Lost Words: Narrative Engagement and the Difference of Video Games

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you haven’t heard of Lost Words: Beyond the Page. It certainly wasn’t a game that was on my radar much at all, and I pay attention to quirk, narrative based puzzle platform games like this one. I also regularly watch various videos and read magazines, which generally keeps me on top of things. Yet I still found out about this game through a SwitchWatch vid that talked about games on sale for the week.

Lost Words tells the story of Izzy, an imaginative young girl who receives a diary from her granmother (“gran”). We learn rather quickly that Izzy wants to be a writer, as she starts literally writing out the story on the page before us. In a pretty brilliant move, the game designers have you literally following Izzy’s words as they appear across the page. They zig-zag to form platforms, which your avatar follows through a series of slight puzzles. Mix in the fact that Izzy is an artist, and things get creative fast.

the results are sometimes spectacular: this image gets flipped and you have to fall to manage it

Izzy’s journey as a writer also unfolds in a double-narrative. This creative story reads both as an engaging fantasy piece, and a little like therapy for Izzy. The girl’s age is never revealed, but she comes off as being preteen, maybe in her lower teens at most (there’s too much intelligence in the writing and maturity in her presentation to be much younger, but at the same time, she clearly has a child’s imagination). Here, the player gets to choose Izzy’s heroine’s name (Robyn is the default; I think it’s possible that others can be selected), what she wears, and what color her most special possession is. The game then shifts so we literally play inside Robyn’s story, which plays out like a more traditional puzzle platformer.

Estoria is both a very creative and yet childish name that I love; it’s pronounced “eh-story-ah”

It doesn’t hurt that Izzy narrates the majority of both stories, and that the same voice actress plays both Izzy and Robyn. The two stories unfold and come to mirror one another in a highly engaging way. I did find myself not quite as engaged in the Estoria based gameplay, because I didn’t find it quite as creative, but it was still highly engaging. Toward the end of the game, the puzzles get just the right level of difficult too, as you combine various words and powers.

Of course, there has to be a twist, as just discovering a young girl’s first real story wouldn’t quite be enough. The game soft-telegraphs it too, as it’s obvious that Izzy cares a great deal for “Gran.” It also doesn’t hurt that the game advertises itself as being a story of loss and grief, which unfortunately kind of spoils things out the gate. Sure, any adult playing this game can probably figure it out, but the game does make you wonder from time to time.

It’s the way the game engages with this story as it unfolds that gets me. Video games themselves are highly interactive media. I’ve seen it said before that this is the major component that separates them from other types of mass produced stuff that we engage with. In a game, you control the character and by extension have a direct, tangible impact on the world and narrative. We see this unfolding via narrative choice or just by acting out the story as its being told.

Lost Words follows along this sort of trend, but does so by literally having you engage the story. You have to follow the words as they unfold across the page, or as they guide Robyn through her adventure. There’s a pull to finish the narrative and by extension the game simply because that’s the way it’s structured and how things work. I became so utterly immersed in the game that the world fell away from me. I was not a guy who writes reviews like this, a scholar or whatnot, I was Izzy, the girl who had just lost her mum. Or at least I was a guiding fairy who follows along her journey.

you literally have to keep jumping on Izzy’s doubts as they start piling up, in order to stay in the narrative

The game continually pulls little tricks to drag you in and keep you engaged. It’s highly rewarding, and it speaks to the quality of the narrative (written by Rhianna Pratchett, which they emphasize a lot; I had to look her up: she is Terry Pratchett’s daughter and it’s implied part of this story is her own expression of grief over losing her dad). It also speaks to how video games work. Here we become immersed, we become part of the story because Lost Words uses words and story at its forefront.

it doesn’t hurt that the story is real and there’s enough dashes of humor along the way

This engagement makes us feel the story more, draws us in, and shows us the power of what video games and narrative can be all about. I admit that I’m a big fan of stories in general, in case the various reviews and the like weren’t clue enough. For me, that’s the biggest selling point of most games (I like the exploration in Metroidvanias, but that’s just story-telling through gameplay elements). Lost Words in many ways is a direct testimony to that and the power it can hold. I was sucked in, and enjoyed every moment of my 4 and a half some hours of playtime, even if it wasn’t the most emotional experience I’ve had.

Yes, the game itself is a bit flawed. Some of the mechanics don’t quite work, the puzzles sometimes get a little overdone toward the end, and there were frustrating moments for me (I once jumped left instead of right and had to redo a lengthy cutscene because of where the game decided to auto-save me). It’s by no means a perfect game, and I don’t feel like its absolutely brilliant story can provide quite enough tilt.

But it is a brilliant testament to how narrative in games work, to the importance of writing and words in both this medium and in general, and, well, it’s one I’d highly recommend (particularly on sale, when it’s in the $7 range).

9 maybe 8; for that brilliant story, but honestly this is more about the importance of narrative anyway

ending reflective

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