Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a multi award winning game, born out of a collaboration between Sketchbook Games and Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett.
Through its tale of a young girl dealing with the death of her grandmother, the game explores themes of love, loss and creativity – all wrapped up in a unique mechanic that underlines the power of words, and of storytelling.
The game is a narrative experience in a very literal sense: Taking place in the page of protagonist Izzy’s journal, as the player is tasked with using the story’s words themselves to navigate through the game’s world. Izzy’s writing can be used simply as a platform, or as a magic spell to change the world around you. In the story Izzy writes as her grandmother falls ill and passes away, her words can be dragged across the page – drag ‘up’ out of a sentence to lift something, or ‘repair’ to rebuild a broken bridge below you.
It’s this mingling of narrative and game mechanics that first drew MCV’s attention back at gamescom 2017, where we awarded it the winner of the UK Game of the Show award, organised by Ukie. The then-unpublished title has come on leaps and bounds since – after attracting a publisher in Modus Games in part thanks to the attention.
So we sat down with Rhianna Pratchett and Sketchbook Games founder Mark Backler to find out more about the game’s journey.
The very earliest origins of the game took form at the Ludum Dare Game Jam, though it was a decidedly different experience in those early days.
“Originally, the idea for the game at the game jam was was kind of inspired by Tetris,” Backler begins, “there was gonna be words dropping down the screen to make up a quote, and you had to arrange them in ascending order, so that you can jump up to them with your character and get to a goal at the top right corner of the screen.
“But then as I was making it in Game Maker, when I ran the game to test it, the sentence in the middle of the screen didn’t have any physics on yet. But I did have physics on the character. So the character dropped down and landed on the text that was just hanging there. And I thought, hey, that’s really cool, that’s much better than my original idea! So I decided to go with that instead.”
The platforming elements of the game may have been sparked to life, but the story’s narrative, and its moral lesson around dealing with loss, came with Pratchett’s involvement in the project.
“Initially, Mark was thinking about maybe having it be about divorce and the effect that has on children, using that as what Izzy was going through in the real world, and how that manifested in the fantasy world,” said Pratchett.
“And I said, how about loss? It’s more universal than divorce, we’re all going to go through it at some point. And going through it as a kid is quite pertinent because it’s when you realise that people are mortal, and you’re going to lose people and the world is not fair. It’s a challenging moment, when you lose people young, and it can have a lot of long term effects.
“I’ve personally been through a lot of loss over the last decade – all my grandparents, my father – and I had a lot to say about the journey of loss and to kind of communicate what it feels like to be on that journey. And I think that is something that the game does very well, and we utilised everything to underpin the narrative and the themes of the stages of grief. We used things like the mechanics, the art, the music, the colours, as well as the narrative to underpin the story and the tone, it wasn’t just about the script, it was about everything coming together to communicate the narrative.
“I think the most challenging thing, and this is often a challenging thing, was making sure that things that work mechanically also worked out narratively, and finding that sweet spot, because you might find a mechanic that’s gonna work well, but it’s really difficult to shoehorn in the narrative, or you’ve got a perfect bit of narrative but you can’t think of a mechanic to go with it.”
As Pratchett says, the narrative and mechanics of Lost Words are tightly intertwined: with the words literally being a game mechanic. It works beautifully in practice, but it’s hard not to wonder if it was a challenge to implement.
“That was probably the biggest challenge that we hadn’t completely anticipated,” Pratchett notes. “Every time I wrote a level or a sequence, I’d have to think about ‘OK this word could maybe be used for something, or maybe we could have some doodles on this page, and they do this…
“One of our artists sent me something which was really helpful, something that I recommend people do on every project. She sent me a list of questions about the character. Everything from favourite colours, least favourite food, to favourite animals, to what she likes to wear – things like that. That was really great for getting me to think about the character as an exercise, but also to do the diary pages in a way that fitted the character. Right down to the doodles, you can see little elements of the world. In her room, around the edges of the diary, or sometimes the little drawings and backdrops. And that was influenced by things like Time Bandits, especially in the way that you can see all the things that come to life in Kevin’s room at the start of the movie.”
That depth of characterisation, and the link between the mechanics and the narrative, all tie together to reinforce the game’s central mission. Both Backler and Pratchett wanted to create a game that imparted a moral lesson, one that could improve people’s lives.
“I really wanted the game to be something that could have a positive impact on people’s lives,” says Backler.
“I thought something to help support kids would be a nice way to make a difference. With loss you’ve got something so emotionally powerful, but it can also help inform people and help them have conversations about loss with their children. And it might help prepare people for that.
“I think it’s important to try and do that as much as possible. And so with our future games, we’re looking for a similar sort of thing. We love making narrative experiences, and we really want to make things that can help in a certain area, to convey a message or make a difference to people’s lives.”
And as Pratchett explains, video games are uniquely placed to be able to make these changes to people’s lives
“The reason I wanted to explore loss in a game was because of the way we develop connections within games, which I think is very unique.
“I was listening to Austin Wintory talking about Journey at the Animex gaming festival, and he was talking about how a fan had got in touch with him. It was someone who wasn’t able to say goodbye to their father when they died, and they found that by playing Journey with a mysterious stranger, they could kind of imagine it with their father. It was a kind of bonding, saying goodbye experience. Well, I was in floods of tears, and it made me realise the emotional connection we get from games, the fact that you’re part of it, that you’re driving the story.
“So I wanted to explore loss more openly in that way. The game is about loss, but it’s also how we process loss and how we use fantasy worlds, not necessarily as escapism, but as a way of dealing with and examining reality. As a way of thinking about what we’re going through. It’s important to look at how loss is a journey, it’s not an easy one, but everyone’s going to go through it at some point.
“You don’t really lose people, you just take them into a place inside you,” Prachett continues. “I was talking on Twitter about how I find my dad in games like, especially wilderness survival games, because he used to love wilderness survival. Even though we never played them together, that’s when I hear him in my head, when I’m playing like the Long Dark or something like that. So I think games are really great for those kinds of connections.
“And we’ve certainly heard back from a lot of fans, about how it’s sort of helping with grief that they’ve been experiencing in the real world. We didn’t really set out for it to be a therapy tool, it’s just been an extra bonus. If you can affect people in the real world positively and help them, I think that’s just wonderful.”
And the game certainly does seem to have helped people, as Backler and Pratchett relate:
“We’ve had some really moving fan feedback about the game,” says Backler. “It’s been really emotional to read some of that. One journalist was saying that he was going to the park with his daughter after playing the game. She was in the back of the car, and he heard her putting on a British accent and saying “Dear Journal, we’re going to the park today…” That was cool to hear.
“We’ve had lots of parents saying that they’re very thankful to the game encouraging children to read as well, it wasn’t really something we set out to do, but it’s a positive bonus from it. And yeah, like Rhianna said, it’s wonderful to hear that it is helping people with their grief in some way.”
“I also had an interaction with a grandmother who was playing with her granddaughter,” adds Pratchett. “And this grandmother was raising her granddaughter, and she said “we’re playing Lost Words at the moment and my granddaughter is very worried about the grandma….” There was a part of me going ‘no, no! Stop!’ But I said, ‘it’s gonna get difficult, she’s probably going to have a lot of questions. Let me know how it goes’.
“The grandmother and granddaughter sounded like wonderful, very well adjusted and thoughtful and empathic people. The grandmother got back to me, saying how they played together and how it inspired lots of questions and them talking about loss and death, what happens and things like that. So it worked out well, in the end.
“We’ve had lots of stories like that. And lots of stories of parents using it, and it becoming a conversation piece about loss and death and kind of processing that and being on that journey. And that’s been wonderful.”
And Lost Words will be able to enable even more of these conversations as it rolls out onto more platforms, following its initial launch as a Stadia exclusive.
When we first spoke to Backler, he revealed the team’s plans to bring the game to mobile. Backler says the team is still looking out for the “right partner” to bring the game to an even wider audience on mobile platforms.
So, if there’s any mobile publishers out there, we’d love the bragging rights of influencing this wonderful game’s journey once again.