Time Marches On, Sometimes In Front Of Your Face
I begin this review by saying that I did not intend to review Lake. As with most games released over the Summer, I'd unbox, give first impressions of the game, and play through enough of it to "get the gist" of its message. There was something different and unique about Lake that drew me in. It's a simple game with a simple premise but with enough hidden layers that it exceeded first impressions. I wanted to know how the story of Meredith concluded in the quaint town of Providence Oaks, Oregon in the late 80s.
Lake's story begins with Meridith Weiss, a software developer who is the lead developer of software titled Addit '87. Having been asked by her father to come back home to Providence Oaks to take over his job as a mailman, Meredith returns for the first time in 22 years as a temporary mailwoman. During her two weeks stay, she reunites with old friends and meets new ones. She can't stay there forever as she's only here on a favor, or can she? That is up to the player to decide.
Lake Is 'Paperboy' Without The Antics
The core gameplay consists of Meridith's daily routes as a mailwoman. Every morning, Meridith is given a route containing a mix between letters and parcels. Providence Oaks is small enough to where after the first route, it's simple to identify and navigate the important areas. There's the diner to the east, the woods to the west, the farm and motel in the south, and finally town hall in the north. All four sections are surrounded by the lake, hence the title's namesake.
There are no "time limits" or traffic laws to follow while driving the truck. It's not so much a "mailman simulator" as it is a "slice-of-life" game. It's two weeks in the life of a woman who realizes that they aren't sure what they want in life. This is the most realistic premise I've seen in a video game in a long time. Generally speaking, most "coming of age" stories exist with a younger protagonist as they struggle with becoming an adult. I refer to the Life Is Strange series a lot, but it was one of the main franchises to cast a spotlight on "growing pains" in video game form.
Age Is Nothing But A Number When It Comes To Deciding About Life
Lake sets apart from stories such as these by simply having a mature protagonist. The official description narrows Meridith's age to "40-something" and it's her first time returning to her hometown in over 20 years. High school friends are now happily married with children. The owner of a diner takes full control over it after their husband passed away. There are teenagers who have lived in the town all of their lives yet the time spent apart from your hometown outlives even that. Early on, you're conflicted between turning your "vacation" into a "workcation" by doing favors for your boss as a software dev. There are opportunities to befriend the neighbors as well.
The beauty behind this game is that it doesn't hold your hand outside of delivering packages. In fact, the game ends after the two weeks are up anyway. How you spend those two weeks is entirely up to you as the player can decide to mail packages every day and only watch movies and read books in the evening. Lake nudges the player to help out the neighbors early on as you deliver packages and introduce yourself to them. One of the earlier side-quests is to deliver a sick cat to the fisherman to see if he can treat the cat. This helps strengthen your bond with the cat lady in turn.
Providence Oaks Includes A Colorful Cast Of Characters
There's a lumberjack named Robert who lives in the woods and he's on property that others wish to purchase and turn into land development. Meredith can decide to discuss the semantics with Robert over coffee at the diner or choose to let him handle it. Meredith can also fix a rocky childhood friendship as the friend, Kay, believes Meredith hasn't been great at keeping things up to date with her. She can also befriend the video shop owner, Angie, which in my playthrough led to the two of them in a relationship. Eventually, the player will meet almost all of the important characters through deliveries during the first few days which branches off into their own stories.
The more Meredith opens up to her neighbors, expresses interest in their daily lives, and shows themselves as an amicable person, the more potential events that transpire during the two weeks. The player can just as well decide not to do anything after work instead of curling up with a book and watching a movie. There is no "illusion of choice" to be had as the game ends during the end of the second week no matter what the player decided to do. No "bad ends," no "best endings," just the ending the player wanted Meredith to have.
Do You Rekindle Friendships Or Make New Ones?
Fortunately, all of the residents in Providence Oaks are interesting with their own stories to tell. I was able to bond with Kay in a treehouse much like it was during our high school years, supporting her music career. I even covered for my boss at the post office who was currently under fire for "alleged" gambling. Everything that Meredith can do in this game won't have any prolonged consequences aside from closing specific routes and alternating the endings accordingly.
Meredith can even find love and begin a relationship either with Robert or Angie depending on the player's choices. Most players will find themselves with Angie as she's not one to shy away from her interests in Meredith. Meredith can either reciprocate those feelings or keep things at a friendly level. The same can be said for Robert as their relationship is more of a slow burn (though it doesn't stop the diner owner from shipping the two). Ultimately I went with Angie, which directly affects one of the endings you earn in the game.
Despite Chill Vibes, Your Actions Do Have Consequences
There are, to my knowledge, three possible endings. Meredith can decide to take the offer of pushing her career to the next level by moving back into the city. She can also decide to stay in Providence Oaks, either single or in a relationship. Likewise, a third hidden option leaves her with an RV. Lori, the mechanic, will tell Meredith that she fixed up the RV for Angie who was planning to leave P.O. behind. This is brought up via a postcard at some point and I assume the scene plays out differently if the player decided not to be romantically involved with Angie.
This also leads to quite possibly the only instance of why Lake has a "Mature" ESRB rating. The previous owners of the RV are young outlaws on the run who Meredith can befriend. Eventually, they offer her a drink and...grassy medicine which she can accept. It's only referenced this one time, but I suppose this was enough to cause a stir in Australia at the time. The rest of the game is entirely chill, save for some of the characters occasionally swearing. But for a roster made up entirely of adults, with the exception of the teenage mechanic Lori, this is the most chill "Mature" rating game I'd ever played.
Sometimes, Lake Is A Tad Bit Too Realistic
Regardless, I couldn't help but compare the parallels to the ending of True Colors. At the end of that game, I decided for the protagonist and her love interest to leave the town behind and to have Alex pursue her music career. Ironically, Meredith is the one who leaves her software career behind, but it further proves that you're never too young, or old, to try something new in life. Gameplay-wise, Lake can get repetitive, with each day playing out the same, driving the same routes, and coming back to the same home. Perhaps it's a simulator of living a quiet suburban life, but it does get mundane.
Fortunately, there are in-game mechanics such as setting waypoints, fast traveling, and of course auto-pilot to speed things up. Most deliveries are tied with cutscenes involving relevant neighbors, which helps break the monotony. It would be better if Meredith walked just slightly faster when it came to her deliveries. I don't expect a middle-aged woman to be an Olympic sprinter, but there's hardly any difference between walking and sprinting.
Do You Find Love And Leave With It?
These are minor nitpicks that don't do a lot to hinder the beauty of Lake. There are no instances of taking the mail truck on a joy ride, the map is short with some hidden secrets tied with some achievements, and there isn't much Meredith can do outside of her truck. It's a game that felt more like an interactive cheesy piece of 80s cinema than a video game and that's perfectly fine. The number of 80s references (including a 'stellar' rendition of We Are The World) is enough for people from that era to feel nostalgic. For the rest of us, it gives us a snapshot of how simplistic life probably was back then.
It may not be the most mechanically sound game I've played, but Lake did something that very few games have done. Reassure me that despite my age, it's never too late to do something with your life. As someone who is nearing 30, playing a game where a character in their forties can have the same experiences as someone in their twenties shows that we're all in this together. It's never too late to be adventurous but it's also perfectly fine to stick with a safety net. Do you pursue your career or do you decide to leave it behind with another woman you just met a week ago? My answer for Meredith may not be the same for other players.
Or Do You Double Down On Your Career? The Choice Is Yours
Regardless, Lake is one of the best games I've played this year as it offered me introspection to life. It was a short experience if you cut the padding of mail delivery, totaling a little bit over five hours to beat the game. It was more than a game or an experience, it was a beautiful story that dared to be different by placing the player in familiar circumstances. Players who are mindful of narrative games like these will understand and appreciate it. Lake is a game for non-gamers as well as gamers alike.
Lake is available on the Sony PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and the PC.