LudoNarraCon 2021: Lake

What’s this: a post about a title from this year’s LudoNarraCon which isn’t focused on being a detective? While Murder Mystery Machine and Song of Farca were about gathering evidence and tracking down criminals, this one offers an entirely different experience.

I wasn’t entirely sure Gamious’ project was going to be for me though while checking out the Steam page during the event at the end of April. The screenshots for Lake were pretty enough and I liked the idea of there being ‘no right or wrong answers’; but the description made it seem as though it could be, well, a little boring. After watching the trailer however and enjoying the way the narrator made the whole thing sound like an American television show, I decided to give the demo a try.

The story takes place in 1986 and begins when 40-something Meredith Weiss, a successful software developer, leaves the big city and returns to her quiet hometown of Providence Oaks in Oregon. She’s there to fill in as the local mail carrier for her dad for two weeks so this is quite a change of pace. It’s up to you to decide who she talks to, along with who to befriend or even start a relationship with, and at the end of her stint she’ll have to make up her mind: return to her job in the city or stay in the town she grew up in?

The setting is instantly recognisable as small-town America even to players who don’t live in the country. The shops dotted around Providence Oak, such as the General Store and Mo’s Diner, and wooden-cladded houses instantly make you think of television shows such as Dawson’s Creek or Gilmore Girls. Throw in some 80s nostalgia and an atmosphere which reminded me of something like Firewatch, and you’ve pretty summed up that trailer I mentioned earlier.

Chapters in Lake come in the form of days and each morning starts with a chat with your colleague Frank at the post office. He has already kindly loaded the van so you jump in and check your map, then stop at various addresses along a circular route around the lake to drop off letters and parcels. During my hour with the demo, the most ‘shocking’ things that happened were the song changing on the radio and some birds flapping overhead as I drove around a corner.

In some ways, the title isn’t that different to an RPG because it gives you a reason to travel to locations, complete a task and then return to your base. It’s this for this reason that I couldn’t help thinking to myself: ‘This is like Grand Theft Auto but without the crime and violence.’ Funnily enough, lead writer Jos Bouman referred to Lake as ‘some sort of anti-GTA’ during an interview with The Escapist, saying: “We just want to have a game that makes the experience sincere and mature. And we don’t want macho bullshit.”

LudoNarraCon, Lake

It’s not just about delivering the post though. I struck up conversations with several interesting characters met during my day on the road and perhaps even started a few new friendships too. A parcel delivery to the video rental store resulted in owner Angie giving me a copy of The Postman Always Rings Twice; and there was a trip to Mr Mackey with sick cat Mortimer too. (Hopefully it’s just Meredith feeing him cupcakes again rather than something more serious.)

There are apparently around 20 people to meet and interact with, of different ages and backgrounds who, according to Bouman, ‘have made decisions or are about to make decisions in their life’. Not everyone is going to be friendly or happy though. The development team wanted to make a game which is true to life and so tried to include a whole range of personalities in their non-player characters (NPCs), all mixed up with moments of joy, humour and sincerity.

Your nights in Providence Oaks can vary depending on the relationships you build. I found myself in front of the television on my first evening and then watching that video borrowed from Angie on the next; and it seems as though you can decide to meet up with other people at different locations if you’ve made arrangements. This day-night cycle adds some variety to Lake and makes a nice change from delivering the mail, as well as giving the player a sense of progression.

Perhaps the best thing about Lake for me during the demo was just how well everything fits together. The 1986 setting is during a time before mobile phones and the technology which now pretty much rules every aspect of our lives; and a job as a mail carrier gives Meredith the perfect opportunity to meet so many people. It therefore means real conversations with people rather than emails and text messages, and the whole thing feels completely natural as a result.

Bouman said in The Escapist interview: “In Lake, one of the most important decisions you have to make in the end is – are you going to stay in the village and say goodbye to your career in the big city? Or are you going to decide that you want more out of life? You make decisions that feel best for you… There is no right or wrong ending.” Unfortunately I had to miss the end of the demo thanks to a family barbecue, but I’m eager to see more after completing through the first three days.

I remember playing Eastshade back in 2019 and not wanting to leave when I reached the end of the title. It was just such a calming experience: no violence, no chance of getting attacked in the woods, just a desire to get to know the people on the island and help them if I could. This is the same impression I got from the short time I’ve spent with Lake so far. I might not have thought it was going to be for me while reading the Steam page, but it was added to my wishlist immediately after the demo.

The game is due for release on PC this summer but, if you want to get your hands on it faster, it’s going to appear on Xbox a little earlier. Check out Gamious on Twitter for the latest details.