Meredith has been busy. Since she left her Oregon hometown of Providence Oaks, she has been working, whether at college or as a coder at a burgeoning software company. Those 20 years since she left are but a haze of labor. Until, that is, she returns. Her mother and father are taking a vacation for the first time in decades. Her dad recruits Meredith to take over his postal route in Providence Oaks. This is an immediately understandable narrative frame. A career woman returns to her hometown, or even just visits a rural area, thereby recovering some essential element of herself. This basic plot is a feature of hundreds of Hallmark movies as well as personal favorites like Only Yesterday and Desert Hearts.
It is not in the broad premise that Lake runs into trouble, but in the particulars. The game is so dedicated to comfort that it forgoes conflict of almost any kind. Meredith can be rude, even mean, but that mostly serves as a way of dropping social engagements. Other characters are jerks, such as the gas station clerk or the motel manager, but that is only played for cheap laughs. Even the low stakes conflict of a sitcom plot is nowhere to be found. The game also completely forgoes systemic struggles. In this rural Maine town, there is no church, and I cannot recall any mention of religion. No co-worker expresses support for Reagan while Meredith squirms. Almost everyone in the game is financially well off. The one exception, a couple in debt looking to rush across the border to Canada, is also played for laughs. Even Meredith’s postal service job feels strange. Would even a small government institution let an untrained newbie take over for a long time worker?
To cement the game’s total lack of drama, Lake’s setting in the 1980s is merely pop culture set dressing. One of the game’s two romantic interests, a cute bookish girl, owns a VHS rental shop lined with faux posters of recognizable ‘80s classics. If the budget could afford it, the radio would blast hits from 1986; instead it plays facsimiles of pop country songs of the period. These are the only gestures at history or context. Lake is a game that lets you be gay, but doesn’t mention the AIDS crisis. It is a game about public infrastructure that has no inflection of Reagan’s relentless dismantling of public goods. Just outside of the game’s two weeks in September 1986, AZT was made available to AIDS patients for the first time. There are queer people, but not queer community. It’s all individual.
As a contrast, take Desert Hearts’ setting of 1950s Reno. Protagonist Vivian Bell is in town to finalize a divorce. She is leaving her husband not because of abuse or infidelity, but because she is unhappy. This already has politics; she needs to head to Reno where a divorce can be handled with relative discretion and speed. Being public would lend only shame and scrutiny. She is staying with a friendly woman, Frances Parker, on the outskirts of town. There Vivian meets Frances’ surrogate daughter, Cay, and the two begin a quiet romance. They are surrounded by the heteronormative trappings of pop culture in a casino town. They are under the pressure of Frances’ own bigotry and Vivian’s reluctance. The romance is eventually joyful, but it moves through the difficulties of the time. Additionally, its release year of 1985, just one year before Lake takes place, feels like a statement of its own. Here are queer people, living and loving in another time of conservative power. We will keep on living.
Lake’s 1980s setting is mostly to emphasize a nonexistent, idyllic past. Despite Lake’s friendly and progressive presentation, its fantasy relies on a lot of conservative assumptions. The city is cruel and demeaning. The rural town (implicitly white though the game does feature some PoC characters) is kind and freeing. A career absolutely should be traded for a family and a home. Providence Oaks reflects elemental truths about life, rather than being a specific town, in a specific place, at a specific time. Those truths are revealed without struggle or tension, self evident in going to a small place away from everyone else.
The defense here might be that Lake doesn’t have ambitions to be anything other than pleasant. Lake’s endless comforts are still a problem. Both Desert Hearts and Only Yesterday are broadly “wholesome.” They both have happy endings. Both also move through real pain and conflict to get there. Desert Hearts is not a cruel movie, it does not evoke the past or present pain of queer people for empty sobs. It is both possible, and even necessary, to have art that reflects queer difficulty while being joyful. Only Yesterday does rely on some of the same conservative assumptions as Lake, however it drapes them in the fabric of human life. The film flips between the childhood and adulthood of Taeko Okajima, as she decides to permanently move to her favorite vacation spot in the country. In that decision, the film weaves both past and present selves, emphasizing the multiplicity that goes into even simple choices. It has drama, and the ache of real human recognition.
Still, it might be unfair to compare Lake to two minor film classics, but this is the comparison it makes itself. Outside of the GTA-like interface of mail delivery, the construction is cinematic. The game is populated with landscape frames, shot/reverse shot editing, and other trappings of dialogue-focused visual storytelling. The game’s budget does not allow for vivid facial expressions or daring competitions. It is sometimes pretty, but its restrictions prevent it from unveiling striking images or having flexible, poetic writing. Instead, Lake often feels rigid. Its limited palette is unable to capture subtle facial expressions, nor does it allow itself more abstract images.
In contrast, I think about how Only Yesterday leans on animation’s particular joys and affordances. Taeko’s memories are rendered in a hazy watercolor. Walls and background disappear into vague shapes. The faces are cartoonish, sketched, whereas her adulthood is realistically drawn, wrinkles and all. While Lake could not have the same visual language as these films, videogames can be, and frequently are, expansive and expressive visual works. A look at the frontpage of itch.io, of games like EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK or Cibele, or even classics like Final Fantasy 7 or Silent Hill show a wide range of effective aesthetic modes. Even more popular indie titles like Kentucky Route Zero or Night in the Woods showcase a low-budget but striking theatrical framing. Instead of pulling from videogames’ particular power, Lake relies on a sterile duplication of cinematic tools.
Ultimately, Lake’s only real sense of drama, outside of a forgettable side plot about illegal sports gambling, comes from its decision making. Meredith can choose to stay in Providence Oaks, return to her corporate job, or move into a RV and travel across the US. Her visit to her home town is depicted as the crux of her life to come. These decisions too, though, feel weightless. Everything falls in Meredith’s lap, without much effort. A visit to the aforementioned refugee couple will get her the RV. Her parents decide to buy a new home in Florida, leaving Meredith their house in Providence Oaks. The software that she worked on before her vacation is a massive success, allowing her to return to the city with relative wealth. A new life in the country requires no sacrifice. Meredith doesn’t even have friendships from before. Much of the potential decisions, such as romantic partners, come from social engagements with friends and neighbors. While you can say no to people, there are also no scheduling conflicts, allowing you to pursue all relationships and most hobbies all at once. The closest thing to a political statement that Lake makes is Meredith’s relationship to her job. The game opens with her working instead of going to the company party, and her boss bothers her throughout the game’s runtime to complete small tasks for him. The subtext is that the job is overworking her. But Meredith suffers no ill effects. She is neither stressed, upset, or depressed. Because her parents offer her both a career and a home, there is no financial pressure for her to stay at her job. The game criticizes capitalism, but can give that criticism no teeth.
In some sense, I do admire what Lake is trying to do. It uses the tools of AAA games to move away from bombast and towards smallness. It wants to reaffirm the validity of communal work. Its stalwart refusal of conflict undermines its noble intentions. It tears out the context of its time, thereby removing real power from its setting. It deemphasizes the regular heartache of life, making its joy powerless. Its narrative frame can have real power, even in escape or simple joy. Even simple stories, though, are better with shade and contrast.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.