Let’s be honest here: there’s nothing quite like waiting for the post. Sure, there’s more than a few boring days where you get nothing but spam and unwanted bills, but if you’ve ordered something for delivery or are expecting a package from a friend or loved one? The anticipation goes through the roof as you wait, hoping to hear the sound of something drop through your letterbox or for a knock on your door.
Also, there’s nothing quite like complaining to every single person you know in the world when delivery services let you down.
And so we come to Lake, an indie game love letter to the postal service, and most specifically the way that the US postal service has been a foundational cornerstone of many small towns and rural communities across America.
The game takes us back to 1986, as Meredith Weiss takes a break from her career at a software company to let her dad take a holiday and cover his mail route around her lakeside hometown of Providence Oaks.
First things first, it’s clear that Steve, her boss at this big city job, is a bit of a douche. Her Labor Day is ruined when she has to do some late night work on their upcoming software, Addit ’87, meaning that she misses out on the party that Steve excitedly tells her about on the phone. Not only that, but even though she is taking leave, he rudely interrupts her time away from work to demand her input on the product launch. Don’t be like Steve. Steve is an ass.
By contrast, running the mail for this small community is bliss. Meredith inherits her dad’s mail truck, hopping in to scoot from mail drop to mail drop on the winding road that runs around the lake. There’s a small high street with a few shops, there’s little clusters of houses, a motel and a diner, and a few little farms and lumberjacks as well.
The fundamental gameplay is incredibly simple. You get a map of Providence Oaks and starting your shift each day will sprinkle it with letters and packages to drop off. You don’t have a defined mail route to follow, but can instead pick your own path to connect the dots. Driving the van around is about as simple as driving gets in video games, and as you pull up, you’ll hop out to nip to a roadside mailbox (it’s America, after all), or grab a package from the back of the truck and wander up to ring the door bell.
This is an inherently relaxed experience, and you can take as many liberties as you want. You’re not on the clock, so you can stop along the way to take in the sights and sounds of this picturesque locale. As you deliver certain items of mail, Meredith will get to meet and chat with the residents, often getting to catch up with people she hasn’t seen for over two decades since she left to find higher education and work.
It’s here that you see Lake’s take on the slice-of-life genre, as you choose how you interact with people. When Maureen at the diner insists that you stop for a coffee to catch up, are you going to brush it off and say that you need to finish your round, or will you accept the offer? How are you going to react to bumping into Kay, Meredith’s best friend while growing up? And will you be outright rude to the cat-lady of the town?
Initially, these conversations seem to be quite constrained – even if you choose to sit down for a coffee, things at the diner go wildly wrong and you have to say you’ll catch up another time – but Lake promises a branching story based off you choices. That also extends to what you do with your time in the evening. Steve will come calling for help with work, but you can brush him off in favour of hanging out with friends, or decide to watch a movie suggested to you by the woman running the VHS rental store – The Postman Knocks Twice.
If there’s one criticism of Lake, it’s that the game can feel a bit wooden. It aims high with its lovely visual style and the town full of characters, but getting around the world and the character animations is a bit stiff, and some of the voice acting is rather caricatured. Hopefully some of that can be tweaked and refined between now and the game’s 1st September release date – it’s “coming first” to Xbox and PC.
Of course, the whole game is building up to one central question. As you meet all the people of Providence Oaks, make friends (and maybe more), settle into the daily routine of delivering mail… will you want to stay at the end of the two weeks?