Here's a novel concept: a moment of calm. It's an increasingly elusive feeling that, even in the slightly wonky early preview build we play, Lake is already very good at evoking. As we chug around in our white post van to a soundtrack of gentle country music on the radio and distant crickets, syrupy autumnal sunlight breaking through the trees, the effect is like taking deep, slow breaths of pine-tinged mountain air.
Lake is the kind of game where holding down the run button shifts your speed from 'amble' to 'saunter', where your most high impact interactions include opening mailboxes and sitting on benches. If it's a slower pace of life than we're used to in games, though, that just helps put us in the plimsolls of Meredith Weiss. A software developer in the mid-'80s, she steps away temporarily from a life of DOS command lines and holiday-weekend crunch to cover her dad's postal round for a fortnight in Providence Oaks, Oregon.
Take your time
Developer Whitehorn Digital
Platforms PC, Xbox One
This sleepy rural town is wrapped around the titular body of water, forming a neat circuit. Every day, you do a loop of it, dropping off letters. Occasionally, you'll have to deliver a parcel, requiring a root around in the back of the van and a trip all the way to the front door. Between deliveries, you might catch a glimpse of a fox, darting into the undergrowth by the side of the road. "Especially the past few years, I think people would like to be in a carefree surrounding, in a beautiful environment to just relax and escape from all the daily misery," game designer and lead writer Jos Bouman says.
This methodical rhythm isn't the only thing that Lake gains from being a postie simulator. Structurally, it's not that different to your standard RPG quest – it gives you a reason to travel here, complete a task and return to base over and over which "does not feel forced or artificial," Bouman says. "And what is also very handy is that, as a mail carrier, there's a very believable excuse to meet people and get into conversations with them."
With no loot or XP in sight, these conversations will be the sole reward for your efforts. Your route is peppered with characterful stop-offs you'll quickly get used to seeing: the diner, the video rental store, the bungalow with all the cats lounging on the overgrown lawn out front. Delivering to them generally involves engaging the residents in chats that Bouman describes, without any hint of self deprecation, as "not very earth-shattering".
Discovering that a family business has changed hands; a slight tug of passive aggression when encountering an old school friend you've lost touch with completely; a potential romance – these are the stakes you're working with here. It all builds up to a final big decision at the end of your two-week stint in Providence Oaks, but don't expect any pyrotechnics here either. Bouman hopes that by grounding Lake in reality, the small choices you make, and their eventual consequences, will hit harder. "Sometimes, slowing down the pace helps to give the player some time to let stuff sink in," he says. "And just enjoy the experience of getting somewhere."
While we can't speak to the story impact just yet – our demo lets us sample the first few days, which is long enough to start dangling plot threads but not to pay any off – the sense of place, and of being present, is already unmistakable. "We want the player to relax," Bouman says. "They should not have FOMO or worry about what they're going to choose, just be in the moment."
Taking him at his word, we pause at a stop sign, admire the casual enormity of the lake ahead as we let traffic pass, then head off along a route that's already becoming familiar. Like any meditative act, it sits right on the edge of becoming boring, but when the scenery is this pretty, we're happy taking it slow for a while.
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