With more spare time in my hands and a huge backlog of games that came out in 2021 that I want to play and include in my ‘end of the year’ lists, I’ve been playing a lot of games, but ever since I played Lost Words: Beyond the page, I’ve found myself pondering how to describe what I feel about it; then I played The Artful Escape and the title of this article came to mind. Lost Words is a game that I would have grown fond of five years ago, yet now I am so passive about it; it’s a cool indie game about grief with a beautiful art style, usually the kind of game I rave about on a yearly basis, but what was different about this one? Having played a GOTY contender in The Artful Escape right after, I think that the answer is a bittersweet one. Being a good game, managing to meet your targets and offer quality without any exceptional features, simply isn’t good enough anymore – not just because there are so many great games releasing each year, but also because there are so many great things releasing each year. We all have limited budgets and time to spend on entertainment and hobbies, while the offerings of where to spend that have drastically increased and the library of older media still worthwhile just keeps getting bigger and cheaper to get; where does that leave good, unremarkable, or commonly-themed media?
Unfortunately, it does not leave them in a favorable position. Just this year, in terms of platformers, there was Little Nightmares 2, Psychonauts 2, the re-release of Super Mario 3D World – in the indie scene there was Demon Turf, Omno, Skul, Blue Fire, and a few others I’m probably forgetting about. However, Last Words is more about the emotional narrative about a young child experiencing loss through her journal and her attempts at crafting a story; there are puzzles and platforming sure, but there is virtually no challenge and the gameplay on its own is not good enough to sell the game. It has very few ideas and does not do anything interesting or even adequate with most of those ideas, because the focus is on the well-written story. However, that would put it in direct competition with some other indie gems like The Last Campfire, Roku, Spiritfarer, if found, and that’s not including games that are only about their stories or are primarily focused on it without any other features to highlight; furthermore, these last titles are just the ones from my favorite games list of last year. If you start including games like INSIDE or Braid, then the list gets depressingly large which is why the competition is so stiff.
Even more depressingly for indie games achieving the impossible task of developing and publishing a game that is “good”, games are not the only medium vying for our attention; there are hundreds of movies, dozens of shows, numerous albums and comics, books, and other activities yelling for their spot in our schedule and our expenses. Five years ago, I feel like I would have written off the little annoyances of Lost Words – the less-than-ideal feel of the game or the lackluster gameplay – in favor of the qualities of its narrative, its voice-acting, and presentation; heck, they managed to make a story about a kid experiencing grief for the first time be funny at times and also make that kid not feel like a soppy teenager, but an actual kid dealing with those difficult emotions and situations for the first time. There are a few things wrong with the narrative, but overall, it was a good time, so why wasn’t I passionate about it? Why didn’t I want to recommend it to everyone?
The answer came from the next game I played, The Artful Escape. It is a psychedelic, musical ride like none other this year. It is about an up-and-coming folk artist, imagining himself to be someone else entirely; a space rock phenomenon, driven by his desires to experience the cosmos, but as himself, he cannot do it because of the legacy his uncle (whose definitely not Bob Dylan) has left him with, alongside a path to follow and shoes to fill. The Artful Escape is also a beautifully stylized platformer that has a huge emphasis on the story rather than the challenge of movement or puzzles, however, it nails that experience impeccably. The art style – though clearly inspired by 60s covers and psychedelic art – feels unique with mannequin characters and paper-cut-out objects, contrasting highly-detailed and realistic texture and environment work. Whatever challenge is lacking from the experience it makes up for it in style and character; there’s a dedicated button for wailing on the guitar to rip some shredding riffs while sliding on space rainbows and the combat equivalent is a Simon-says-like rhythm game where you have control over the timing and speed of the notes; you can simply press the buttons like instructed or hold them a bit longer/shorter to add a personal touch. The story is a thorough examination of how one discovers their path, how previous experiences or expectations shape us, imposter syndrome, and other interesting ideas to explore in a video-game format.
After finishing The Artful Escape I knew that this would be one of my favorite experiences of the year and I also knew why Lost Words had me lost for words. Good in a time where Netflix will release a hundred movies in a year; where cinemas will re-open and everything will get a theatrical release; where Spotify and other music-streaming services are offering easy access to most music and podcasts; where games have become bigger than anything else and are able to hit a certain level of quality; being a good game with a good story and average to bad gameplay, with a lovely art style that I’ve seen before done better (but is still good enough) and a good soundtrack, with few technical issues that never resulted in game-breaking situations just a show of the lack of polish – all that is simply not good enough to stand out anymore.
It’s a bittersweet realization to have because it means that there are a lot of good games I simply won’t know about; just to showcase this, Minute of Islands, A Juggler’s Tale, Seed of Life and Unbound, are just some more similar games that released in 2021 and I haven’t played any of them yet, so imagine how many other games are out there I will probably never hear about. But, that is always part of the risk – regardless of how good you are, there is always the possibility you will go unnoticed because of the sheer volume of competitors. However, games like The Artful Escape stick out like high college students in a posh dinner party, because they are more than good and I still have hope that the best games are the ones getting the best reviews and the best results in terms of fan appreciation and sales (relative to their size). I hope both games are profitable and both teams get to keep doing what they are doing because they both have so much more to give and a lot of issues to work on and improve upon. In an industry with so many competitors, some are destined to lose and I’ve come to realize that the margin for error and the allowance for doing something good enough are only getting slimmer by the year.