Like I said at the end of my E3 coverage, Steam NEXT Fest features a ton of playable demos. So I decided I’d play a few of them and offer my reaction. I spent a bunch of page space responding to the AAA trailers that the big publishers put out, so it seems only fair that I should give some attention to the hardworking indie teams that went to the time and trouble of putting together a playable demo here in the year of our Lord, twenty hundred and twenty-one. I thought demos were all but extinct, and if developers are going to bring them back then we ought to reward them with our attention.
Then again, maybe my attention isn’t that great of a reward. I am by nature relentlessly picky, insufferably critical, and tragically jaded. When you put out some sort of trailer or public demo, then you’re probably looking for unconditional fanboy gushing, not the critique of an aging, cantankerous programmer.
This is particularly true when my response is generally negative, which is the case for…
In Lake, you play as Meredith Weiss, a software developer who has burned herself out in the big city rat-race. At the start of the game, she returns to her quiet hometown in the Pacific Northwest. She’s here to house-sit for her vacationing parents and deliver the mail.
This is a fantastic setup for a game. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the excellent Firewatch, which I really enjoyed back in 2016. We’ve got a middle-aged protagonist who seeks to escape the problems of their normal life by travelling far away and taking on a new job that’s a little bit more folksy and down-to-earth. This new location has the added benefit of being a gorgeous place for the player to take in. Also, we’ve got a stylized toon presentation to keep the development costs down because photorealism is for those squares in the AAA publishing houses.
Lake is played from a third-person perspective. The dialog-based gameplay and stylized presentation makes this feel like a TellTale title, but unlike TellTale games Lake actually has an open world for you to explore. You can walk or drive around the town, which encircles the titular lake. The driving mechanics are pretty basic Slamming into something at speed just stops you, without damaging your vehicle or whatever you hit. You can’t go on a GTA-style spree of property destruction and vehicular homicide. and the game does a fade-in / fade out when you enter or exit a vehicle to avoid needing all the complex animations this sort of thing would normally call for, but that’s fine. This isn’t trying to be a GTA clone.
This is really impressive for an indie team. Just driving around the lake was a pleasant experience. The visuals are amazing.
Sadly, this game fails at the one thing it absolutely can’t afford to fail at: This is a dialog-driven game where the dialog is painful to endure.
The problem is twofold. One, the writing isn’t particularly great. It’s not atrocious or anything. It’s better than some AAA games I could mention. But it still has a certain awkwardness to it. Nobody comes off as witty. Nobody says anything incisive. There’s no emotional tension to the exchange and nothing to make us curious about what’s going to happen next. People just segue mechanically from one piece of exposition to the next.
This is a problem in individual conversations, but also a problem on a script level. When Meredith arrives at the small town, we don’t get a sense of what she’s after. In a narrative sense, she hasn’t begun any sort of arc. Based on her dialog, she’s just here for a nice holiday and then plans to go back to her normal life. There’s no hint that she’s reached some sort of turning point in her life or that she’s facing some sort of inner crisis. I’m willing to bet that something like that comes up later, but we need something here at the beginning to create some initial tension.
“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut
In Firewatch, we spend some time with Henry in the form of a brief Twine game. He meets the love of his life, woos her, marries her, goes through a couple of rough years as he learns to be a husband, and then endures heartbreak and anguish as she fades away due to rare early-onset Alzheimer’s in her 30s. By the time the gameplay begins, we know who Henry is and we know he needs some way to cope with the seemingly insurmountable pain in his life.
Lake doesn’t really have this. We know Meredith just got done working crunch at work, but we don’t get a sense that it was a particular hardship for her. She doesn’t seem particularly stressed and she doesn’t seem to be seeking to change her life. We don’t know who she is and we don’t know how she feels about her job. Maybe the writer will do that later, but we begin our story with a flat character with no goals.
The second problem with the dialog is the more serious one, which is that the line delivery is horrendous. People usually blame this sort of thing on the actors, but this is actually a directing problem. It’s the job of the director to help the performers understand the purpose and context of their lines. Is this a slow, tense conversation where Serious Things are left unsaid? Or is this rapid-fire banter? Is this a Sorkin-style walk-and-talk? A careful exchange between people who are keeping secrets from each other?
This is especially important in the context of low-budget voice acting. In a big Disney production, the performers can all gather in the same booth and play off each other. They might even have concept art to give them a sense for the mood and tempo of the scene.
But in smaller productions, each actor gives their performance alone. If they don’t get the direction they need, then they don’t have any idea how to read the lines. As far as the actor knows, their character is a blank slate, standing in a white void, talking to another blank slate.
Consider the exchange that Meredith has when she first arrives. One of her dad’s colleagues gives her a ride into town in his mail truck:
Frank: I’m sure you’ll do great!
You know what? While we’re en route, why don’t we deliver some mail in our beautiful little lake town?
Frank’s delivery is INCREDIBLY warm here. He sounds like he’s reassuring a small child. I get that we want the town to seem welcoming, but this delivery is way too saccharine for an exchange between adults who barely know each other.
Moreover, this is just not how human beings talk. Like, folksy old mailmen probably don’t go around saying ‘en route’. It sounds awkward and doesn’t really fit with the salt-of-the-earth / literal blue-collar characterization we’re going for here. Also, the mid-sentence tourism commercial for his hometown feels incredibly forced. I mean, it really is a beautiful little lake town, it’s just that it’s weird that he brings it up like this.
Also, the way he makes this suggestion makes it sound like he just spontaneously decided to deliver the mail. He needs to do his job and she needs some training. I feel like these deliveries would have been a forgone conclusion, not a sudden suggestion in the middle of the drive.
And finally, these two people are speaking as if they’re on a porch swing and not riding in a late 1980s USPS delivery truck. Those things are not quiet vehicles. These two characters would need to raise their voices a little to be heard over the engine.
I realize it sounds like I’m being incredibly nitpicky here. All of these things probably seem like small details. My point is that these small details add up. These things are how you can make a scene feel authentic and get the audience to believe in the characters. You can maybe get away with making one or two of these mistakes, but here the entire conversation is stiff, all of the lines feel forced, and everyone’s delivery feels insincere.
This is what really killed Lake for me. Every character speaks like they’re reading ad copy for a radio commercial. I’m sure you’re familiar with the delivery style I’m talking about. You can hear examples of it in these parody commercials from GTA III. The delivery is generally bright and delivered with an eye toward clarity rather than emotion. That’s not how people normally talk, and it’s certainly not how people converse.
If this was an action game then we could shrug and conclude that, “Well, the cutscenes are kinda bad, but at least the gameplay holds up!” Except, this is a dialog-driven story game, so this dialog is the gameplay.
I know this stuff is hard. Heck, AAA studios fail at this sort of thing sometimes, even with their gigantic budgets. I can commend the team for trying something really ambitious. This game has a lot of incredible work going into it, but it fails in the one area where it absolutely needs to be strong.
It’s heartbreaking, because the rest of this looks so good. This small town in Oregon is wonderfully realized. Also, I think delivering the mail is a really clever way to get the main character to move around the town and meet the locals. In gameplay terms, this is a lot more immediately interesting than the wandering around Henry had to do in Firewatch.
The good news is that this is the only game that really disappointed me. Next time we’ll talk about some stuff I liked.
 Slamming into something at speed just stops you, without damaging your vehicle or whatever you hit. You can’t go on a GTA-style spree of property destruction and vehicular homicide.
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