Review: Lake is a Picture-Perfect Slice of Small Town Life
I think for a lot of people, games are about escapism. They give you the ability to do things you couldn’t otherwise. Explore space, or unlock the secrets of hidden temples. Be a crazy badass with an arsenal and fight zombies, ghosts and demons with ease. Race on the best tracks in the world and make a name for yourself, or if you’re me during most of 2020, go find a cute little island full of animal friends and worry about nothing except tending your flowers and what you’re going to be wearing today. In a game we can be something or someone else and do something new, and that’s exciting. And while I can’t say it’s the first thing I think of when I think of escapism, becoming a postal worker on a rural route in the Pacific Northwest actually sounded pretty appealing thanks to Gamious’ perfectly pastoral new game, Lake.
I first ran across Lake during LudoNarraCon, and honestly, it didn’t seem too compelling just to read its description. It’s 1986 and you’re a software engineer named Meredith Weiss who’s working on an exciting (?) spreadsheet program called Addit ‘87 but suffering a bit of burnout. In the nick of time, but on the verge of a breakthrough, she gets an offer to come back to her hometown in Oregon for two weeks while her parents vacation in Florida, and take over her dad’s mail delivery job temporarily while she’s there. And, though she hasn’t been back in years, this is exactly the escape Meredith is looking for, so off you go to the lush rainforests of the Pacific Northwest to rediscover your old stomping grounds and deliver some mail.
Lake is a mix of straight up narrative game and, for lack of better term, repetitive task completion. Providence Oaks is a pretty simple town, and though there have been changes since Meredith was last there, much is also the same. Gameplay wise, things are pretty samey too. Every morning you show up at the post office, get your truck, and start delivering packages and papers to Providence Oaks’ fine citizens.
While best with a controller, you can just as easily use a keyboard and mouse to drive around town and deliver the mail. Each day brings a new list of homes to deliver to, and a mix of packages and regular mail to deliver. You just jump in the mail truck and drive. Mercifully, the mail truck, though rickety and old, is pretty easy to drive both on controller and mouse and keyboard. There’s a readily available map that shows your destinations, and all you’ll need to do is, well, deliver. For regular mail, all you need to do is stuff the appropriate mailboxes, while for packages, you’ll need to properly identify and retrieve them from the back.
If this sounds a little mundane, it is. And if that’s all Lake had to offer I’m sure it’d be a game I’d feel was a huge slog to get through. Fortunately, what Lake has to offer is a lot more than a simple mail delivery sim.
Each day on your route, you’ll encounter a smattering of townsfolk, from store owners and diner waitresses to cranky fisherman and old ladies with too many cats. And while these characters represent some pretty typical archetypes, they’re not one-dimensional or boring. Instead, they’re almost all somewhat charming, a little mysterious and more importantly, sympathetic. Before long, you’ll start unraveling the tale of the town you left behind and the people who stayed or have come to love it since, rediscovering friendships and establishing relationships, even picking up causes to fight for. You’ll also find your role as not only mailperson, but errand runner and therapist for some, whether it’s ferrying cats to the doctor after too many cupcakes for Mildred, helping save the video store or campaigning to stop a new development.
I think perhaps the best thing about Lake is how well balanced it is. Sure, every day is full of the same basic tasks, but encounters with various folks in town are peppered in at exactly the right intervals so you don’t get too bored with traipsing around town with letters and packages. Similarly, Lake allows enough drive time to soak in its beautiful art and excellent escapist soundtrack. After a day or two learning the ropes, I’d even find myself taking the long way to the last delivery just to enjoy the scenery and sounds. And often, I’d look forward to what else was on the agenda for the day.
Once the mail truck is parked, the narrative takes over each night. Some nights, your biggest choice will be to work on your “real job” tasks, read or watch TV, and on other nights you’ll be occupied with more important things like dates, boat rides or catch ups with old friends. Along the duration of your stay, you’ll also hear from and talk to your folks in Florida and touch base with your overzealous, boundary-pushing boss Steve who’s way too excited to get you back in the city and back at the keyboard. Lake’s style of narrative and conversation is extremely relatable and heartfelt, so that these interactions feel genuine and keep you interested in the story, and immersed in the world. It didn’t take long before I’d find myself looking forward to calls from the parents so I could give them the scoop or dread another call from Steve about the life I’d left behind.
It’d be easy to say “nothing happens” in Lake, but that’s not exactly true. One of the best things about Lake is its pitch perfect portrayal of the all American small town. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s up in everyone else’s business, whether well intentioned or slightly less so. There are stories of loss and old feuds, old flames and new, and reasons for everyone to rally together. The farmer is also a DJ, and several people in Providence Oaks have similar hidden talents and aspirations you’ll discover over time. There’s even a sort of seedy underbelly to discover, though as much as Lake looks like Twin Peaks, it never truly delved into anything particularly dark or strange.
By the end of your run as a mail woman, you’ll find it hard to let go. At least I did. I think Lake even honestly made me contemplate mail delivery in a rural mountain town as a valid life choice, if I’m being honest. And honestly? That’s what’s great. Lake manages to create a cozy little escape to a world that’s just a little simpler and prettier than ours, with enough conflict and mystery to keep it interesting, and a job that keeps us out and exploring the world. It’s a place of pleasant tedium and admiration for the everyday with just enough romance, humor and intrigue to really hook you. And that’s why I can’t recommend it enough.
Lake is available now for PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store and for Xbox One.
A Steam key was provided to us for the purposes of this review.
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