Grief is a strange thing. It’s horrible, but also beautiful, in its way. It’s fundamentally human, but also feels so alien when you’re in the midst of it. It’s both deeply personal and universal, a path that everyone has to walk eventually but that nobody can really lead the way along. Lost Words: Beyond the Page is the poignant story of a young writer’s journey along that path, one where words are her way of navigating the darkness and making sense of a world turned upside down by the loss of a loved one.
It starts with a journal. It’s here that Izzy, puts all her thoughts and feelings to words: how close she is with her Gran and the fond memories they share; her confusion about what this “stroke” business her parents keep talking about, her fear at seeing Gran in the hospital, her anger, her frustration, her desperation for things to get better. For Izzy (and by extension, the player), writing is a way of navigating those feelings, quite literally: with a little hand-drawn avatar, we run across the pages, jumping from word to word, new word platforms appearing as each thought flows into the next.
Where and how those words appear, and the ways in which players engage with them, reflect Izzy’s headspace. The chaotic swirl of emotions that comes with getting terrible news that you can’t fully process comes through in disjointed, fragmented sentences scattered about the page.
When Izzy’s trying to find the right word to complete a thought, you’ll hop around the page, landing on different options until you get to one that fits. There are moments when words fade away from beneath sketch-Izzy’s feet, dropping you unexpectedly into the void below—a potent interactive metaphor for the way grief and depression can rob you of motivation and the ability to pin down what’s going through your head. Sometimes you’ll have to fill in blanks using scraps of paper, as Izzy tries to put her thoughts in order. Other times, sketches and doodles become part of the game, as extra platforms to make use of or as objects to interact with—because sometimes, there just aren’t any words that will suffice.
Through all these little details, Lost Words: Beyond the Page creates little puzzles as a way of engaging players in everything that Izzy pours into her journal, though it’s worth keeping in mind that their purpose isn’t to challenge or to create obstacles to overcome. It’s to convey her emotions and thought processes in a way that’s tangible and meaningful; through its puzzle design, Lost Words lets players experience what Izzy is going through in a way that words alone never could.
Writing is Izzy’s way of processing and coping, not just through her journal, but through a story that she writes—and that players play through—over the course of the game. Taking place in the fantasy world of Estoria, it sees a young girl setting off in pursuit of a dragon that’s stolen the fireflies she’d meant to protect.
Here, Lost Words eschews the sketchbook aesthetic of its journal sections for a fully realised, colourful world and more familiar platforming adventure. Grace (or whichever of a couple of different name options you choose) travels across deserts, through volcanos, even to the bottom of the sea in search of her beloved fireflies, armed with a book of magic words she can use to manipulate the environment around her.
Grace’s journey is, very overtly and deliberately, a metaphor for the grief that Izzy’s going through. Each new place Grace finds herself in represents a stage of the grieving process, from the fiery lava pits of an angry volcano to some old ruins where progress depends on bargaining with a pair of old merchants. Lost Words is far from the first game to use stages of grief to inform its level design, but it’s set apart by the framing: Grace’s journey through Estoria may be a familiar, even simplistic, metaphor for grief, but Lost Words is about the formation of that story in Izzy’s mind as much as it is about the metaphor itself.
In the shifts between Journal sequences to Estoria, Lost Words puts its emphasis on how cathartic writing is for Izzy, and how her real-experiences feed into the story she’s writing. It shows her roadblocks, her stumbles, her moments where it’s all just too much and she can’t write a thing. There’s a deliberate juxtaposition of writing styles between when Izzy is pouring her own thoughts into a journal and when she’s narrating a grandiose fantasy adventure. The fact that words are Grace’s magic power is an important one.
Estoria isn’t just a metaphor for grief in the abstract, but Izzy’s own interpretation of that; her escape into an imaginary world that helps her make sense of the real one. This isn’t a game about Estoria’s sometimes simplistic analogies; it’s about the complex, messy creative process behind it. In that, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a moving, personal, original approach to a common theme.
The writing itself plays a big role, of course. The script is beautifully written, capturing a full spectrum of emotions in ways that are evocative and imaginative, moving seamlessly between the playful energy of a young kid writing her first fantasy story and the solemnity of that same kid facing up to her own grief. Likewise, the world of Estoria is a vibrant, gorgeous fantasy landscape, in contrast to the messy scribbles of a hand-written journal—both beautiful, but in very different ways. There are some minor annoyances with a control scheme that’s a little bit fiddly, and the lack of touchscreen support for aspects of the game where that would be far more intuitive than analogue sticks and buttons, but that’s far from enough to detract from the mesmerising experience that Lost Words creates.
Grief is a familiar theme in art, but in being both so universal and so personal, it’s something that will always resonate. Lost Words: Beyond the Page is an poignant, original approach to a common idea—both an abstract metaphor for grief in its fantasy world and a moving exploration of the creative catharsis behind it. Most of all, it’s a game about the power of words to make sense of a world turned upside town, and to cherish forever the memories of those we’ve lost.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page is developed by Sketchbook Games and Fourth State, and published by Modus Games. It launches 6 April 2021 for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and is already available on Google Stadia.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.