‘LOST WORDS’: A RESONANT EXPLORATION OF GRIEF AND LOSS
The journal on-screen lies open, blank pages waiting for words to appear. Small blotches appear on the paper as the young girl, Izzy, begins to write. Her world is about to change in a profound way. What started as a cheery imaginative story is about to take a dark turn, with me along for the ride.
This is Lost Words: Beyond the Page, a game that went from “small indie title I’m unfamiliar with” to “one of the most important games I’ve ever played”. It’s strange to be saying that about a four hour-long indie title, but then again it’s not many titles that bring me to uncontrollable tears.
Lost Words follows Izzy’s journey through distinct two parts: A journal chronicling her real life happenings and an adventure through a world of her own invention called Estoria. What happens in Izzy’s life informs what goes on in Estoria, the two undeniably linked. The heroine of Izzy’s story is tasked with retrieving Fireflies, small beings of ancient power, after her village is attacked by a massive dragon. Meanwhile, real-world Izzy’s journal focuses on her grandmother, Gran, and their endearing and enduring relationship.
Considering the “dark turn” I mentioned in the introduction, you can probably guess where this is going. Gran suffers a medical episode, resulting in, well, the end, and young Izzy’s feelings are portrayed in the words she pens in her journal. Those words are then reflected in Estoria, where the once vibrant and lush worlds are replaced with barren deserts, frozen tundras and the depths of darkness.
This is a laser-focused and heart-rending examination of grief and loss, portraying Izzy’s internal struggle with a clarity I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in any media. Incredulity, anger, grief, doubt, it’s all here and all very depressingly real.
I would know: I lost my own grandmother to the exact same medical issue in 2015. Witnessing Izzy’s journal entries in those moments leading up to, and especially directly after, the turning point shook me to my core, reopening a wound I’d thought had since healed. Just as Izzy’s tears blotted her journal pages, my own tears came on so fast the ones I couldn’t catch splashed onto my Xbox controller. As the game relates, Izzy — and, by proxy, myself — will always feel a little bit sad, but the memories last forever.
What I respect most about this game is not just its intense exploration of grief and loss, but that it does so through the five stages of grief model, conceived and created by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book Of Death and Dying: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Starting with the third of the game’s eight chapters, Izzy’s story in Estoria deals with one of these stages.
Chapter 3 features a powerful guardian who hides the fate of his homeland, expelling any intruders. Upon finding out what happened, it’s learned he is in denial. Chapter 4 centers around a giantess made of fire lashing out at the world, screaming and pounding the ground causing rocks to fall from the ceiling. She is anger incarnate. Chapter 5 sees the heroine trade valuable items both physical and mental in order to pursue the dragon further. She is bargaining in order to progress. Chapter 6 finds the heroine feeling remorse and guilt for the bargain made in Chapter 6, falling deeper inward and ignoring the world around her. She enters a state of depression.
That depression lasts for a good while, until finally she is able to find her acceptance. I won’t go into details here, the story told deserves to be experienced firsthand, but the thought process behind it is incredibly clear.
What began as a dive into a simple platformer turned into one of the most important and resonant gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Lost Words: Beyond the Page tackles the heaviest of topics with grace and dignity, chronicling the journey of grief from beginning to end. This is a game that, I would argue, could be used as a coping tool for those who have lost a loved one, to show those in grief that they are not alone and that there is a light in the darkness — even when those who needed to be told thought that the grief of loss was already behind them.
Photo courtesy of Sketchbook Games / Fourth State