Lost Words: Beyond the Page carries a weight of expectation it can probably never hope to live up to. Penned by Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett and positioned as a timed exclusive on Google’s Stadia platform, this is an indie narrative adventure that will engender a level of scrutiny beyond its humble production values. That said, this is still a tender, often-touching interactive story that brings some genuinely unique elements to the storytelling table.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page features two seemingly separate narratives – one set in the real world, and one set within the pages of a book. Both are the tale of Isabelle Cooke, one of her own life as written in her journal, the other of her fictional character set in the world of Estoria.
Of the two narratives, the real world journal is by far the more interesting, emotionally resonant and meaningful. The fully voiced narrative dictates the words as the central character writes them, with each word becoming a platform for a tiny girl to leap from. The platforming in this section does some really interesting things – leaping onto certain words adds other unspoken thoughts or feelings to the page, while you can lift some words straight out of sentences and reposition them to let you reach higher platforms.
The tale, which follows Isabelle and her family as they deal with her grandmother’s hospitalisation following a stroke, is tenderly told, with a strong, believable narrative voice. When the worst happens, it’s told with care, and the portrayal of grief, both for Isabelle and her parents, will resonate with anyone that’s lost someone close to them. Given what’s occurring in the world right now, there’s even more emotional heft to it.
The second tale that Lost Words: Beyond the Page wants to tell you is the one that Isabelle is trying to write. A fantasy yarn which pits you as a young girl called Grace – or a couple of other names if you prefer – sees you become the Guardian of the Fireflies, protector of your village, and keeper of a magic book of words.
These words have power in the world of Estoria and allow you to manipulate the world around you. You can take these words out of your book and use them, whether to Repair broken monuments, Rise through the water, or Break obstacles that stand in your way, with others coming and going through the adventure. It’s a unique mechanic, but Lost Words isn’t too interested in challenging you mechanically, with each ability a simple solution to traversing the world.
It’s a rare occasion where you’ll feel as though using them is a smart solution to a puzzle, and Lost Words: Beyond the Page comes closer than you’d expect to being a 2D walking simulator. It’s a shame, as despite the fantastical setting, these sections are often more tiresome than the events in the real world. The lack of any real challenge only emphasises that fact.
There’s a point where our fantasy heroine says, “The words felt hollow and meaningless”, and unfortunately that rings a little too true. It’s certainly clever – elements of the story reflect what the writer is experiencing in the real world, and when she’s struck with writer’s block, you find yourself replaying sections as she rewrites them – but it doesn’t make these portions feel any more essential.
The narrative voice is ultimately supposed to be that of a twelve-year-old, and at times the game’s desire to make the character as believable as possible causes the writing to feel unwieldy, amateurish and adolescent.
Whether it’s the depiction of the girl’s anger – an empty half-rage that doesn’t hold any real aggression – or the way she writes the child-like character Lump into her story, it feels like Sketchbook Games have been caught between trying to serve the character and the game. It’s the character that ultimately wins out, but at the cost of the game.
Overall, Isabelle’s tale feels particularly personal, and it’s clear that Rhianna Pratchett has put a lot of herself into it. Dealing with grief and the challenges of writing in the face of overwhelming emotional events rings utterly true, while the story of a young writer discovering her voice and battling through adversity brings hopefulness where there could have been misery. The greatest shame of Lost Words is that there isn’t enough game to hang on those narrative truths.
It does ask you to put some element of yourself into each tale, and besides the moments where you move words into the right position on the page you’re given some small level of control over the fantasy narrative, allowing you to choose your character’s name, how she dresses, and even what her defining characteristic is. It’s nice to have the feeling of agency over some elements of the story – the heroine is your heroine – and it does serve to make you feel more personally connected to her, even as your fingers and thumbs tapping away might not.
David Housden’s music helps to carry events where sometimes the gameplay cannot, and it’s beautifully orchestrated, stirring the emotions in a thoroughly effective way. It ties in with the voiced narration from Isabelle, which hits the mark, and really will make you care about her ordeal, or, at least, in the real world.