Publisher: 5am Games
Developer: 5am Games
Platform: Windows, Mac, Switch
Toying with lexicon has been an adventure game staple since the beginning, though it’s largely become a niche since the VGA era. Modern games that attempt to merge graphics and text gameplay have a daunting task of providing both a coherent story and an element of exploration while also engaging the brain with enough challenge. 5am Games, an all-women team from Switzerland, took on this challenge with their first game, Letters – a written adventure, and have largely succeeded. While the novelty of its unique gameplay mechanic wears off over time, the game’s charming aesthetic, word-driven approach and endearing young protagonist make for an earnest and delightfully unusual adventure.
Sarah is a shy ten-year-old girl whom you guide through her formative years via her written communication – literally. Her avatar gets plunked down onto a sheet of lined paper, a letter to her new pen pal, Katya. Sarah’s first missive to Katya outlines her love for comics and lets you choose basic characteristics like her hair, eye color, clothes, and skin tone. And then you’re introduced to the game’s puzzle structure. Sarah must move around the page (using the keyboard or gamepad), easily jumping or falling between gaps on the page lines, and then interact with words and pictures (using a single key/button) in order to advance the story. The first letter serves as a tutorial to help you become comfortable with the controls, but while this is billed as a platformer, virtually no hand-eye coordination is required. You can’t die, and all the puzzles test your way with words rather than your reflexes.
Sarah herself has drawn the pictures that are now blocking her path, and they will banter with her via speech bubbles and brief animations. To advance, she must determine what each one needs, and then find words elsewhere on the screen to satisfy that requirement. Sometimes the word is already complete and highlighted for you, but most of the time Sarah has to literally kick letters off of existing words to form new words. For example, on the first page she runs into a bird missing a wing. Next to that, Sarah has written that one of her hobbies is drawing. To help the bird you must kick off the “dra,” then throw the leftover wing to the bird. The bird then grows a wing and flies off the page so you can advance.
The game forgivingly does not require you to be precise; if Sarah kicks anywhere in the correct word, the appropriate letters will be jettisoned. Then more words will fill in automatically as Sarah continues writing her letter. If you keep kicking the wrong words, Sarah’s avatar briefly runs out of breath and you have to pause for a second. If you try using the wrong word on a picture, it will disintegrate and let you try again. In a nice touch, sometimes the wrong word will prompt humorous responses from the image. If you get stuck, every puzzle has a straightforward hint available. After this plays out several times, Sarah will finish the letter and the calendar will advance to a future date where she once again pens a new note to her friend.
If you think all this sounds contrived, I don’t blame you. At times the technique is employed strictly for arbitrary pacing. However, it is often used to enhance the storytelling, such as when you are in the middle of a letter describing a fight between your parents and must figure out a way to get their attention in the related drawing. Even when the subject matter isn’t so grand, the pictures on each page serve as a stand-in for Sarah’s struggles in processing her emotions. For instance, at one point an image of her sad teddy bear is blocking your path down the letter, and until Sarah addresses the bear’s emotions (and thereby dealing with her own), she can’t continue writing. While some of these obstructions have only one solution, at several points you make choices as to how Sarah dealt with a conflict, which is then processed in her letter to Katya. Decisions such as these shape the young protagonist’s personality and affect her relationships down the road.
The first half of the game is spent with Sarah as a young child, and strictly entails written letters to her pen pal that are lush with whimsy and raw emotion. The second half is spent with Sarah as a senior in high school, and a majority of this portion involves Sarah engaging in on-line chats with her friends that must be navigated in a similar fashion to the letters. Unfortunately, while the chats do feel genuine, they are often as banal as any teenager’s text conversations, with terse replies rife with angst and self-absorption. Subsequently, they suck out a lot of the charm present in the handwritten letters. The nadir is a bizarre interlude where Sarah has unwittingly downloaded a Trojan Horse and you must defeat it by throwing the appropriate words at viruses. This section has no challenge, no risk, no relevance to the plot and does nothing to advance Sarah’s characterization; when it ended I was kind of hoping for the game to end soon, which it does not long after.
Once you reach the end of Sarah’s senior year of high school, you are presented with a puzzleless yet interactive epilogue that shows the highlights of Sarah’s adult life in letters to her loved ones. Your choices throughout the game impact the ending you get. On subsequent playthroughs, you can make different decisions for Sarah and see a different version of her life play out. I wish I could say my second time through the game was fun, but it was mostly a slog. Several sections of the game are identical no matter what choices you make, and after a while all the hopping around notebook pages and kicking words becomes tedious. More importantly, no major choice you make influences the course of Sarah’s life dramatically. For example, whether or not you decide to move forward with a romantic relationship in high school (which extends into Sarah’s adult life) has no bearing on her career choices presented later. As such, her significant other feels like a discrete feature of her life rather than an integral part that impacts her whole life experience.
Beyond the limited depth of the story, the freedom of choice ends up curtailing emotional investment in Sarah’s life rather than enhancing it, especially upon replay. While I appreciate the ability to define Sarah’s physical attributes (and later her romantic orientation), it begins to feel like she is a cipher for you to project your own desires upon. Rather than being engaged with her story as an observer, the player becomes a puppet master, with Sarah’s personality and dreams being shaped at the whim of those pulling the strings. While this works okay the first time around, the second time essentially encourages entirely different choices for Sarah’s life for no other reason to than to see what you missed. The game is divided into nine chapters, and you are allowed to restart from any of them and continue from that point. The first playthrough should take a few hours, and everything else the game has to offer can be seen the second time around.
The ever-present and ever-changing background score is understated throughout, enhancing the mood in each letter with a mix of strings and synthesized melodies. For example, if Sarah is angry, the music will take on a more aggressive, harsh tone; if she’s sad, it amplifies that instead. Numerous sound effects accompany everything Sarah interacts with, including horses neighing, ice breaking, and people breathing. While there is no spoken dialogue, voice actors were used for each character to provide emotional responses to Sarah.
The designers have also done an impressive job with the hand-crafted visuals. No letter to Katya looks the same, and Sarah’s drawings and doodles on each page are a joyful window into her personality. The scenes shine even brighter when the drawings become animated. At one point, Sarah’s sister is yelling at her, the words literally hurtling towards Sarah’s face. The young protagonist also keeps a journal you can reference that adds a bit of flavor and many more charming childlike sketches.
Despite the often whimsical and colorful presentation, the authors cover some heavy issues. The game warns that you are likely to witness representations of family dysfunction, peer pressure, verbal abuse, mental illness, prescription drug abuse, suicidal behavior, and cults. While most of these subjects are addressed only narrowly, they are handled so sincerely that I couldn’t help but feel emotional at times. There are no shortcuts or quick-fixes, just Sarah navigating her messy life the best she can.
The team at 5am Games clearly put their hearts into every aspect of Letters. Despite some design choices that hamper immersion somewhat, the word-based puzzle mechanic is generally engaging and the chronicle of Sarah’s life is authentic and heartwarming. Consider this an easy and enthusiastic recommendation for fans of language and story-based games.