There’s a few experiences I can think of that are pretty universal but also hard to accurately describe or portray. Growing up, love, loss–big subjects that are easy to get wrong, but at the same time, exactly what art is for–to help us express those hard feelings and talk about those experiences when it’s hard to find the right words. This is the central concept around Lost Words: Beyond the Page, a narrative driven adventure game by Rhianna Pratchett that puts you in the shoes of a young aspiring writer who’s trying to learn about and come to grips with the world around her.
Rhianna Pratchett, of course, is the daughter of Terry Pratchett, beloved fantasy author and creator of elaborate worlds it’s easy to get lost in. In this case the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Rhianna’s carved her own career path as a writer first as a journalist, and later as an award winning video game writer, having contributed to the stories of such games as Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword and Tomb Raider.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page is something different and deeply personal. In it, you’ll play as Izzy, a young girl who lives with her mom, dad, grandma and brother and who very much wants to be a writer.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page is unique because, while it’s extremely narrative driven, its narrative inextricably linked to its mechanics. You get introduced to Izzy and her aspirations by way of her journal–but not in the standard cutscene sort of way. Instead, you’ll find yourself literally in the pages of this magical secret place of Izzy’s, page by page learning her dreams, fears, and thoughts by actually platforming from sentence to sentence and word to word . It’s a concept and a conceit that immediately grabbed me. From a young age, I journaled about everything, and Pratchett’s writing couldn’t be more spot on, down to the way Izzy addresses the journal as if it was a person she’s discussing her thoughts with.
You learn the gameplay as you learn about Izzy, jumping from page to page, unlocking secrets behind asterisks, opening up colorful illustrations and dragging words into place in certain parts to either make choices or complete thoughts. The mechanics are so well realized that they marry with Izzy’s moods and feelings–harder things to process mean longer jumps, or bigger falls. And though I thought the jumping was a little bit floaty, and the game didn’t run particularly well on Switch all the time, I loved this concept. If this was all that Lost Words: Beyond the Page was, I’d have been there for it from start to finish.
But soon enough, Izzy needs more. She wants to be a writer, and as her Gran always says, “No one ever got anything just by wanting it. You’ve got to try.” Before long, you’ll be making choices to assist Izzy in telling the story of her fantasy world, Estoria. You’ll choose a heroine–Grace, Georgia or Robyn, based on their inherent traits, as well as picking some of the themes and even equipment they’ll carry into the world. Then, you’ll find yourself dropped into that world, playing the story she’s writing.
At first, I felt almost disappointed that I was suddenly dropped into what seemed like a regular platformer but it’s not long before the mechanics from the diary show up in the world and make it unique. Estoria is a world with a surprisingly deep lore, and you’ll soon find that you’ve showed up just in time to be the Guardian of the little village you grew up in and the magical Fireflies who keep it safe no matter what. As you might guess, the up til now quiet, undisturbed village suddenly has a dragon on their hands, and one of the village elders, Ava, who bears a striking resemblance to your Gran, sends you out from the only place you’ve ever known to take it on.
In the fantasy realm of Estoria, aside from the story narration continuing to be a part of the scenery, you’ll find there’s also “word magic.” The power bestowed on you as the chosen one allows you to literally use words, by dragging them from a magic book, to perform certain herculean feats. Initially, you can only “rise,” which allows you to propel yourself and other things upwards, but eventually you can also repair and break, with a few other words that come and go depending on location or point in the narrative, like hope,silence, or burn. Puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but also not so simple that the actual gameplay in Estoria doesn’t feel well thought out.
There’s plenty of characters to meet and vastly different parts of this world you’ll need to uncover, with one major “boss” per area that usually has their own struggles and secrets to tell–not to be defeated so much as to be understood.
Meanwhile, every so often, you’ll be whisked away from Estoria to check back in with Izzy, as she’s struggling to write the story and going through some extremely hard circumstances herself. Where Lost Words: Beyond the Page really shines to me is in the connection between Estoria and Izzy’s life, and between your heroine and Izzy herself. While obviously intentional, it also feels organic and helps keep you immersed. And, just like the puzzles, though the twists and turns of the story might be somewhat on the nose or predictable, the execution is so perfect that you don’t find yourself taken out of it even if you do see what’s coming.
Visually, every bit of Lost Words is gorgeous, too. Izzy’s journal is pitch perfect, not just in Pratchett’s writing but down to its bubbly, rounded writing–so much like what I aspired to at Izzy’s age, and full of beautiful watercolor illustrations that often explode onto the page when you set foot on certain words, that introduce us to her family and set the scene. Similarly, each different area of Estoria is saturated in color and light.
It’s hard to really talk about Lost Words: Beyond the Page without spoiling its narrative which made this review challenging, since Lost Words: Beyond the Page is so very much narratively focused, but it’s worth it to let players have the experiences themselves. Izzy’s main struggle, echoed in the events unfolding in Estoria, is heart-rending, and what she’s dealing with is something which I actually went through myself not too long ago, but I think that the underlying theme is universal, and has been handled so very well by Pratchett that it’s impossible not to connect with. The pain that Izzy experiences is so well expressed, in fact, that it at times made Lost Words hard for me to play without a breather here and there, and in my eyes, that’s a huge achievement.
Art, after all, is about expressing things that go beyond words, and I think Lost Words: Beyond the Page has treated its characters, its story and its theme artfully. It’s immersive, affecting and not too simple or too obfuscated-and it’s honest. There are few games I can recall that have married their mechanics and gameplay so well with their narrative and made something so deeply affecting, and I will hold on to the experience I had with Lost Words: Beyond the Page for a long time.
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