REVIEW: Experiencing ‘Lake’ As An Anxious Gamer (XSX)

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Lake - But Why Tho

Lake is a narrative game from developer Gamious and publisher Whitehorn Digital. You play as Merrideth Weiss, who has just returned to idyllic Providence Oaks after 22 years away, to fill in for her father delivering the post. For 14 days, it’s up to you to decide how she spends her working vacation in this quiet, mid-80s lake town.

Here’s the deal: never bring your planner on vacation. I work something like 70-80 hours a week most weeks. It’s partly out of necessity and partly out of an inability to say no to more gigs. So Lake, a game about somebody who literally goes on vacation from her full-time job to work a part-time job as a favor to her dad, and then gets asked by, or offers to, help basically every single person she meets in town, is extremely relatable. Merrideth certainly doesn’t hate her day job, though her boss is pretty terrible and is constantly trying to make her work while she’s off. She’s just clearly discontent, and over the course of Lake, it’s up to you to investigate that discontentedness.

And specifically, you’re exploring that feeling. You’re not explicitly prompted to use this vacation time to determine your life’s path. It’s really just up to you who you feel like having conversations with, who you feel like helping, how you feel like spending your free time after work, and so on. It’s clear that Merrideth has some thoughts about her life’s path, and its probably easy to find yourself reflected in that struggle. But there’s absolutely no pressure that the game puts on you itself to do any particular thing.

But there lies the rub. If you’re like me, very anxious, bad at saying no, adverse to conflict, and constantly paranoid about potentially bad outcomes, this game is going to be absolutely anxiety-inducing, not the peaceful, quaint stay in a pretty town that it looks like it should be. Every conversation is a deliberation about how not to disappoint that person, especially since the prompts can often look more negative than how your sarcastic character actually says them. Every favor is a debate over whether I want to spend my time being helpful or just get to the next thing I actually want to do faster.

And metacontextually, this is a game I spent money on. I don’t want just to blow people off even though I really would like to because then I won’t experience everything the game has to offer, or I’ll miss an achievement I could have unlocked, or I’ll feel like I didn’t spend enough time seeing everything I needed to for a fair review. As my planner filled up more and more, sometimes, I found myself wishing I never stepped foot in Providence Oaks. But its too nice townsfolk, possible romantic entanglements, and repeated opportunities to blow off my boss when he called me at inappropriate hours during vacation always brought me back around (honestly, a really great narrative mechanic whenever somebody called on the phone). Which reminded me of my own life, where I am deeply overcommitted but still find plenty of joy in the things I spend my time overcommitting to. Most of the time.

All the features that are supposed to make Lake this slow-paced and pensive experience, like the slow movement and mundane tasks delivering the mail, make sense. The mail delivery is a great vehicle for exactly the type of game Lake intends to be. My only criticism is that your mail truck has the driver’s seat on the left side of the vehicle like a regular truck, not the right side like a mail truck. They’re purposely built that way in real life to make delivering the mail faster and safer, so you don’t have to walk around the truck to the mailboxes; you just pop out the door onto the sidewalk. But then again, maybe this was an intentional decision to slow you further down? And my reaction is just another extension of my anxiety around playing the game.

Like any good narrative game, Lake is all about choices. And those choices never have dire consequences by any means, but they do affect how people treat you and what kind of relationships you can have. Specifically, there are two romance options, Robert and Angie. Pursuing one or the other doesn’t take much more than completing their favors and having the most flirtatious responses to them you can. For a game based in the 80s, it makes little hoopla about having a queer option, which is nice. It just lets you pursue it, and neither character makes the slightest of a weird deal out of it.

For me, the game’s multiple possible endings didn’t feel like a worry among all the other things that did. Perhaps because I knew that I wanted to pursue the game’s queer relationship above other options if I could, and I refused to return to my crummy work life pre-vacation at all costs. But in my own personal queer reading of the game, it was befitting the game’s themes that the queer ending was the most disruptive. The “easy option” and the “Hallmark option,” if I may call them those, perfectly match the heteronormative standard of so many stories like this before it, even if the latter isn’t necessarily an easy choice to make itself. There’s zero shame in picking them whatsoever. But the third way is, perhaps intentionally, radical and the riskiest. It’s totally outside the bounds of any expectations I would have had for how I could end this story before beginning it, and that, for me, is a great reflection of the essentiality of radicalness in choosing my own confusing and overstimulated life’s queer outcomes.

What Lake was for me was not a peaceful, slow-paced reflection on what matters most in life. Instead, it was an anxious and difficult exercise in letting go of things that don’t bring me joy, even if they might hold other values. And it was a reflection on queer experience and the radicalness of choosing what’s genuinely best for yourself despite others’ expectations. However, while some moments of my time playing was difficult, it was because of how I saw my own ongoing experience through Merrideth’s eyes. And if a game can make me do that through expertly crafted gameplay, a perfect soundtrack, and captivating characters and relationships alone, you can certainly color me impressed.

Lake is available now on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, Mac, and PC.

Lake
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

What Lake was for me was not a peaceful, slow-paced reflection on what matters most in life. Instead, it was an anxious and difficult exercise in letting go of things that don’t bring me joy, even if they might hold other values. And it was a reflection on queer experience and the radicalness of choosing what’s genuinely best for yourself despite others’ expectations. However, while some moments of my time playing was difficult, it was because of how I saw my own ongoing experience through Merrideth’s eyes. And if a game can make me do that through expertly crafted gameplay, a perfect soundtrack, and captivating characters and relationships alone, you can certainly color me impressed.