Playing Lake, a new indie adventure game, feels like coming home. Perhaps more specifically, it feels like taking someone to their home after a long time away.
That’s partly down to the premise of the game, of course. It’s 1986, and you are in the shoes of protagonist Meredith Weiss, a forty-something software developer living in the big city. After twenty-two years living away and building a successful career on the forefront of technology, you—-or rather, Meredith—-are coming home to Providence Oaks, Oregon. It’s a sleepy town that surrounds the titular lake, home to Meredith’s parents and maybe a few dozen others at most. Dad and Mom have left on holiday, and for the next two weeks Meredith will be taking over her father’s job as a mail carrier for the local post office.
And that’s the game, pretty much. Each day, Meredith will begin right outside the Providence Oaks post office, the day’s deliveries loaded into The Goose, Dad’s beat-up old mail truck. She’ll drive to each destination, delivering each letter and package one by one, and when it’s all done, park back at the post office to end the day. You’ll do a fair amount of driving, a lot of walking, and good amount of talking as you get to know people old and new.
Other than that, the rest is up to you. Following the early stages of the game, the interactions Meredith has with the people who live in Providence Oaks are almost entirely up to the player in Lake. If you like, you can spend almost the entire two weeks of Meredith’s visit home on your lonesome. You can simply do your work, then park your van and go straight home to watch TV, eventually returning to your job in the city when it’s over. There are no wrong answers when it comes to the narrative in Lake. There’s only a pretty lake, a nice town, and a bit of time and space to decide what to do.
That decision is what lends some weight to what would otherwise be a pretty thin game experience in Lake. There’s a certain heaviness that can permeate Meredith’s encounters with the townsfolk. Well into her forties, Meredith’s been away from Providence Oaks for almost longer than she’s been living in it. The people who used to know her know a version of her that’s two decades out of date. Her old friends have grown up, married, and even had their own children in the time she’s been gone. And not everyone is entirely pleasant or immediately happy to see her back. This doesn’t mean that some people are hostile, to be clear. Lake never drops its relaxing atmosphere. But this sprinkling of tension and hints of drama do just enough to give the game an aura of substance that what you do and whatever you do, on this short vacation can mean something.
The characters are also well-written, and the game’s open structure lends itself to a sense of spontaneity. In some ways, Lake feels like a much more peaceful, much smaller, and more focused take on a Grand Theft Auto-style narrative, where a few detailed “main” storylines are peppered with a number of side adventures that you can get into at your leisure. These are encountered seemingly at random while driving down the streets. For example, you can help Meredith catch up with an old friend from high school, or get to know the town’s teenage mechanic who can’t wait to find a way to leave the sleepy suburb. Or she could visit the new video store and help bring some culture to Providence Oaks, whose aging population seems to prefer fishing to movie night. Players can even steer Meredith into romance, with a handful of people she can meet and form a bit of a deeper connection with. Notably, this includes a same-sex pairing, and it’s gratifying to know that Lake handily supports a queer reading.
It’s not entirely a smooth vacation by a lakeside, though. Like a novice mail carrier, Lake does fumble the delivery in a few noticeable spots. Technically, I encountered a number of noticeable bugs. For some reason, Lake refused to play nice with my Xbox One controller and would not let me use certain critically important buttons (like using the right trigger to drive the van). As such, I had to make do with the mouse-and-keyboard controls, which are somewhat less relaxing than being able to sit back with a gamepad in hand. Some of the narrative could also use a bit of further polish, as at times, it’s not always clear where you’re steering the story just from Meredith’s choices. I accidentally stumbled into one of the romance subplots, after misinterpreting some of the interactions. And though the standard of Lake‘s storytelling is generally high, not every path to the end of Meredith’s time in Providence Oaks is equally satisfying. As such, I’d recommend multiple playthroughs, to get the other possible endings.
Nevertheless, Lake is a refreshingly light and novel experience, and one that’s easy to recommend to anyone who doesn’t need to end up saving the world in every game they play.
Lake is available for the Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC.