A heartwarming coming of age story about finding the right words.
The year is 1998: you’re an eleven year old girl. Pulling out your stationery kit with cute paper, gel pens, and plenty of stickers, you begin to write a letter to your new Russian penpal, complete with doodles all about your life in Sweden. Your biggest worry at the moment is whether or not you should focus on your art or video games. Life is good.
Thus begins the Kickstarter Demo for Letters: A Written Adventure. Currently in development by small Swedish indie studio 5am Games, a three-woman team with the good fortune of being backed by the Swiss arts council, this charming little gem is sure to remind thirty-somethings of their own childhood and the process of finding one’s identity through words.
The dev team said it best when they stated their inspirations came from “the branching storyline of Life is Strange, the personal feel of A Normal Lost Phone, the nostalgia of Emily is Away Too and our own experiences growing up.” Personally, I’d say there’s also a bit of Scribblenauts and Little Big Planet in there. It’s certainly packing a lot of punch in a seemingly small, adorable title!
The gameplay is best described as a word-based puzzle platformer; players will guide a smaller version of Sarah as she writes, types, and doodles her way through life. As Sarah creates her correspondences, certain words will be highlighted, prompting the smaller Sarah to take action. Depending on the situation, this could mean turning a bird blue, making a lighthouse illuminate the next step, or help her sail across the sea. For Sarah, her words and her art become one and are enriched when the two work side by side.
The puzzle aspect comes into play when you realize the structure of certain English words breakdown into others. For a flightless bird, break up the word “drawing” to create a “wing”. Give it to the bird, who is delighted to be able to fly once more. To cross the deep blue sea, break up the word “friendship” to bring a “ship” to life. It’s a quaint little puzzler that helps English Language Learners master the written version of the tongue and provides Native English Speakers a fun way to challenge the mind. I can easily see this in English classrooms across the world!
Of course, there’s a storyline aspect to it — in the first level, players must help Sarah make the most important choice of her life up to that point: does she focus on her art, or pivot to video games? Depending on the choice, players will play completely different levels, meaning a chance to make Sarah live a different life in each playthrough.
As I was playing this charming little demo, I couldn’t help but immediately feel transported back to my own childhood. As an 11-year-old girl, I wrote plenty of letters to my best friend who moved one state over, and in 2004 (the second level of the demo), AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Instant Messenger were massive parts of my life. I felt absolutely nostalgic, but in a different way than the heaviness of Emily Is Away; instead of the darker themes that brought a more adult feel, I was transported to the every day of my teenage years — chatting with friends about video games, art, and, of course, emo boys (rawr XD). They even managed to get my yellow gameboy color in there — remarkable!
The music fits seamlessly with the quaint feel of this little puzzler — light and airy, I was pleasantly energized. It definitely sets the tone of childhood and teenage years, so perhaps the more adult levels will scale up in terms of age and heaviness as well? I can only speculate, but regardless of what the dev team chooses, I am sure it will be absolutely perfect.
One thing that impressed me the most was how a branching-dialog/option game could exist with such a massive amount of art. Less ambitious teams would cower at the sheer amount of assets Letters: A Written Adventure is bringing to the table, but 5am Games isn’t shirking from the challenge — and we’ll all the richer for it.