I spent the last week leaving my job working in technology and traveling back to my lakeside hometown to deliver mail. It was every bit as uneventful as you might expect.
Lake is a strange game. Built as a story-driven experience, it nonetheless firmly refuses to tell much of a story. It’s an open world where you freely drive a vehicle around, but built-in safety measures keep you from ever bumping into pedestrians or going too far off-road, ensuring you're always a law-abiding citizen. Lake is also about characters and dialogue choices, but the decisions you make are so low-drama as to barely matter most of the time. And yet, against all odds, Lake is also a surprisingly intriguing and amusing affair.
Players step into the shoes of Meredith Weiss, a middle-aged software developer in 1986 who heads back to her tiny hometown to deliver mail in place of her father, who is taking a well-deserved vacation after his years in the postman’s truck. As Meredith, you must deliver mail, catch up with people you haven’t seen since childhood, and find something to occupy your evenings, like reading a book, watching TV, or getting together with a friend.
For the first couple of hours, I kept expecting “something” to happen. Even knowing the gist of the game going in, it’s almost hard to fathom playing something so uninterested in grabbing your attention. After I adjusted to what Lake was putting down, I began to enjoy what was happening. I got to know the streets and planned an efficient delivery route. I paused to snap a picture of the lake on Meredith’s camera. I memorized the chorus to that one song I enjoyed on the radio, and started humming it as I drove to a parcel delivery on the far side of the lake.
If you’re expecting some big twist, you’ll be disappointed. At no point will aliens invade the town, and no major drama threatens to tear the rural community apart at its seams. Meredith’s personal and internal conflicts quietly unfold over the weeks you spend with her, but it’s all very low-key.
To accuse Lake of being boring might be to miss the point. On a fundamental level, it is boring to drive the same truck around the same town every day, delivering packages and letters to the same houses again and again. The small-town folk you meet are sometimes mildly eccentric but rarely share any insights or ideas that really make you think. They’re too busy talking about their memories of husbands who passed away years ago or what it’s like working the convenience store counter for so long.
As I played, I started to think about Lake as a sort of anti-game. Where most video games are clamoring for attention and to up your heart rate, Lake goes to great pains to keep everything pleasantly sleepy and peaceful. Most storytellers will tell you to jump the narrative between salient moments, leaving the day-to-day doldrums out of the mix, but Lake takes the opposite approach.
Easy-listening pop plays from the mail truck’s radio, but there are too few songs to keep you truly engaged in what you’re hearing. As you stride from the vehicle to your eighth delivery of the day, you can hold down a button to speed up, adjusting Meredith’s pace from glacially slow to slightly less glacial. From time to time, Meredith might make an observation about the envelopes she’s stuffing into those mailboxes: Handwritten addresses? Maybe they’re having a party. This other pile? Looks like they may have some overdue bills.
Along the way, it’s the uncomplicated conversations with the townspeople that provide moments of curiosity and interest. Was the video rental store clerk flirting with me, or is she just effusive? Is my best friend from high school angry that I haven’t stayed in touch, or is she over it? Who is wandering through that field over there? If I bother to stop my truck and walk over, I meet the local metal detector enthusiast. Does something ever come of the meeting? Maybe, or maybe not.
In aggregate, Lake’s strangely repetitive gameplay tells a story about quiet lives lived in small places, the value found in routine, and the fostering of connections to those with whom one lives.
I’d stop short of offering a full-throated endorsement and recommendation; Lake has some technical problems, including some animation and game save issues that resulted in some lost progress for me. Some of the dialogue feels trite. And many character animations happen off-screen, which hurts immersion. However, I think some players may find a lot to love in Lake, and I’m one of them. Developer Whitethorn Games has been very purposeful with Lake, providing a nearly stress-free experience that is nothing more or less than what it purports to be. Most gamers have never harbored the fantasy of being a small-town mail carrier, but I suspect the novelty of that idea might carry some appeal, especially if most of your game time is spent shooting aliens, racing cars, or leaping between buildings. Lake has none of those things, and it’s for precisely that reason that it feels like such a pleasant departure.