the presentation of Lost Words does much of the heavy lifting, and makes the game enjoyable and breathless to behold, regardless of the subject matter. This game is beautiful. The art style defines what it means for a game to be considered art. It’s a watercolor painting come to life. The interactive journal sections of the game, including the title menu and options menus, are literally watercolor paintings. Lost Words is one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played. The colors and the way they’re used to convey every emotion from happiness and joy to sadness and depression are remarkable. I found myself staring at the screen just to admire the beauty of it all on several occasions. Couple this with a score that inspires hope and joy through its player-driven crescendos and what you’re left with is a game that dares you to try and argue against the idea of video games as art.
If you asked to me to describe, in a single sentence, what the game is about, I would tell you that “Lost Words is the emotional tale of loss, as told through the eyes of a child.” The impact of the loss not only put me into tears, but, thanks to the options given when customizing my version of the story, presented parallels to my own life, causing the emotional punch to hit that much harder. I don’t recall the last time a game, or any form of art for that matter, made me weep so openly. Over the course of the roughly 4-hours I played the game, I had to set the controller down more than once to wipe away tears as they streamed down my cheeks. As a parent with two young daughters of my own, I was forced to stop and think about how they’ll eventually have to suffer through the same hurt and sadness as portrayed by Izzy. When that happens, how will they handle it? How does a child reconcile such an impactful loss? As a parent, how will I help guide them through those turbulent and difficult times? These are the questions that Lost Words will leave me with, long after the credits have rolled. If and when I am confronted with this certain inevitability, perhaps I’ll take a page from Izzy’s journal. Like the brave heroine of Estoria, I’ll tell my daughters, “You are not alone. You are loved. Be kind to yourself.”