Everyone reaches points in their lives where they need a break from their normal routine. Whether it’s doing something different than the usual 9-5 grind or a change in scenery — or both — we all occasionally need to step back and try something new to recharge the old batteries or even discover a new passion or career path. This is precisely what developer Gamious has in store with Lake, a mellow game about delivering mail and getting to know the residents of a small, idyllic lake town in the Pacific Northwest. The setting is pretty and the setup is unique, but the game somehow manages to both overstay its welcome and leave you wanting more by the end of its roughly eight-hour runtime.
The year is 1986. You play as Meredith Weiss, an overworked computer professional taking a much-deserved vacation so she can fill in for her father at the post office in her old hometown of Providence Oaks, Oregon. While she’s there, she runs into old friends, makes some new acquaintances, gets stuck in the middle of some post office drama, and ultimately decides what she wants to do with her life. Even though that sounds like a story, there’s very little in terms of actual plot in this game. Lake is more like a series of moments interspersed with the solitude and monotony of mail delivery, and then you make a potentially life-altering decision before the credits roll. Overall, the experience can feel a bit dull, but there is something to be said for a game that invites you to exist in and explore small moments without trying to sweep you up in some grand tale.
The town itself is quite pretty, with a huge lake, lovely snow-capped mountains in the background, scores of trees, and even the occasional woodland critter scampering across a road. Houses are mostly nondescript, but there are enough little details and distinctions that you can buy the small neighborhood feeling the game is going for. The atmosphere here is peaceful; at first, driving around is relaxing, and each letter or package you deliver is a novel and fun adventure. The novelty wears off after the first few in-game days, though, as you spend a lot of time delivering mail to empty homes while struggling with the sluggish vehicle controls and Meredith’s power walking that somehow feels like a crawl. It’s a bit of a shame because I could see myself getting distracted by exploring the town on foot, but choosing between the painfully slow walking and the pain-to-drive mail truck makes the prospect significantly less enticing.
As you deliver mail to various locations around the small town, you meet some residents and can engage them in conversation. There’s a decent variety of people to interact with, from the crazy cat lady living down the street to a lumberjack who loves his isolated cabin in the woods. A few of these denizens are entertaining to learn about. Movie buff Angie is definitely my favorite, and I have a soft spot for teenage mechanic Lori, who is eager to leave her parents’ place and see more of the world. You can even choose to date some of the residents if you are so inclined. There are only two choices, and in my opinion, one of them is far superior to the other, but romance is very much not the focus of this game, so don’t worry if you want Meredith to stay single.
There are some odd characters whose storylines feel random or out of place. I ran into an unnamed metal detectorist, for example, who mentioned a local club. Even though I had already discovered where that club met and had the location added to my map, nothing ever came of it. Another weird character is the motel clerk, who rudely ignores you in every interaction so he can play a computer game; he does get his comeuppance, but I’m not sure why I was supposed to care about him outside of the catharsis of poetic justice. I suppose randomness like this is part of the point of a game like Lake, but it still kind of felt like a wasted opportunity for more character development in such a short experience.
Speaking of development, you do have dialogue choices in cutscenes. These run the gamut from polite to impertinent, and while they do affect how characters react in the short term, I found they didn’t have a significant impact in the long run. For instance, one of the characters you meet is Meredith’s old best friend, Kay. The two lost touch after Meredith left town, and things are awkward at first when she shows up delivering mail. You can choose to be understanding and remorseful, or you can be insensitive and confrontational. Regardless of how you behave, Kay will reach out and begin the process of reconnecting, and presumably only outright rejecting her will change the outcome.
On a related note, residents will occasionally ask you to do things for them. You can always say no, of course, but there’s really no reason not to do what they ask unless you want to skip cutscenes. In fact, despite having a day planner that fills up with the various tasks or meetings you agree to, you never have to worry about scheduling conflicts. On the one hand, I suppose it’s nice that you can see and do pretty much everything without worrying about choosing between people; on the other hand, it feels a little odd to give the player so much dialogue choice and then have it not matter. Even the post office drama I mentioned earlier gets resolved in the same way regardless of what you do. So in the end, most of your choices end up feeling more like flavor text than impactful decisions.
In terms of presentation and performance, Lake is a mixed experience. The stylized visuals are pretty, if a little dated, but animations are awkward. Characters basically stand or sit still in conversations, and if they have to move, the camera cuts away or they just disappear sometimes. Facial animation is essentially nonexistent in the sense that everyone only has one expression. Thankfully, the voice acting is strong enough to convey the intended emotions, but there are other ways in which the sound lets you down. The licensed music that plays on the radio is nice, but there simply aren’t enough songs, and many of them sound too similar. Even in a short game like this, you get tired of hearing the same music over and over. Then there are the numerous glitches, such as characters appearing out of their normal positions in cutscenes, textures displaying improperly, and even a weird bug that made it impossible to use any gamepad other than an Xbox controller. The single most pervasive and annoying glitch, though, is that the hum of the mail truck engine is audible in pretty much every cutscene, even in situations where the truck should be nowhere nearby. Hopefully, some of these issues will get patched out, but it’s nevertheless frustrating to encounter lots of bugs like this.
I don’t regret my stay in Providence Oaks, but like most vacations, I wish I had gotten to do more in the short time I had with the game. If you’re looking for a slice-of-life experience in a peaceful lake town and you don’t mind some bumps along the road, Lake might just be up your alley. If you want a narrative game with replay value where your choices affect the story, this vacation might leave you a little wanting.