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Friday, December 1, 2023

Lake is a relaxing postal sim that makes you doubt your career choices

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The postal service was much simpler back in the 1980s. No PS5s being snatched from porches, no looming threat of Amazon delivery drones, and no aggressive push for a speedier service. Gamious’ indie adventure Lake takes us back to that peaceful time. It’s a driving sim set in the Pacific Northwest of the US, where you deliver mail, talk to the locals, and, well, not much else. Lake is chill, has pretty visuals, and is right up my street.

You play as Meredith Weiss, a corporate computer whiz who has taken a break from her city job to spend two weeks as a postal worker in her hometown of Providence Oaks, Oregon. I say town, but that’s a stretch. Providence Oaks has a tiny population, barely 100 people, many of whom have grown up and never left since Meredith’s initial departure 22 years ago. 

Delivering mail in this sleepy town is easy enough. You start every morning at the post office and drive to each location on your list, delivering the right parcels and letters to each address. Using the mini-map in the bottom corner to keep track of the surrounding area, you drive up to a house, hop out of your van, and put the letters in the mailbox. It’s really that easy. If it’s a package, you’ll first need to fetch it out the back of the van and hand it to the person directly—you know how it goes.

You really can’t go wrong delivering the mail. If you somehow walk up to the wrong mailbox, the little icon letting you deliver the post doesn’t pop up. There’s no time limit or a specific order for your deliveries, you just amble along in your wagon until all the tasks are done. Providence Oaks isn’t just a suburban neighbourhood—you’ll be visiting all kinds of places. There’s a worn-down motel, rusty garage, faded video store, and the huge lake that the whole town centres around. Occasionally, you’ll need to go off-road to find some of the more hidden houses within the forest. 

Stopping off at these locations surrounded by Oregon’s peaceful wilderness is the best part of Lake. There are picturesque mountains and hundreds of pine trees that envelope each road you drive on. Since there’s no timer on deliveries, I always take the long way around the lake, with my beat-up mail truck humming along nicely.

It’s not just Oregon’s wilderness that has its own charm, the van feels like it has its own personality too. It’s a huge hulking thing that can only go 30 mph and you can even feel its weight as you drive around corners. It also has a radio, and naturally you’ll need to bang on the dashboard to make work. Even then, it can only tune into a single station that’s partial to sweet country ballads about heartbreak. My driving is terrible, but there aren’t really any cars around apart from the occasional truck and battered station wagon.

Getting to know the residents in Providence Oaks is another aspect of Lake. There’s a lot of personalities in this small town, like the cranky lady who owns the grocery store, the hermit who lives on his own in the forest, and the kooky granny with twelve cats. None of the residents really stood out to me (although the preview I received lasted only an in-game week) but the overall feel of the neighborhood really caught my attention. 

Meredith’s parents stayed in Providence Oaks and are rooted in the tight-knit community, meaning lots of people she used to know from her childhood, and even some strangers, know stuff about Meredith without ever meeting her. Meredith left 20 years ago, but many of the people she knew stayed put. It’s weird trying to fit into a place where everyone else is so permanently settled, and where everybody already knows you, but an old version of you. You can see hints of this when Meredith speaks to an old childhood friend, Kay, a person to who she hasn’t spoken since she left. There’s a tension there that I feel Lake will explore in more depth. 

Lake also touches upon Meredith’s past decisions about leaving the town and what she should do about her future. The preview only hints at it, but Providence Oaks’ slower rhythm is something that Meredith likes, which is very different from her city job. Did Meredith make the right call leaving this quiet town for a high-pressure job where she’s forced to work overtime constantly and deal with a huge pile of work because her boss, Steve, can’t be arsed to do it himself? It feels like the game is heading in the direction where you’ll need to make a concrete decision about whether Meredith stays in her current job, or leaves it to stay in Providence Oaks.

Lots of media set in the ’80s tend to be vapid throwbacks that focus on nostalgia, but Lake is not that. There’s not really a pretentious story here, it’s about small-town life and the feeling of returning home after being away for a long time. I’m looking forward to more chill driving and postal work in Lake when it releases sometime later this year. I’m also desperate for Meredith to quit her city job, tell Steve to shove it, and move back to Providence Oaks, even if it’s only for a little bit while she figures her future out. 

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