It would be easy to dismiss Lake as another example of the “Pastoral Saviour” genre, akin to Animal Crossing/Stardew Valley. A stressed city slicker takes a break and goes out to the country to find themselves, their love and reset their life. They fix their life, and bring a little modern culture back to the boonies. You know this plot, because it’s also every other Hallmark movie.
But that would be doing Lake a disservice. Because it is sort of that, but presented so beautifully and interrogated in such a meaningful way that it’s hard not to fall for the quiet pines and placid Lake.
Our 80s City Slicker is Meredith Weiss, who is taking two weeks vacation in Providence Oaks to fill in for her Dad on his postal route.
Her parents have gone on holiday to Florida from the Pacific Northwest. She’s taking the time to have a break from her incredibly busy software career ahead of a big product launch.
She’s spending that two weeks driving around the open world surrounding the lake, delivering letters and parcels. And also (if you choose) taking the time to (re)connect with the various residents of the town.
You can probably see where this is going. What does Meredith Want from life? And will a trip to a small town make her reassess that?
It’s a cloying pitch, but one that the mechanics, writing and character of Lake end up making actually work.
I want to park neatly in Lake. That feels important. I bought in enough into that world that parking between the lines, not holding up traffic was something I chose.
I feel enamoured with the town of Providence Oaks, and I like spending time with its people. This wouldn’t work as well without the open world giving the town a real sense of place.
There’s a methodical mundanity to Lake. Drive around the town surrounding the titular lake. Park at a house. Deliver mail. Repeat seven or eight times, checking against your map and delivery list.
The repeated journeys breed a familiarity that ends up reinforcing Meredith’s experience in the town, as you grow to learn it as well as she did before leaving.
There is an Auto pilot function to key locations, but no fast travel. If you don’t enjoy the driving, you don’t have to perform it fully, but you do have to experience the travel through the world regardless.
So you meander through the softly presented landscape. You marvel at the gorgeous lighting and weather as it dapples though pine trees. Smirk at the odd fox which dashes across the road as you explore the trappings of rural suburbia. But the landscape and town only make up one of the characters of Lake.
There’s a great cast, with the writing/voice acting making each character unique and entertaining. Of particular note, your former best friend Kay has a delightful vocal quirk where her dialogue speeds up as she gets excited which is performed impeccably.
The dialogue choices in these conversations typically have a great sense of humour or character to them. It always feels like Meredith’s voice. You just happen to be deciding on the mood she’s in to react, and whether she’ll get on board with the folks in the town.
There were a few clunky moments where it seemed various lines of dialogue were required to fit across multiple responses, and it showed. Especially as various sentiments repeated from the cast across the game, telegraphing the big choice at the end.
But the choices are important. Especially as you work through the little plot lines you uncover from talking to people, including some very sweet romantic decisions. It all ties into Meredith’s weekly organiser. Events and interactions with characters get filled out as you talk to them, and this lead me to think the game would involve deciding whether to see one person or another, though it never seemed explicitly that I had to choose between A or B.
But you can choose not to attend various events, or can miss them completely. I missed a photography contest because I skipped talking to the shopkeeper one day. It helped reinforce the fact that Meredith was currently just dipping into this life, not part of the community fully . It’s something that develops over time, and that sense of uncovering the cast’s real feelings ends up being Lake’s greatest strength.
The reason that Lake ends up feeling like so much more than just a hallmark version of small town Americana life is that here small town life isn’t idyllic.
The shopkeeper Nancy is only there because Hollywood let her down when her beauty faded. Angie, the video store owner is an LA blow in who made the same decision as you several years ago. She’s trying to make the VHS revolution happen too early. By contrast, your boss demands a lot of you, but turns round and seems to actually want to recognise and reward you. The only teenager in the town is desperate to leave and see the world because there’s nothing for her here.
The writers of Lake aren’t willing to pretend small town life is perfect, or that life outside is some horrible modern dystopia. Instead they show, through their characters, that staying in Providence Oaks is a series of choices people are making. And one you’ll have to make too.
The game is building to a choice. Stay in Providence Oaks, or Head back to the City.
It’s not subtle about this, but Lake genuinely threw me for a loop at the end. I didn’t feel moralised at as to how things should have ended, because the writing left me feeling that all of the options were entirely viable.
It never felt like Meredith had somehow come in and made some impact on the town it wouldn’t have eventually got to on its own. I didn’t feel like the city was only evil and the small town was only good.
It was a level of depth and interrogation of the original tropes that I really wasn’t expecting. One that surprised and delighted me during my time by the Lake.
Lake was created by Dutch developer Gamious and published by Whitethorn Games.