Just because we find ourselves where we aimed to be, that doesn’t mean we’re fulfilled once we’re there. Life is long and filled with twists and turns, and things can change. Similarly, sacrifices must always be made along the way. Lake explores these themes, although not so deeply that it comes across as overly cloying or heavy-handed. The game has some noticeable technical issues and some will find its laid-back minutiae dull, but it’s an enjoyable game overall with a small, yet well-realized cast of characters who aren’t all likable. But that’s truer to life, after all.
Lake places players in the shoes of Meredith Weiss, a 40-year-old programmer using some vacation time to fill in for her vacationing father in her hometown of Providence Oaks, Oregon. Ignoring the fact that being a Postal worker is a government job that one cannot simply “fill in” for, Meredith must handle her father’s mail route for two weeks in September of 1986. There’s some licensed music and talk of real movies, as well as a video store with a handful of parody covers that I rather enjoyed. At one point, you can elect to go on a movie date and choose for Meredith and her companion to see Blue Velvet, which they discuss on the drive back. That put an awfully large smile on my face.
Both the writing and voice acting in Lake are high quality. There isn’t much in the way of high drama here, and instead, we’re treated to more believable small-town matters. Regardless, I was consistently interested in much of what was going on. There are a couple of romance options (one of which is a respectful LGBTQ+ portrayal), and there are even choices to make. When the six-hour-or-so story comes to a close, you need to decide what Meredith does with her life next. It’s compelling, and there are no easy answers.
Package for ya
Lake is structured around Meredith delivering letters and packages to the residents of Providence Oaks. She travels to and fro in a mail truck. The driving is adequate in regard to both controls and handling, so it’s honestly quite relaxing to set out on the route every day. Meredith always has a mailbag with letters on her, but packages must be collected from the back of the truck. Letters tend to be placed in mailboxes, while packages are taken to the porch, where Meredith rings the doorbell. If no one’s home, you just drop it by the door.
Once every piece of mail is delivered for that day, the day will end once Meredith parks at the post office. After work, she’ll automatically take part in a narrative event if plans were made, and she often has a phone call waiting for her, usually from either her parents or her boss who continues to request that she work during her vacation. However, many of the activities in Lake are optional. You can choose Meredith’s responses much of the time, and you can turn down requests and invitations if you’d rather not deal with certain people.
There are even side quests, although, much like the rest of the game, they involve delivering a thing. One character, an obnoxious old cat lady, requests that you take her sick cat for help and then bring it back another day. One of the love interests runs a video store and has a two-part side quest where you lend a couple of town residents a portable VCR and a couple of tapes to drum up business. Another side quest requires Meredith to take a dozen photos around town. You can even choose to send one off for a contest. I did nearly everything I could, although I turned down a date request from my unchosen love interest and told the cat lady to shove it when she asked for a favor. I ain’t helping you, Mildred. I helped your cat, but you can shut your damn mouth.
Press A to sometimes do stuff
The gameplay and narrative segments in Lake are quite enjoyable, but the game has some noticeable issues in regard to its technical aspects. You obviously have to press a button to get in the mailtruck or to deliver mail. But the button presses are frequently unresponsive. I often had to press the button multiple times when I tried to get Meredith to do anything. At one point, a work day started and I couldn’t convince Meredith to get in the truck, which forced me to reload a save. This extends to getting a package out of the back, as a lot of the times I selected a package, Meredith would shut the back door of the truck and not pick it up, requiring me to try again. Even the aforementioned side quest camera wasn’t spared from finicky responsiveness, as pressing the button would have Meredith take it out, briefly enter photo mode, and then immediately put it away.
Those all got on my nerves enough, but the absolute weirdest thing I saw was when I went to start a day and the game teleported Meredith directly into a conversation across the map. Once the talk ended, I realized that the mail truck didn’t warp with her. The truck was back at the post office, so I had to walk all the way there. It’s worth mentioning that Meredith can’t actually run, and her movement speeds are “walk slowly” and “walk at a somewhat normal pace,” which often makes delivering mail more cumbersome than need be. This happened to make the long walk back to the Post Office quite miserable.
Beyond that, my biggest gripe with Lake were the endings. There are a few different types of endings, where various things can happen, but I was awfully unsatisfied by the one I got. Long story short, depending on which big choice you make, Meredith can’t end up with her love interest. That’s understandable, as people want what they want. However, the game doesn’t provide the option to give one of those love interests a perfectly reasonable counter-option that would have clearly been a better choice for the two of them. Instead, a last-minute development sends them off in a weird direction that didn’t really fit with their character. There also wasn’t anything conclusive in one of the main aspects of the story that I had been looking forward to seeing addressed. It left me feeling kind of hollow.
Lake is an enjoyable narrative experience. I like the town, I like most of the cast, and, hell, I like delivering mail. The technical issues wore on me over time and, although the non-character visuals are solid, the facial animations detract from the experience some, but that’s normal for a smaller development team like the one working on Lake. Still, this is a game well worth playing if its premise appeals to you at all. Even if you just feel like delivering some mail every now and again, Lake is worth the trip.