Interview: Uncovering Lost Words With Mark Backler

Lost Words: Beyond The Page has won a smorgasbord of awards during its development. It’s clear to see why, as this charming and atmospheric puzzle platformer has an innovative approach to storytelling. Taking place within the pages of a young girl’s journal, the words it holds provide both context and content to the game world. The words become a physical part of the environment that can be manipulated to allow the player to progress. For example, the word ‘extinguish’ can put out fires, whilst the word ‘rise’ can lift a platform to carry the player onwards and upwards.

It’s an ambitious project, and what is even more impressive is that it’s the first release from Sketchbook Games. Founded by Mark Backler, the team are an Avengers-like team up from a wide range of developmental talent. Mark himself has worked in the industry for ten years, honing his skills in a variety of companies, such as EA, Lionhead and Sony, before heading out to writing his own future. Mark is interested in the power of emotion in games and creating moving interactive experiences for players. So, it was with great interest that I sat down for a conversation with him, discussing conflict in videogames, watercolour imagery and wordplay.


TSA: First off, could you set the scene and tell us about the core concept of Lost Words: Beyond The Page?

Mark Backler: Lost Words is an atmospheric narrative game with a story written by Rhianna Pratchett. The game is set in the pages of a journal and sees players using words to solve puzzles based on their meaning, as well as using them to help shape the story.

The story itself is about a young girl called Izzy who is aspiring to be a writer and is being mentored by her gran. But when her gran gets ill, Izzy starts using the fantasy world of Estoria that she is writing about, as a means of coping with what’s going on in the real world. The game is split into eight chapters, with each one set half in the pages of the diary and half in her imagined world of Estoria.

TSA: In the game the written word can be used as a device to interact with the environment. Can you tell us a little more about how this mechanic works and where the idea originated from to use words in such a way?

Mark: Players can drag words around and use them as platforms inside the diary, or when they transition into Estoria, they can use them to affect the environment, for example by dragging the word ‘burn’ onto obstacles to set fire to them.

The concept actually originated from The Ludum Dare 26 game jam with the theme ‘minimalism’. I wanted to make a Tetris inspired game where you were dropping words instead of blocks and then had to jump your character up them to reach a goal. However, when I ran the game before having gravity on the words, the character dropped down onto a floating sentence which hung there in the middle of the screen and I found that much more interesting than my original idea!

The mechanics followed from that, with the different ways that the words might be used. The journal made sense because of the game’s use of words, then later the story evolved from that. I knew I wanted it to be a topic that could potentially help people overcome real world issues and originally it was about divorce from a child’s perspective, but it later evolved to be about loss.

TSA: It is as if these physicalized words become part of the architecture of the game world. Did you encounter any difficulties implementing any particular words? Where there any issues caused by words with multiple meanings?

We considered playing around with words with multiple meanings, but this actually makes the game pretty difficult to localise into other languages, so we have always tried to steer clear of wordplay that only works in English as we want the game to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. We haven’t had any words that have been especially tricky so far, but we still have a fair few more to implement so there’s still time!

TSA: The art style is delicate, painterly even, can you tell us a little bit more about what informed this choice and how it was realised?

Mark: It has evolved over the last couple of years of development and was informed by the journal setting. We were inspired by lots of watercolour imagery so we knew that was an aspect that we wanted to try and capture in the art style. Ex-King artist Lynne Liu did the beautiful journal art and ex-Lionhead artist Billy Wimblett did the atmospheric fantasy world art for the Estoria sections of the game.

TSA: Rhianna Pratchett has provided the story for this game. How did she come to be involved and what has her distinctive style brought to Lost Words?

Mark: I first met her at the Space Ape game jam which she was judging. Some friends and I were lucky enough to be picked as the winners and I kept in touch with her after that. She actually ended up coming on board really early on and is now one of the longest serving team members! She has brought a more emotionally powerful narrative to the game and has also helped with some design aspects of the game. The word book that allows players to carry words with them was her idea as well as a fan favourite puzzle from our show demo!

TSA: One of the remits of Sketchbook Games is to provide the player with ground-breaking emotional experiences. Whilst videogames offer far more varied themes, gameplay and experiences than even before in their history, most are still framed around conflict. How have you avoided this with Lost Words and what challenges have you had to overcome to achieve your intended goal?

Mark: I don’t think games are really games without some kind of conflict but it doesn’t need to be violent conflict. It can be the conflict of ‘what’s beyond that hill?’ or ‘how can I get that thing?’. We’re creating something different with Lost Words just because we choose to and there are more and more games these days that are forging paths other than by utilising violent conflict. You can see this in amazing games like What Remains of Edith Finch, Florence, Gone Home, Journey, Monument Valley and Firewatch. While I do play, and enjoy, violent games, I feel that they’re currently a bit over represented and I’m glad that we’re starting to see more variety in the types of games that people are choosing to create.

TSA: There’s a great many words within Lost Words but if you had to choose just one word to sum up the player experience when playing the game, what word would you choose?

Mark: That’s a hard one! Our aim is for it to be all about the narrative and emotional journey so I think I would have to go for ‘Moving’.

Many thanks to Mark Backler for his time. You can find out more about Lost Words here, as well as catching the team on Twitter and Facebook. Lost Words is being developed by Sketchbook Games and is due for release in Q2 2019.