Neither snow nor rain, nor heat nor Stop signs stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.-United States Postal Service (probably)
Lake by Gamious is a game about making choices in the face of stresses that come with the inertia of life. It’s a surprisingly zen escape from a classic “game” structure and a peaceful jaunt if you’re looking for some low stakes entertainment.
At A Glance
+ Graphics are on point
+ Well written
|Negatives||– Driving sections get stale|
– Voice recordings sound slightly out of place
– A few too many railroad choices
|Price (When Reviewed)||£15.00|
|Our Playtime||7 hours 45 mins|
|Available On||Xbox Series X|S, PC|
The unfolding story is really the point of Lake. To that end I wouldn’t want to reveal any story details and can only really speak to what Gamious have said on the front of the box, to keep from spoiling anything. You take on the role of Meredith Weiss, who will have a decision to make after two weeks covering for her father at a mail delivery job in the absolute FANTASY land of Providence Oaks circa 1986. A fantasy land because it’s magic? No. Imagine this; a place where posted packages leave the dispatch office and are delivered on the first round without a “Sorry we missed you” message through the door. A place with parking available on every street at all times of the day. A place where a person is free to make social plans for later IN THE SAME DAY and then both parties actually show up to enjoy each other’s company. It sounds idyllic, but I have an easier time believing Ezio Auditore’s knees still worked beyond the age of 40.
I don’t want to sell the game short, so let me address that 4/10 ‘Gameplay’ rating. There isn’t a huge amount of typical gameplay in Lake, and that’s clearly by design. When you first dive in, Lake sets the scene for the story then drops you into a quick tutorial, explaining the technicals of walking up to a mailbox and putting pieces of paper into it. After that you’re instructed on moving boxes from the back of a truck to a front door. From there you’re free to begin your two-week career of flaunting local traffic ordinances. Most of your time will be spent driving the mail truck and in dialogue options that further the story. “Neither jeopardy nor skill tests nor time limitations will stay your experience”. You literally can’t get it wrong. Navigation and driving represent the overwhelming majority of the gameplay and there’s nothing you can do to create a fail state with the truck. You can’t damage the vehicle or anything else (I tried) and the walking speed is just slow enough that you will often choose to get back in the truck to move just one door down the street, you won’t be doing this on foot.
Providence Oaks isn’t a huge place; the map shows mailboxes (probably people and houses too, but who cares, they’re just addresses to a dedicated mail carrier like yourself) scattered around the outside of the gorgeous titular lake. It will take you about 10 real-life minutes to circle the whole thing which is fine the first time around, but in the midst of the second week you’ll certainly be tired of the drive. Mercifully there is a fast travel mechanic that allows you to click a few points on the map and jump close to your destination. There’s also an autopilot option on a few other key points which will allow Meredith to drive the truck to that destination with no input from the player. Cruising along the lakeside roads is a calming experience but it had me wondering if the player were needed for any of this at all, or maybe if I was missing the point. I don’t believe that an activity has to have stakes for it to be worthwhile but delivering all that mail for the most part doesn’t further the story, and if the intention is to get you thinking about the choices that Meredith has to make then it’s perhaps a bit too much time between story beats.
I have to say though, parking your mail van at 90 degrees across the freeway while you have a chat with an old friend at a local diner and watching the traffic pile up in the background is a sick joy I didn’t know was in me. We should also cover the elephant in the room with all this talk of driving and lakes. Can you drive the truck into the lake? Yes, yes you can. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you should at your own convenience.
From a technical standpoint Lake is very well put together. The environment comes across as very picturesque, with an art style similar to the Telltale Games series The Walking Dead. The graphics hold up very well, with the occasional shadow flicker or texture pop-in that was entirely forgivable. The UI is clean and not overbearing, and since there are a limited number of tasks, you aren’t constantly being nagged by the game to pay attention to some number or timer. The sound works well too though I do have a few niggles with the audio dub for the voices. Each character sounds as though they’re speaking in a perfectly soundproofed room and could have benefited greatly from the addition of environmental audio effects that placed them in the space where the character is speaking. In addition to that there are a few ‘dead air’ moments between, or sometimes during, scenes which can break the pace a bit. I made judicious use of the ‘R’ button to turn off the radio in the van; the music is well performed and sounds thematic but country music really isn’t my thing. That didn’t mean I was driving around in silence however, with the sparse Americana soundtrack of the overworld (with the radio off) does add to your journeys appeal.
The residents of Providence Oaks are a mixed bag. Most of the characters are well thought out and have some sort of interesting internal struggle to overcome, but there is a certain cookie-cutter style to the way they’re written which I struggled to get over. Stereotypes work for a reason and Gamious have used character tropes effectively to shortcut you to understanding these folks without having to exposition dump each time, but it’s quite on the nose. I had to stop a spit take when I was telling myself “Man, we’re just one Sea Captain away from the cast of The Simpsons… oh there he is!” Despite that I still caught myself grinning at their in-jokes and looking forward to how their story threads developed and I liked the people. Each character does behave as their own person and remains consistent in their role which is a definite positive.
If you’ve enjoyed Telltale Games’ Wolf Among Us or Infinite Fall‘s Night in the Woods you likely have some sense of Lake‘s core appeal. Each day begins with your rounds where you might bump into a character to unfold a new story element, then, once the day’s mail delivery is complete, you pick the rest of the day’s agenda. I wanted to see as much as possible so I took the socialite approach to every choice and saying ‘yes’ to literally everything never caused a problem, which was a little surprising. It would’ve been nice to see a bit more conflict between choices but honestly that’s a theme which seems to crop up every time with these dialogue focused games, and Lake is no exception. Additionally, it sometimes feels as if your character simply cannot say the wrong thing, with the dialogue going the exact same way no matter which option you pick. Sometimes Meredith is empathetically sensitive to the point of being near psychic, and other times you’re given a dialogue choice that boils down to [Be normal] or [Be an asshole for absolutely no reason] which can feel a bit like railroading. Barring that, the story is a good one and achieves what it set out to do, and on balance, I’d say that the ‘no wrong answer’ approach to the story choices works for the experience. By the time the end of the second week rolls around, and the core choice must be made, I really did find myself agonizing over what I would do in this situation.
Lake is certainly not for everyone – I think the lack of things to do would put many players to sleep. It’s a very specific experience that tries as hard as possible to take as much ‘game’ out of the game and leave you only with the relaxing story element. And on balance, I’d say I enjoyed my time with Lake; I breezed around that leafy town not knowing if what I was doing mattered or if I really cared about that or not. It’s like having a day off work without any plans – the world is your oyster and there’s absolutely no pressure. I should have been arrested many times by the local traffic cops and at least had to pay for that guy’s garden, but in the end Meredith’s idyllic break-away from the office was a welcome one that rubbed off on me.
In the interest of full disclosure, the publisher provided VGamingNews with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.