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  • Writer's pictureJulie Cooper

E3 2021 Mini-Preview: Read between the lines in Letters - A Written Adventure

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

As part of our E3 coverage, we'll be providing a few mini-previews for games that we were compelled to check out further after they caught our attention at one of the events. Many of these games have free demos, so check them out yourselves and let us know what you think!

A hand-drawn screenshot from Letters - A Written Adventure. Teenaged Sarah sits at a desk in her bedroom that faces a window, with papers and books everywhere.

The rampant '90s and '00s nostalgia hitting the public these days isn't just a zeal for the bright patterns, retro consoles, and questionable fashion. Many of us ache for that simpler time, before we had to think of our every decision as a stepping stone to Who We Will Become.

In the fascinating pen pal puzzle platformer Letters - A Written Adventure, players will revisit these nostalgic decades to make branching choices that guide the life path of young protagonist, Sarah. And while the 11-year-old doesn't yet have to worry, we outsiders will see clearly how simple decisions — like choosing to continue drawing rather than accepting an invite to play an online game — result in a changed narrative and a shifted life path.

Our scene opens in January 1998, and the page becomes a stage: You play as a teensy hand-drawn Sarah roaming in between the lines on a letter to her new friend, Katya from Russia.

In this unique platformer-meets-word-puzzle, you explore her youthful letter, filled with the must-know details like her favorite color (blue), her nerdy hobbies (comic books, board games, and drawing), and her best friend's name (Lia). The words appear as you descend the page, as do a few doodles — a tower, a one-winged bird, Lia with a controller in hand, and finally, Sarah herself.

The game's main mechanic involves finding the right words on the page to progress the story. Or, when that fails, creating new ones.

An in-game screenshot shows a tiny version of Sarah walking between the lines of her ruled notebook paper, and a drawing of a blue bird is lifting off the page to take flight.

Pick up highlighted words to toss at each drawing and alter what appears on the page, like turning a brown bird blue. But if your subject isn't satisfied, you may need to snuff out part of a word to turn it into something new. The demo's tutorial guides you toward the word "drawing" to help you grasp the concept. There, you'll kick away the first half and turn it into what the bird truly needs — its missing wing returned. Then it can fly free, allowing you to continue lowering yourself down the page.

It takes some experimenting to find every possible use for the highlighted words, as there may be multiple places you can throw them to make a change. And of course, reading between the lines takes some practice. If you're like me, you'll still be kicking your way across the page after multiple playthroughs, surprised to find hidden words you hadn't encountered yet and delighting in the ways you can use them.

Each stage of the demo ends in a two-way branching decision that will slightly alter what you experience in the next area. Here at the start, you'll decide whether Sarah will keep at drawing and schoolwork or choose to play an online game with Lia.

In this story-rich word puzzle game about finding your place in life, you'll live out multiple seasons as our friend Sarah from Switzerland. But the gameplay soon shifts from pen pal letters with doodles in the margins to teen chat rooms and "Mysite" profiles. After making a time jump to 2004, you'll have conversations with Lia and Katya online, this time siphoning words from your personal bio and retrieving files to show off your latest digital art or a video game you're coding, depending on which route you've chosen for Sarah.

A GIF shows gameplay. A sprite version of Sarah retrieves a file of her cave drawing, hopping up from her drawing to her Mysite page and throwing the file into her chat window with Katya to show off her art.

This second section included in the demo uses the same word-based riddle mechanic, but it evolves along with Sarah. The hand-drawn art of ye olde letter-writing days becomes pixel art. There are also new ways to engage with the environment, including stepping into her creations. You'll interact with what's inside her art to solve puzzles, make your way across the desktop, and secure the file you need.

While the coming of age story highlights how Sarah and her relationships change throughout life, it's heartening to see that her friends stick by her — even if she decides not to play that video game with Lia. (Really, Sarah? Six years later and you never once gave it a shot? Lia's patience is saint-like.)

Rather than punish the player for taking either the "fun and friends" path or the "studying and career success" route, it offers subtle changes that show the nuances of growing up.

Apart from the two eras included in the game's demo, the trailer suggests that players will continue to play at least through Sarah's young adulthood as she tries for internships.

Letters was Kickstarted in 2019 and funded beyond its goal, with unique backer perks that honored the analogue-meets-digital focus of the game, such as hand-drawn game-style portraits and personalized pen pal letters with the devs (handmade friendship bracelet and all).

Letters, developed by 5am Games GmbH and co-published by the same along with PID Games, is expected to include about 3 hours of gameplay when it releases later in 2021.

Check out the demo during Steam Next Fest until June 22 to play out the universal experience of stumbling over your words and searching to find the right ones.


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