Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.
Good year, 1986. Bon Jovi released Slippery When Wet. It was the summer of Aliens, Ferris Bueller, and later, The Transformers movie. Journey played Portland, Ohio two nights in a row, still riding high on the success of the Frontiers album. That last one isn’t something I just know, but something I found out from a cursory Google to see if Lake’s dialogue was actually following a real-world event and sure enough, it is. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes Lake a joy to play, even if it’s not perfect.
Lake is a narrative-driven game set in Oregon during September of the aforementioned year, in the fictional(?) waterside town of Providence Oaks. The story follows a fortnight in the life of Meredith Weiss, a software developer on the brink of revolutionising home computing, heading back to her hometown to help out her parents.
During her two-week stay in the sleepy lakeside town, Meredith is pencilled in to fill in for her dad, the postman of Providence Oaks. Once equipped with papa Weiss’ trusty van and a map of the area, Meredith starts delivering the mail each day. It’s the first time she has been back home for 22 years, and while some residents remain as recognisable as ever, there’s some new faces in town too.
Each day begins at the post office, and Meredith’s deliveries for the day will show up on a minimap. As the gameplay has an open world element, you can pick and choose which order to deliver things in. Most of the mail is letters that are deposited into a mailbox. Meredith will also need to deliver packages, which means encountering people in the village. The story begins to unfold through dialogue as she reconnects with forgotten friends, familiar faces and fresh fodder among the townsfolk. As you progress, certain characters will ask you for favours, creating small side quests as a bonus to flinging out letters all day.
Lake revels in its simplicity, at first. There are no stakes; you don’t get punished for taking your time with deliveries scattered around the open world and there’s no reward for helping someone out. Meredith’s journey is decadently lethargic to begin with and is about what she learns; about herself, about the town, and about the time that she’s lost. Going out of your way to aid a resident will reveal inconsequential information; a local business has had a refurb or that the local cat lady has been feeding cupcakes to her pets. There’s also a couple of romance options in Lake, and as the weeks play on, Meredith can explore them.
All the while, various characters are living out their own tales. This isn’t just a town full of Meredith’s old baggage and how it relates to her, Providence Oaks is a pitstop to a wealth of personalities. Some arrive to pursue a dream, for others it is an interlude between darker events. Lake does not plague you with the problems of those you encounter, but it does give you the option to explore their stories, which sometimes stretch far beyond a poorly pet or a bit of idle gossip. All the while, Meredith’s city life is evolving; her boss is on the cusp of a life-changing deal, but she’ll need to leave this all behind once more.
There’s also no denying that the game’s locale is gorgeous. The town is modest in size but still beating with life; buildings, winding trails and oddities in the scenery spin a tale about Meredith’s life and the memories she left behind. Providence Oaks isn’t just a generic dot-to-dot for the game’s main mechanic of delivering mail, every area echoes an authentic small town vibe, from the mysterious rickety cabins in the hills that are definitely housing murderers to the fields that you drank stolen beer in. I ended up driving up to locations just to look at them, even if I didn’t have mail to deliver there.
Though after a while, Lake’s monotony started to get to me. By the Wednesday of the second week, looking at all the same houses I had to deliver to, driving the same route, looking at the scenery that hasn’t changed since I arrived, felt both daunting and pointless. The pace of Meredith’s walking — which can toggle from ‘leisurely’ to ‘might have left the oven on’ — mixed with the very straightforward driving, left me feeling a bit impatient. The irony being, this is actually the very essence of being stuck in your hometown, desperate to explore the world, and Lake knows that. It gives you time to mull over the decisions at hand, never pressuring you into making a choice until the very end.
It also turns out that if you can’t face another moment of trucking by the same trees, hurling your van into the eponymous lake will actually transport you back to the post office where each day wraps up. A quirky quick travel hack, or literally going postal? You decide.
I didn’t get the opportunity to wrap up some other loose ends after making my final choice leading into the endgame, which could have been a result of my dialogue picks. However, after having so many conversations about my choices with various characters throughout the in-game fortnight, it would have been nice to talk to everyone a final time after making it. I did also encounter a few mild bugs; lighting issues, out of place dialogue pop-ups, and a problem with a photography side quest that made most of Meredith’s photos pictures of her shoes as the actual camera struggled to toggle from third to first person. All forgivable in the grand scheme of the game.
Lake reminded me how beautiful the world is, by creating a place that is both breathtaking and believable, with the underlying notion that one person’s haven is another person’s hell. It creates this enticing, welcoming landscape, while being meaningfully tedious. The adventures that you undertake as Meredith seem enticing at first, but the game calmly allows you to explore the offerings of the town, connect with characters, and explore a potential life-changing path in a way that makes sense to the Meredith you’re being. Sometimes, the best course of action is to throw away years of meticulous career-building for a lonely lumberjack. Sometimes, you just need a break. Lake might help you figure that out.