Lake Review: Just Passing Through
The size and strength of the video game industry mean every niche is accounted for. That's rarely as evident as it is in Lake, the third-person adventure game from Gamious about delivering the mail and chatting up the townsfolk in rural Oregon.
I had once called Lake "Death Stranding without the nonsense," and today, I stand by that distinction. It is a game that unabashedly delivers on its simple premise: a short stay in an uneventful town.
I guess I'm realizing now that a bit more something would've helped Lake deliver on its core ideas. It's not bad, but I find myself at odds with what the game is trying to say, and in such a way that became very distracting by the end.
Lake Review: Just Passing Through
In Lake, Meredith Weiss returns to Providence Oaks in 1986, a quiet Oregon town she left 22 years earlier to pursue computer science at MIT. It's a fictional place, but I can tell you as an Oregon transplant that it's a town that would fit in the state's southern or eastern quadrants. A long way from the progressive city hub of Portland, Providence Oaks isn't home to bad people, just rather boring ones.
There's Mildred Jenkins, the resident cat lady, who calls on Meredith to care for her sickly cat — one of at least a half-dozen she has in her home. There's Kay Evans, Meredith's school-age bestie who is now married with two kids and a flickering dream of musicianship she's content to snuff out.
There's a hunky lumberjack opposing new real estate that would diminish the lakeside town's natural splendor and a dorky movie buff operating the early days of a VHS rental store. There's a whole bunch of people you'll meet, though none of them are really able to escape their tropes.
Meredith is there to temporarily inherit her dad's job while he vacations with her mom in Florida. They might like it so much that they stay there, which would give Meredith their old home plus her dad's job of being the town's mail carrier on a more permanent basis.
The two weeks of in-game days are thus like one long game show between the storytellers and the player: will you give up your lucrative but unfulfilling office job for the quiet life? Perhaps you'll reject both and venture on a road trip of self-discovery — doors numbered one, two, and three. But the story doesn't land for me because I couldn't really stand being in the town.
I think the developers accounted for this but maybe didn't foresee just how much that would mess up the rest of the experience. While the day-to-day gameplay is tranquil and as inventively fun as I thought it was during my demo time in April, the broader story falls totally flat after the first few days.
I couldn't imagine anything happening in the game's two weeks that would make me want to live my life in Providence Oaks. Maybe if Meredith met someone really special — but she doesn't. The game puts two love interests in your sights but doesn't give you enough time to get to know either of them, so when I ultimately rejected them both after the game hung a lot of narrative weight on this decision, it felt like I had chosen wrong, despite choosing honestly.
Lake injects more choice than I expected in its roughly seven-hour story. With each stop-and-chat, Meredith can reply in several ways, often including both rude and polite responses. She can also accept or decline favor requests from her neighbors, like helping the video store clerk distribute VHS tapes via the mail truck.
The game introduces several threads but never quite pulls on any of them enough. It routinely feels like the story the writers wanted to tell and the story the player moves through are not the same. Perhaps it's the moving pieces of dialogue options, but some things just don't make sense.
Why can I ask Meredith's friend to define their relationship when they just met? Why does another character chase me down on my way out of town even though I'd already turned him down? Why does everyone in town think Meredith is so great when by all accounts she seems decidedly fine and nothing more?
Lake often wants me to weigh my options — should I stay or should I go? — but I couldn't wait to leave those people in the dust.
That's not to say it's all bad. Though some cosmetic bugs and a too-small selection of songs on the radio provided additional frustrations, I did genuinely enjoy the simple gameplay loop of delivering mail. Sometimes I'd drop off letters in a mailbox; sometimes I'd leave a package on a doorstep.
Sometimes the recipient was home, and we'd get to talking, and in those cases, some of the less fleshed-out characters were actually more notable. An unseen line cook constantly breaking stuff at the town's greasy spoon made for a funny recurring bit, and the recluse writer with apparent Poe-like ambitions was more interesting than many of his more talkative counterparts.
The game also looks gorgeous, with a slightly comic book style applied over the lush town and its massive central lake. Meredith's blue USPS coat became the object of my desire, and other characters sported similarly eye-catching attire thanks to the game's chosen color palette, a vibrant and cartoonish filter.
I will admit Providence Oaks looks nice, and I do even admit this guttural rejection of the town and its people may be my own problem to work out. I moved a lot and made stops in some dead-end Massachusetts towns of which Providence Oaks is uncomfortably reminiscent.
But even without my pro-city bias peeking through, I think the script is a bit too messy to convince most players that this is a town one should settle into.
Lake Review — The Bottom Line
- Lovely and distinct visual style
- Gameplay loop of delivering mail is charming and tranquil
- Story misses the mark with an anti-climax
- Characters often come across as boring or annoying
- Some cosmetic bugs
In full, Lake doesn't quite reach the highs I experienced when I played it in part earlier this year. The story gets in its own way with narrative threads that compete for time and ultimately leave none of them with a satisfying conclusion.
While the game is beautiful and its central mail carrier gameplay is as strangely enticing as it seemed all along, it's the people of Providence Oaks I will not miss.
[Note: Gamious provided the copy of Lake used for this review.]