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How a happy accident inspired narrative adventure Lost Words: Beyond the Page

"I accidentally ended up with a sentence stuck in the middle of the screen and the character just standing on it. When I saw that, it seemed really striking and unlike anything I'd seen before..."

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Lost Words: Beyond the Page is an adventure set in a young girl's diary, having players walk along the words, choosing what to write next to continue the story and solve its puzzles.

Mark Backler, Creative Director of the Excellence in Audio-nominated project, spoke with Gamasutra about the accidental event that inspired the game's design, the challenges that came from using words to solve puzzles, and why they wanted to explore loss with the game.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Lost Words: Beyond the Page?

I'm the creative director of Lost Words and founder of Sketchbook Games.

I started off at EA in 2006 working on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and then went to Lionhead Studios and worked on Fable 2 as a mission scripter. I have worked at a variety of studios since then, and founded Sketchbook Games in 2016.

How did you come up with the concept for Lost Words: Beyond the Page

It was through a Ludum Dare Game jam, and I was trying to make a game a bit like Tetris but using words instead of blocks and with a character running on them. I accidentally ended up with a sentence stuck in the middle of the screen and the character just standing on it. When I saw that, it seemed really striking and unlike anything I'd seen before (this was in 2013), so I decided to go with that instead and change the direction of the game idea!

What development tools were used to build your game?

We used Unity and a variety of other tools including Wwise, Photoshop, Jira, Maya and Max.

What inspired you to explore the power of words with a game? To turn writing into gameplay?

After that initial game jam, I really loved the concept, so I decided to keep working on it in my spare time. I knew I wanted to add a story as I'm a big fan of narrative games. Having the protagonist be aspiring to be a writer seemed to fit perfectly with the word-based concept, and setting the game inside a journal was another perfect match. When Rhianna Pratchett came on board as the game's writer, she brought her amazing experience of the writing process and also drew on her own life experiences, such as her close relationship with her Nan, which inspired various parts of the story like Gran dropping the yogurt at the supermarket! 

What thoughts went into designing the word-based gameplay, where words literally shape the world? What drew you to this representation of writing and creativity?

The representation of writing and creativity in the game evolved over time and was influenced by many different team members. We tried lots of different words and found that the best ones had an immediate and satisfying impact. Rhianna came up with the idea of having a 'word book' to contain them and allow you to grab them out at different points. We wanted to show the highs and lows of a creative journey, which apply to many more fields than writing alone. 

What challenges did you face in making words able to solve puzzles or navigate situations in so many different ways?

On some occasions, we implemented certain words, such as 'repair,' as the sole solution to puzzle, but in playtesting, we saw that some player's first choice was a different word from their word book, like 'rise'. As their choice also made sense, we had to go back and try to ensure that any word that fit also worked to try to avoid players ever using a word that made sense to them and seemed like it should work, but us not having facilitated that. 

What ideas went into crafting the game's two connected narratives? What drew you to use two stories for players to journey through?

I was originally inspired by the dual stories in The Watchmen and the way the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter and the main superhero narrative seem disparate at first, but then intertwined and related later, as well at the splitting of the fellowship in The Lord of The Rings and how you have these multiple story threads that then come together. I wanted to do something similar in a game, and also to surprise people and have a 'wow' factor after the first chapter in the journal when people might be starting to think they know what to expect from the game. 

What drew you to the game's distinct art style? What thoughts went into its design? What made it feel 'right' for the story you wished to tell?

We tried several different art styles and did lots of research and experimentation. Watercolour seemed like a perfect fit as it makes so much sense with the paper aesthetic of the journal and it's just a really beautiful art style. You want your game to look as great as possible to get people's attention, even if it's just from a small gif or single screenshot, which might be the only chance you get to win some players over!  

What feelings/thoughts were you hoping to evoke in your players with your work?

We wanted to create a moving and emotional story that could make people cry, but ultimately was uplifting and positive. We also wanted to deal with a real-world topic that had a potential to make a difference to people. When Rhino a became involved with the project, she suggested that loss was both universal and emotionally powerful, so that's what we focused the story around. We also worked with The Wellcome Trust and researchers at Cambridge University and former child psychologist, Caitlin Hitchcock, to make sure we covered the topic effectively and accurately.  

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