Review for Lake
For many of us, life has a way of sneaking up when we're not looking, leaving us with too much to do and not enough time to reflect on why we're doing it. We're so focused on school, work, friends and family, achieving goals and building careers that it's all too easy to lose sight of where we actually wanted to go in the first place. Lake, from Dutch developer Gamious, is all about the power of stepping back, slowing down, and taking the time to realise what's important. There are no puzzles, just beautiful scenery, a van full of mail, and old friends to reconnect with. Chilled and serene, it's not so much a game as a space for players to unwind while it tells its grounded, heartfelt story. That story may be more constrained than it first appears, and a postman's life may be a little routine for some, but it's hard to deny the attractions of the simple life for at least a few hours.
It's late 1986 and we're in the postcard-pretty Oregon town of Providence Oaks (or P.O. as the locals refer to it), which is nestled on the shore of a lake, surrounded by forest and protected by mighty distant mountains. It's also home to the Weiss family, where their daughter Meredith was born and raised. As tranquil and lovely as it is, however, it couldn't contend with the lure of new technology, and computers in particular, which is why Meredith left for MIT twenty-two years ago and hasn't looked back since. For all that time, as she worked her way up to become one of the lead developers on a hot new information management app, her father continued in his comfortable groove as P.O.'s mail carrier. Now, though, with Meredith feeling harried and stressed out by the weeks of crunch leading up to her app’s recent launch, it's time for a break and a change of pace. With her parents heading out of town for a vacation of their own in Florida, it's the perfect opportunity for her to head back to Providence Oaks and take over her dad's mail route for a couple of weeks.
At this point, you might be curious where this is going. Is this the set-up for Meredith to stumble on some grand conspiracy? A cult in the woods? Maybe an alien lake monster? No, no, and heck no. For once, everything is exactly as it seems. (Well, okay, there's more to local cat lady Mildred Jenkins than at first meets the eye, but she’s the exception.) Meredith intends to relax and spend time delivering the mail, and that's exactly what she does. On the surface, the trickiest challenge she'll face is figuring out how to deliver a letter with just a partial address. And yet, these two weeks in September 1986 might just turn her life upside down and open the door to a whole different world. Day by day, her seemingly mundane new routine slowly shifts to become a memorable, delightful, and at times profound experience.
Let's start with the view: Providence Oaks looks truly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, rendered in lush 3D with a lightly cel-shaded look that feels both realistic and handmade at the same time. Aside from a couple of rainy or stormy days, the lake sparkles in the sun as trees rustle in the breeze. As you drive out of town, PO's brightly painted wooden houses and white picket fences give way to open farmland, abandoned cabins in the woods, and even a fifties-style diner with a neon sign. It's a carefully crafted and intricately realised world, from the new development on the edge of town to the fire tower by the shore. There are shortcuts and back ways, and even a hidden church to stumble upon. It feels like a real place, with sidewalks that teem with pedestrians enjoying the fall sunlight and streets full of polite drivers who stop and queue behind Meredith rather than honking at her (or rather, you) for parking in the middle of the road.
Like many people who spend their days behind the wheel, Meredith has a radio to keep her company. As well as starting each day with a "PO Positive or Pet Peeve" local news segment, the local radio station loves to play gentle country and folk rock tunes that perfectly complement Lake’s relaxed, nostalgic vibe. Even when you're out on a delivery, they can still be heard, either faintly coming from the van or from nearby shops. Or you can turn the radio off and just listen to the wind in the trees and the waves lapping against the shore. The songs are catchy enough that I'd find myself randomly humming them between play sessions, but quickly melt into the background atmosphere when you're on the road. That said, with only about an album's worth on shuffle, some songs were starting to get a bit familiar by the time I finally hung up my mailbag.
Meredith's duties consist of driving the mail van (affectionately known as the Goose) around both PO itself and the nearby lake, delivering letters and parcels. Driving is straightforward – just steer, accelerate, and brake using keyboard or controller – but the van (which you see from a little above and behind by default) is a big, lumbering thing that wallows in the turns. Struggling to thread it down narrow woodland lanes definitely brought back memories of my own encounters with country driving! Thankfully, unlike the actual eighties experience with its snatched glances at a crumpled road atlas on the passenger seat, there's both a minimap in the corner of the screen and full-screen map display a keypress away, with delivery addresses and local landmarks highlighted. I found driving myself around the peacefully beautiful town surprisingly satisfying, but you can also engage autopilot (meaning the van drives itself to your chosen destination) or just teleport to selected spots.
Each new day begins in the post office parking lot, with a van full of mail waiting for you to get in and hit the road. Once you've reached the right house or shop, it's time to jump out and either walk to the mailbox (with all the letters in a shoulder-slung mailbag) or go to the back of the vehicle to pick up the right parcel. Meredith doesn't so much walk as saunter, and even pressing Shift (usually the "run" button) just encourages her to move a little quicker. Life in Providence Oaks is very leisurely, and Lake is determined to ensure you take your time and smell the roses. Much as I appreciate the sentiment, this had the unfortunate side effect of encouraging me to drive from mailbox to mailbox, rather than (as my inner hiker would have preferred) getting out and taking a walk round the neighbourhood in the crisp autumn air. In a neat touch, although there’s no in-game clock (or time limit), the sun makes its way across the sky as you work, dipping low to the horizon by the time you’re done for the day. It’s a great way to create a sense of progress without feeling like you’re watching the time.
From the moment you return the empty Goose to the post office, your evenings (and Sundays off) play out as extended cutscenes, usually starting with a call from your parents (and more occasionally one from your boss) before you either head out for your latest social engagement or get a chance to put your feet up. This can lead to anything from a brief cat-sitting montage to a deep and meaningful conversation with Kay, before the screen fades to black and it’s time for a brand new day.
Most of the dozen or so deliveries you have to make each day are uneventful – just a matter of simple interactions to stuff a letter into the mailbox or leave a parcel on the stoop – but every so often you run into someone interesting, ranging from your school friend and ex-bestie Kay to local lumberjack and activist Robert. Chatting flows very naturally, offering lively insights into small-town life, ranging from a local farmer (and part-time radio DJ) with something to hide, to a bored motel clerk with a serious Space Invaders addiction. The voice acting is uniformly excellent, but it's soon clear these encounters run very much on rails; you can react in different ways (from typically two or three options) but you can't steer the conversations or ask questions, and the outcome generally stays the same.
The one exception is that (this being a close-knit community) people will often either ask you for help or suggest meeting up after work. While you can turn them down and spend your evenings at home reading a book or catching the latest episode of the hit culinary comedy Bon Appetit!, that feels decidedly unneighbourly. So when you're not taking Mildred's overfed cat to a friend for some TLC, you're setting up movie night with teenage mechanic Lori, or helping Robert fight a new apartment development. Before long I had a packed social schedule, with something happening pretty much every night and the occasional extra delivery to make during the day as well. There's even romance in the air, if you choose to go down that path, with suitors of both genders vying for Meredith's affections. It got so hectic, in fact, that I wound up checking her day planner (accessed via the Tab key) to make sure I wouldn't be double-booked. As it turns out, though, you're never forced to choose and disappoint anyone, and people don't seem to mind if you turn them down.
As you might imagine, trading her high-rise apartment, laptop, and pushy boss for a return to her hometown stirs up a confusing mix of feelings in Meredith, especially as she sees what's changed (and what hasn't) in the place of her birth. Take her former best friend Kay, for example, whose dreams of making music have been put on hold by marriage, children, and the day-to-day realities of life. She's not unhappy – Meredith runs into her in the middle of a spirited recreation of the Apollo 11 Moon landing with her daughter Grace, complete with colander space helmets and a cardboard spaceship – but she's feeling restless all the same. Life hasn't turned out the way she hoped it would in high school, and she can feel the door slowly closing on her dreams. Is it time to accept the good life she has, or give music one last try? Meredith, too, has a major decision to make. Is the hustle and stress of software development what she really wants, or is there a quiet delight to simply driving around in a mail truck, delivering packages, keeping up with the gossip, and singing along to the radio? Does she want challenging and stressful, or relaxing and stress-free?
It's to Lake’s credit that it never tries to push this debate one way or the other. It would be very easy to paint Providence Oaks as a modern Eden and city life as soul-destroying, but instead both get a fair hearing. Yes, driving around the lake is peaceful, almost meditative, but it may also be starting to get repetitive for high-flier Meredith, even before the two weeks are up. Likewise, her boss keeps calling up and asking for favours, squeezing more work out of her even when she's on holiday, but he's also excited about their product and recognises how crucial her work on it has been. There are reasons to stay, and reasons to go, and the people you meet understand that. The point isn't that rural life is better, or city life is where it's at, but rather that you need to decide what you actually want out of life and pursue that. Even, or perhaps especially, if it's not the life you once imagined for yourself. That might sound like a lot to pack into around seven hours of playtime, but the light-touch storytelling and general good humour keep it from feeling preachy or ponderous.
Meredith and Kay are not the only ones with things to ponder. Local video store owner Angie isn't having much luck drumming up interest in VHS movie rentals and is starting to get itchy feet, while another couple are fleeing for the Canadian border to escape their past. If there's a theme running through the variety of brief but relatable stories here, it's of people muddling through and trying to make the best of lives that weren't what they expected. For me, at least, it was all too easy to relate, and it makes a refreshing change from the airbrushed heroism and perfectly imperfect lives featured in most movies and TV shows.
Lake is, first and foremost, an experience. It's as if the developers captured the essence of rural 1980s life and bottled it, creating either a break from our frantic lives, or a counterpoint to them. The initial feeling of freedom may be reined in somewhat by its linear story, but the lovely surroundings, eclectic people, and relaxed pace make for a heady holiday cocktail. It may be too easygoing for some, especially those looking for challenging or varied gameplay, but it's ideal for anyone who just needs an opportunity to catch their breath, enjoy the sights and sounds, and reflect. Whether it encourages you to reconsider your life choices, or simply confirms them, I can heartily recommend taking a little time out in Providence Oaks.