As I set out to deliver mail to a nearby house in the demo for Lake, I drive down a road framed by trees. Everything feels so calm and still, and with the daily stresses of my real life now put to one side, all I need to think about in this moment is delivering the right parcel to the right destination. After all, sometimes we all need to slow things down a little bit. To take a moment to unwind and allow ourselves to put things into perspective. As Meredith Weiss, the 40-something protagonist of Lake, you're doing just that. Stepping away from your busy job at a software company in the big city, you head back to your hometown to take on the role of the local mail carrier in your father's stead.
Set over the course of two weeks in Providence Oaks, Oregon, you'll deliver mail, get to know the locals, and soak up the picturesque views as you drive to each address. By letting you become Meredith, developer Gamious is hoping to deliver a relaxing experience that you can get fully immersed in. "It's a game where you should not have to worry and you can just do things in your own time, at your own leisure," says lead writer Jos Bouman. "You have the packages that you have to deliver and the mail, of course, but it's not something that will stress you."
Going back to the '80s
The mellow small-town setting of Lake plays a big part in creating a relaxing atmosphere and effectively contrasts Meredith's busy life in the city. As you drive around the scenic environments of Providence Oaks, you have plenty of time to admire the views and just be in the moment. As game director Dylan Nagel highlighted in a recent LudoNarraCon talk, the setting and idea of being able to appreciate the views from a vehicle were initially inspired by a single image. It was a picture showing a car driving down a winding road near a lake that really captured Nagel's imagination, and served as the basis for the concept of the game. Bouman explains that Nagel originally presented three game pitches to Gamious, with the third drawing from this picture that would later become Lake.
"He [Nagel] pitched three games to me and my brother – we run Gamious. And he had quite detailed pitches of games," Bouman says. "And the third one was like, 'This is something I came up with last night. I saw a picture of a car and I thought, wouldn't it be nice to just be in that world and you can deliver mail and meet people?'. And my brother and I were like, yes, that's the one. So it was a short pitch, and we went from there. We tried to stay true to that vision – it's a vision, of course, but it's also a desire. We want players to be happy with just driving around the beautiful environments. And being a mail carrier, it's just a great excuse to do that."
With this vision in mind, the team decided the beautiful environments of Oregon would be a great fit for the setting – especially since Nagel had lived there for a year and a half and had first-hand experience of the location. The sense of time is just as important as the sense of place in Lake, though. Set in 1986, Gamious wanted to take players back to a time where things were just a bit slower and less distracting. With the absence of current technology such as mobile phones and the internet, it also makes the way in which you meet the locals and develop relationships feel more natural and realistic.
"From a believable perspective, we didn't want to have a world where you have mobile phones or the internet. It would not make sense to have all these meetups with people and only have social developments when you are around these people," says Bouman. "If you met up with someone nowadays, you would probably have their phone number and you would be messaging with them. And that's not really relaxing, I think that would be too much like real life. We wanted a bit of an escape from real life. So the more limited technological communication options enables us as the game makers to provide a world that is logical, and still demands players to actually drive around and meet people in real life."
As well as adding to the immersive escapism of the experience, there was a nostalgic factor that led to taking players back to that decade. The team are fans of the '80s since a lot of them are in their 40's, and it's clear from speaking with Bouman that they had a lot of fun bringing this side of the game's design to life. At one stage early in the game, you get the chance to visit a video rental store, where you can see a variety of spoof VHS tape covers paying homage to iconic '80s movies. When the demo was released, many players gave positive feedback about this particular moment in Lake, which has led character art director Sonja van Vuure to create even more for the final version of the game.
As well as getting to enjoy the calming atmosphere of Lake, Gamious wants players to truly be able to become Meredith and get immersed in the role. By presenting you with plenty of choice when it comes to how you spend your time and respond to conversations, Lake will really put you in the driver's seat of the experience – literally and figuratively. As you set out to deliver mail at your own pace over the two week period, there will be opportunities to interact with the locals. Over time, you'll have chances to naturally strike up friendships and even develop a romantic relationship if you want to. "We try to have a nice spectrum of social relationships, not just romance, but also your colleagues, old friends, new people you meet," Bouman explains. "So we try to have a nice and balanced mix of those social relationships [you can develop]".
The freedom to choose also extends to what you want to do after you've delivered your mail. When the work day ends and all the parcels have been posted, you can decide how you want to spend your free time. Be it watching a movie, reading a book, doing some work for your job in the city, or going out with the people you've gotten to know. As your time as a mail carrier comes to a close, you will also be presented with the choice to decide whether you think Meredith should stay in Providence Oaks, or return to the city. While the small town experience can often seem idyllic when you compare it to the hectic, demanding work Meredith is used to at software company Addit '87, Bouman explains that there are positives and negatives to both sides, and there's no right or wrong decision.
"You could say that Meredith is in the rat race. And what we do with presenting a job in a beautiful town as a mail carrier… it's a bit too perfect. But the idea of having a job that will not demand as much of you as the job Meredith has is also interesting. It's all about work-life balance. Eventually, at the end of the game, you sort of have to make a decision and decide for yourself what you think you would do in Meredith's situation," says Bouman.
"It's not very black and white. Steve, your boss, is a bit annoying and a bit demanding, but at the same time, let's say that Addit '87 really takes off and you are in that company. You could have a huge career and be rich. That's not what's going to happen in the game, of course, because it's only two weeks, but we don't want to present a black and white dilemma. And we also think that whatever you choose, that's your happy ending for Lake."
Lake is set to release on September 1, 2021 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC.