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Lake Review

Lake Game Review Feature

Lake is a deceptively simplistic narrative game centred on Meredith Weiss, a programmer at the software company Addit '87. Meredith leaves her city life and returns to her hometown of Providence Oaks for two weeks, where she covers for her mail carrier father. Lake, however, is more than Meredith’s story; it’s a mirror in which we can see a fictional reality that shares truths with our second-decade lives.

The Image was the Beginning

In the words of Dylan Nagel (Game Director for Lake), ‘A car, a road, and a lake'. Nagel shares his inspiration in a LudoNarraCon video you can watch on YouTube. The picture shows a car, flanked by a lake on one side and a forest on the other, driving along a Top Gear-esque winding road. In the distance, a rolling evergreen mountainside hides the horizon, and thick patchy clouds creep across a blue sky. Nagel reaffirms the innocent origins of Lake; ‘We just wanted to be in a beautiful place taking a nice quiet drive'.

Lake is the elaboration of an image. Inspiration is often triggered by a single observation, prompted by stale ideas. The image that inspired Lake became what Nagel calls a ‘Vision Document'. In this document, which appears briefly in the aforementioned YouTube video, he outlines what he envisages for Lake. The relative accuracy of his vision is commendable.

A Realisation of Inspiration 

From picture to place. An eponymous lake, a road encircling it, and a lone mountain. Distinctive features of what would become the setting for Providence Oaks; a time capsule of 80s small-town America.

The fictional Providence Oaks is set in the lush state of Oregon. Forests enclose the huge lake at the centre of the map, watched over by an imposing, stoic mountain. In an interview with Jos Bouman (Creative Director), he revealed the hard copy release will include a physical map of Providence Oaks, like the one seen in the game. The map will feature ads for locations on the map, and various in-jokes for those in the know. Maps, whether based on fact or fiction, reinforce the reality of a place. It’s a neat touch.

The painterly art direction in Lake enhances the tranquillity of the environment. It doesn’t overshadow the narrative or the gameplay. Instead, it complements the player’s journey as a blanket comforts on a cold night camping. The Oregon inspired locale allowed Gamious to develop a quiet setting, where the player would have room for their own thoughts. It imparts a sense of simpler times, and provides ‘a non-threatening atmosphere for anyone looking for entertainment in a better, not worse world,’ as indicated by Nagel in his Vision Document. The limited palette soothes the mind and declutters the screen.

Bouman explained to me that the mountainous surrounds ‘also helped to naturally demarcate the small world we were looking to create'. The visual cordoning off of the map is an insight into the considerations developers make when designing games. Such a basic trick confounds the detail of the finished product.

Saudade for Generations Past

Despite Gamious being a Dutch game developer, there was an obvious rationale for the location. ‘From a cultural perspective,’ said Bouman, ‘we wanted the player to feel at home as soon as possible'. 80s America provides a familiar, welcoming setting that we’ve grown used to. Through television and film, we’ve grown accustomed to and nostalgic for small-town American life. Player immersion is seamless when worlds are relatable.

According to Bouman, the majority of the development team grew up during the 80s. Their fond memories of the generation were kindling for a world they wanted to inhabit. Bouman said the setting allowed for ‘A world without internet and mobile phones,’ and provided ‘an escape from today’s “always online” way of life'. The 80s were, as Bouman aptly puts it, ‘A watershed decade,’ ushering in a digital boom that was then fashionable, now, potentially insidious.

To capture the essence of the 80s, Gamious employ an understated soundtrack. None of the songs are from the 80s, but they all manage to impart the nostalgia of the era. The lyrics in all of the songs reinforce the game’s themes. They make wandering, or driving, a thoroughly pleasurable and immersive experience. It’s a world where I frequently found myself sitting down (in-game), admiring the virtual view, and genuinely relaxing. I felt like a mail carrier on a break.

Meredith’s situation is a universal predicament; one which, when observed omnipotently, we can relate to our own lives. Her story emerges from the setting she’s thrust into.

City/Country Binary 

Meredith’s story is an indictment of modern life. At this point, it’s become a cliche to leave the city for spacious, rural climes. In Lake, Meredith’s passage to Providence Oaks isn’t precipitated by whim. She’s purposely arranged to cover her father for two weeks.

On her personal computer, running the software of the company she works for, Meredith types a diary entry. She jokes about how the same program — designed to help organise a life — is the reason why she can’t make the Labor Day celebrations. She signs off by saying that she’s glad she can spend two stress-free weeks in Providence Oaks. Her personal computer overlooks a canyon of skyscrapers and glass facades. Her desk is minimally adorned and coexists nicely with her simple apartment. There’s a book on her desk titled, The Clue of Life. Every city dweller surely has at least one self-help book; it comes with the territory.

This, I believe, is the only time the player glimpses Meredith’s life before she goes to Providence Oaks. It’s all the player needs to understand the dichotomy between the two lifestyles, and the subsequent themes that develop from the choices. Meredith’s boss, Steve, who continually pesters her throughout the game, declares, ‘Two weeks is a lifetime'. He’s a pleasant character who lives for work and relies heavily on affirmations from Meredith. When viewed as a series of conversations, his life seems sad and lacking substance. He’s a deadline guy.

Lake never forces story on the player; it introduces story.  The narrative develops naturally, utilising game space to build curiosity. And thus a desire, on the player’s behalf, for answers - and in the long-run, resolution. Bouman says, ‘Lake should, first and foremost, be a lighthearted and relaxing escape from real life'. Meredith has no idea what her return to Providence Oaks may or may not uncover. She’s looking forward to a break. Home, if we’re lucky enough, will forever be the bastion of reassurance and warmth.

A Natural Progression 

It’s during quiet moments that we’re afforded the time to reflect on ourselves. In Lake, Meredith meets an eclectic variety of fleshed-out characters — some of whom she knows from childhood — that she chats to daily, as anyone would in a small town. The interactions are realistic and semi-random, depending on the route the player takes. The story then unfolds at the pace the player plays the game at.

The relationships Meredith can pursue lead to finite outcomes that round off the narrative. The decision I made at the end of the game was one I didn’t want to make. I did it because I felt compelled to make a meaningful choice. In-game decisions are often a tool developers use to pretend players have agency. Without sounding too cynical, decisions are never truly important in the gaming world. Decisions tend to be mechanic modifiers — they determine a character's ability to wield and utilise other mechanics. A simple example of this would be the good-guy/bad-guy character benefits. There may be certain dialogue that gives a good-guy character certain advantages/disadvantages that the bad-guy character won’t have access to, and vice versa.

Lake had me caring about decisions despite the lack of reward. Meredith reconnects with old friends and engages in fulfilling relationships. These can be more difficult to come by in the tumult of the city, where the existence of ‘tribes’ necessitates a metaphorical entrance fee. The dialogue in Lake is occasionally pedestrian and, when juxtaposed against reality, offers a stark relatability. There’s a lot of beauty in these sweet characters. Gamious respects the player’s preference for how they want the story. Bouman confirms their commitment to well-written stories when he says, ‘I hope we’ll see more narrative games that offer real choices. Choices you can relate to.’

Playing Story

In Lake, there is no right or wrong ways of doing things. There are no benefits from speaking to one NPC before another. The day-by-day story is not too dissimilar to a series; each day in Lake is the equivalent of an episode. One of my notes for the game was: There’s very little to do but walk, drive, observe, and listen. This mirrors Nagel’s remark about driving in a beautiful location. There may not be much to do, but merely existing in the game provided a zone for me to escape in. ‘A world,’ Bouman says, ‘in which you could move around at your own leisure.’

The mail carrier role is the storytelling device. The player has the freedom to progress the story when they want. As Bouman points out, ‘Players should feel that they’re part of a story, but should not feel a burden of completing it, or fear that they could miss out on something'. The mail van is an ideal solution for enabling narrative.

The controls are admittedly a little janky and yet, as is often the case with indie games, I was quite content with how it felt. Life isn’t perfect — and shouldn’t be — but we get on with it. The mundanity (relating to ordinary life) of the game, helps reproduce a reality that many supposed simulators fail to do. Playing Lake reminded me that common everyday occurrences are important. Lake is a mature game, tackling ordinary life experiences that for some may seem overly simplistic. Bouman says, ‘We tried to stay away from all sorts of cliches, and treat the player like an adult'. And, before I’d even spoken to Jos, I felt strongly respected. I was happy to find out it was their intention.

At one point during the game, Meredith delivers a parcel to a motel. Here she encounters a man playing games on a computer. Even though he works at the motel, he doesn’t stop playing to talk to Meredith and even gets quite angry that she won’t leave him alone. On another occasion, he says, ‘Video games are supposed to be fun,’ when he’s struggling to complete the game.

This example is an expression of the philosophy at Gamious. Bouman says, ‘Games with lots of menus, options, crafting, side quests, and what have you, are not my cup of tea. I’d rather keep it short, sweet and pure'. The apparent layers of complexity in games are mere layers of the onion. They’re features that prolong the story, elongate gameplay, and of course, enhance entertainment. They have severe side effects when taken too literally — like the man in the motel who is essentially disconnected from reality.

I didn’t play Lake for hours on end, nor did I feel the need to. I returned daily and played a single day at a time over the course of two weeks. Each day roughly took me an hour or two, depending on my urges to explore, or exist in, Providence Oaks. Ultimately, I felt satisfied with the time I’d given to Lake — and remember, that’s what it is, our time. The experience provided me with an interesting story that I wanted to participate in, and a world I didn’t want to leave; a world where I had time to ponder.

Boots Made for Walking

I admire Gamious for insisting on limiting Meredith to a walk (or a fast walk). Human beings don’t run everywhere. Especially in the UK, where most people would rather risk missing a bus than chase it down the street. We can’t be getting all flustered now, can we? Unless someone is running for health benefits or content with being that person who runs for the bus. Or perhaps darting through a door someone has kindly held open. We simply don’t run very much. People don’t run at work (signs often tell us not to), or around the neighbourhood in the name of exploration or loot sniffing.

It’s good that indie games have more leeway for experimentation. They are the protagonist to AAA's antagonist. Many of us don’t play games the way we did as children. Completionism is central to modern games, FOMO compels people to buy more. And thus, we have shallower experiences. Insecurity (worrying about builds, etc.) runs amok on Reddit.

The irony is that, whether the build is correct or incorrect, it will lead to the same result. You can complete any game even with the worst approach. Thankfully, that is a central, albeit underappreciated, aspect of game design. Dark Souls is a prime example. You can complete the entire franchise and its offshoots without levelling up. In-game variables aren’t real, nor will they affect real life. Games are purely, and solely, a means of entertainment. They should be fun for fun’s sake. If a message is incidentally imparted to the player, even better.

The ambition of Gamious transcends gaming. It may be wrong for me to pretend to know what their goals are. But my experience with Lake was healthier, more enjoyable, and more memorable, than any game I’ve played this past year.

Bouman says, ‘Gamers are curious, and open to new experiences. As an indie developer, you have the luxury that players expect new experiences'. I had a real sense of onus from Jos, as though he has an honest motivation to change the way we game. We’ve come to expect new experiences from indie developers, but don’t hold AAA developers to account for the repetition and unoriginality of their games. And the — let’s be honest — frighteningly addictive qualities they seek to perpetuate. Gaming sometimes feels like a dystopian competition of who can keep faces glued to screens the longest.

In the End was the Image 

When I spoke to Jos Bouman, I asked him about the inherent difficulties of game design. He said, ‘You can never please everyone. We’d rather please a smaller group really well, instead of a watered-down experience for the lowest common denominator.’

Gamious has developed a strong identity. Their positive outlook on game development is refreshing and their respect for the player is humbling. If consideration, and their trust for the player, continues to be at the forefront of their values, I believe they have a resolute foundation to build their future titles on.

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Bouman about the perceived simplicity of Lake. The game has been universally categorised as simple, but what does simple really mean here? To me, the word implies detail that we don’t want to think about it. In the same way we use the word ‘deep’ to avoid having further dialogue on a deep subject; the word lightens the mood. Bouman said, ‘Some people might say that Lake (or some of our other games) are “simple,” but that’s actually a huge compliment for me. One of my favourite sayings is, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Simplicity belies the groundwork. Simplicity is the wonderland of realism.