Steam Next Fest 2021 Pt1: Lake

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jun 24, 2021

Filed under: Industry Events 59 comments

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…

Lake


Link (YouTube)

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. 

Her boss Steve is basically a nice guy and the two have no discernable conflict.
Her boss Steve is basically a nice guy and the two have no discernable conflict.

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.

Hey, I was just thinking. What if I decided to do my job today and gave you the training you need? Would that be cool with you? We could do it in this incredible town we are already in!
Hey, I was just thinking. What if I decided to do my job today and gave you the training you need? Would that be cool with you? We could do it in this incredible town we are already in!

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:

Meredith: (Talking about her father.) I hope I can fill his shoes. He hardly ever missed a day.

Frank: I’m sure you’ll do great!

(Beat.)

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. 

I've seen people dump on Unity because it's not 'next-gen enough' or whatever. Those people are crazy. This looks fantastic.
I've seen people dump on Unity because it's not 'next-gen enough' or whatever. Those people are crazy. This looks fantastic.

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.

 

Footnotes:

[1] 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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59 thoughts on “Steam Next Fest 2021 Pt1: Lake

  1. MerryWeathers says:

    Is the dialogue and voice acting at least awkward enough to be “so bad, it’s good”?

      1. MerryWeathers says:

        Hmmm, I don’t think its bad or strong enough to be hilarious but it is amusing to me. I agree with you that the delivery of the dialogue is too saccharine and cheery to feel natural, it kind of reminds me of my childhood when my camp councilors were trying too hard too relate to my age group.

      2. Dreadjaws says:

        This gives me strong “The results came in. I definitely have breast cancer.” vibes. Not as funny because the lines aren’t that preposterous, but the way they don’t really do much to convey the proper emotions that they should be feeling.

      3. Mersadeon says:

        > 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 think this hits it on the head. It all sounds like dialouge that would be *servicable* in a game with more active gameplay that’s a bit more divorced from the narrative, but is absolutely not good enough for a game where narrative and gameplay are so closely entwined.

      4. Syal says:

        Miss Jenkins seems worse and thus better.

        Actually getting some Deadly Premonition vibes from this. Like, if there wasn’t any murder and you were just wandering around the town meeting weirdos.

      5. Bubble181 says:

        OK, so I just watched the scene; now, bear in mind I *just* watched this scene and nothing else.
        My interpretation is that Frank came to pick her up from…the train station? Or whatever? And drove her home, and suggests delivering some mail “while they’re at it” – it’s clearly said it’s Labor Day, so there *wouldn’t* normally be a postal delivery. He’s driving past some clients and decides to use this ride to show his new colleague some pointers, but he’s not actually working. Which makes it a bit weird that he’s in uniform and driving the postal truck, but I know other people who drive their work car around all day and I guess it’s easier animation-wise to keep a character in one set of clothes.
        Is it a bit oversweet? Sure, especially the “Get ready to roll!” at the end. The character sounds more or less like he’s in a kid’s cartoon. It may be an over-the-top style, but I don’t think it necessarily means they weren’t given any direction. “Be clear, over-emote, sound happy”.
        At the risk of saying something potentially touching he politics rule – frankly, most Americans sound like that to me. I regularly have team calls with colleagues from all over the world, and it’s always the Americans who consider everything Amazing, awesome, a privilege, an honor, blahblah. Hearing them talk, we’re not discussing a business proposal with a VP, we’re listening to the Prophet Returned. The postal driver doesn’t actually come off as any more unnaturally happy or positive than most Americans I’ve had to deal with in real life.

        1. Shamus says:

          To clarify: I didn’t mean to imply that the necessarily weren’t given ANY direction. I just mean it’s the director’s job to make sure the delivery is right. Either they were given NO direction, or they were given incorrect / unhelpful direction. There’s no way to know.

          Also, you seem to be contradicting yourself? You say that Frank’s delivery sounds like a children’s cartoon character, but then you say he sounds exactly like real people you’ve spoken to. Certainly you can tell the difference in delivery between Fred Rogers and Walter White?

          As a native, I can tell you I’ve never heard ANYONE talk to an adult the way Frank talks in that scene. Yes, it’s an over-the-top style, as you say. My stance is that this particular style is inappropriate and weird for the subject matter. This isn’t a kid’s show with puppets, this is a story about a middle-aged software engineer on vacation.

          If it works for you, then fine. But for me it’s strange, bordering on surreal.

          1. Melfina+the+Blue says:

            I definitely immediately thought “kid’s cartoon.” I have encountered people talking like that, to kids or people they consider to be their inferiors intellectually. Heck, I’ve had people talk to me like that when I work as a cashier, and it drove me crazy. It feels very condescending and thus doesn’t fit in a dialogue between two people who are supposed to be friendly. It also feels sexist to me and I really doubt that was anywhere near the intention, though I can understand how it came to be quite easily. If the voice actors were face-to-face, this dialogue tone would not happen unless they were directed to do so.

            Honestly, if you hadn’t pointed it out, I’d probably have just filtered it as, let’s face it, I grew up with a lot of cartoons that sound like this. And hopefully I did okay with not breaking rules, Shamus, and I apologize if I did. It looks like a lovely game visually, and perhaps the developers will take your criticism on board and use it to improve their next project.

      6. Asdasd says:

        Hmm, yeah, this really doesn’t work. I think this might be a problem in the ‘anyone can write’ vein. Anyone can deliver lines, in the sense that they can give a performance that is intelligible and possibly even natural-sounding, but like you say, it takes a great deal more expertise and craft (be it in direction or performance) to get something that will truly sell the scene to an audience. It’s not until you experience an amateur effort that you realise how the pros make that extra refinement invisible.

  2. shpelley says:

    I’ve seen people dump on Unity because it’s not ‘next-gen enough’ or whatever. Those people are crazy. This looks fantastic.

    I’ve never liked this garbage take from people. Unity can look incredible, if you go through the appropriate amount of work to get there. Unity is also just used by a lot of individual/small studio developers where that level of fidelity isn’t feasible to implement for reasons outside of Unity itself. Unity’s lower barrier to entry means that the average game produced in Unity is going to look less polished, and that is fine. Honestly, cartoon/stylized graphics always end up holding up better against the ravages of time.

    1. Thomas says:

      People only notice it’s a Unity game when it looks bad. Are you going to remember that Genshin Impact or Obra Dinn or Gris are ‘Unity games’ when there’s nothing to link those visuals together? They each look how they were designed to look

      1. Dorenkosh says:

        As I understand it, (and maybe this has changed?) the free license for Unity requires a Unity splashscreen (or some logo) while the paid license does not. So the *only* class of games that *always* highlight they were made with Unity are those made on low budgets. If you have a higher budget, that allows you to make a more distinct and better looking game, you don’t have to advertise that you’re using Unity.

        It’s the sort of policy that makes sense at first glance for Unity—”If we’re giving you a free license, you should give us free advertising!”—but the result is that their ad gets placed in front of only lower-end games.

        1. Asdasd says:

          I think this is a big part of it, yeah.

      2. Sleeping Dragon says:

        And Cities Skylines, Subnautica, Hollow Knight, Pathfinder:Kingmaker, Cuphead, Rimworld, Ori… the list just goes on and on, which, you know, only demonstrates the versatility of the engine.

        The Unity hate is basically blaming the printing press for bad writing. Also, I personally don’t think we particularly NEED the “next level of fidelity”. Sure, games can look better, but they arleady look good. I feel like the better half of issues with visuals in games comes not from lack of fidelity but from lack of artistic direction, which is demonstrated by stylised games generally standing the test of time better than photorealistic games in that regard.

    2. sheer_falacy says:

      One feature of Unity that really stands out is that by default, the trees have absolutely awful pop in. So as you walk forward all the trees that are, say, 50 feet away change drastically and visibly in appearance.

      Unity can make great stuff, but it has high variance.

      1. Geebs says:

        I think Unity’s relatively low barrier to entry (which is a good thing), and reliance on folk knowledge via its support forums and marketplace means that the teams who use it sometimes don’t figure out how to implement the latest version of its rendering tech. Those ten-year-old rendering techniques don’t look all that great, and they don’t run particularly well on modern hardware either (e.g. you can spend hours of work implementing an old fixed-function era tutorial for a terrain rendering algorithm which hammers the CPU to cull every last inessential polygon; or you could just brute force render the entire terrain in one call at ten times the frame rate), so you get the worst of both worlds.

        For example, Gone Home made heavy use of a really outdated naive SSAO effect which could have been swapped out for something newer and less ugly with barely any effort. At about 29 seconds into the trailer, Lake is using what looks suspiciously like a Blinn-Phong specular model (with a normal map) on the lake (which may in fact be a single polygon) and it looks awful. This is the centrepiece of the entire scene and it looks like something from 2006. Which is fine, but the very next cut they’re using a volumetric light scattering approach straight out of GPU Gems 3 (published 2008) and the frame rate is absolutely tanking.

        TL:DR there’s a lot of ancient cruft in the shader section of the Unity marketplace and it makes games which use it look worse, and run worse, than they need to.

    3. MaxEd says:

      Unity’s main graphic problem is that default Unreal settings are just better, richer. So if you don’t tinker with it, Unreal game WILL look better than Unity. A lot of indies probably lack know-how to tune Unity properly, though of course it IS possible to make Unity-based game look good. I don’t know much about graphics programming myself.

      One very bad thing about Unity I can tell you as a man who’s currently trying to optimize an Unity-based game for consoles is that it really doesn’t lend itself well to this process. First of all, it’s not open-source (unlike Unreal and even CryEngine), so a lot of stuff is hidden from my eye. I can only take guesses about the way some things work when they don’t work or work improperly. Took me two days to track down a bug in Unity that made our build process last 5x more (several days instead of ~6-8 hours) that amounted to a stupid signed integer overflow deep inside Unity’s native code. It’s still not fixed in 2019.4.x we’re using (but at least I know that passing any number larger than 2047 to a certain function makes things worse)…

      Also, Garbage Collector is the worst anti-feature I can imagine. It makes it hard to track memory usage and leaks. What’s worse, Unity’s own tools tend to mis-report things, and you end up wondering where all your memory’s gone (and in Unity 2018 Memory Profiler simply didn’t work on project of our size, so I had to spend a few months of free time to roll my own). GC also lends itself well to producing memory consumption peaks where none are needed. Just this Friday I found a place where the game allocated a whopping 80+Mb (that’s more than 10% of our Mono heap budget!) in one repeatedly called function for things that are only used inside this function and discarded when it ends – but GC process doesn’t happen, so all that crap remains in memory without reuse.

      And let’s not even talk about TextMeshPro, Unity’s solution for putting text on screen. It’s a hungry monster (because it pre-allocates a lot of useless arrays, which is OK when you have a few dozens of texts on screen, but in a complex UI with hundreds of texts those wasted bytes begin to add up).

      All-in-all, Unity’s fine for smaller projects, but it scales like shit. Everything in it goes bad when your game reaches several hundred thousands of resources, from build processes to Editor performance to in-game performance. One can work around those things, but only at a huge cost. Admittedly, it gets a bit better year after year, but it’s a slow going, and you can’t easily upgrade your project between major Unity versions – things tend to break really bad when you do, and re-testing the whole of a 80 plus-hours game isn’t a fun thing for QA.

      1. Pylo says:

        Very much this! As someone who has worked with Unity professionally for some time now (but only for mobile games and I don’t have a lot of experience with other engines, so I can’t compare them) I can tell you that of all the many, MANY problems I have with Unity, graphics aren’t one of them. It’s probably the best tech available for quick prototypes and for “not tech savvy” people to get into the industry but for anything even slightly more complex, it feels like it works actively against you. As for using the “latest tech” someone mentioned, the problem with that is that the “latest tech” in Unity is in a perpetual beta state: feature lacking, bug ridden, often incompatible with their other systems and usually requiring the complete remake of the game code/assets.
        As a side note, while I love the stylised graphics and would take that over photorealism any day, I don’t think those levels of visuals are anything to be impressed by in a modern engine.

  3. RamblePak64 says:

    Watching the example you linked above, it reminds me of dialogue found in children’s entertainment, where no one ever has harsh disagreements and even conflicts are couched in polite terms.

    Which kind of goes against everything that my head would imagine this game to be based on the following description:

    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.

    Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to films such as The Graduate or Not-Will-Ferrell Kicking & Screaming, or the recent trend of games like Night in the Woods, but my first impression was that this was going to be some sort of “self rediscovery” narrative, where the protagonist was intentionally escaping back into a small town after the hustle and bustle of the city and is now trying to figure out her place. When you mention conflict, there’s one right there: needing to escape the city life for a while but still not quite feeling at home back in Small Town Pacific Northwest. That? That presents an internal conflict.

    In addition, my mind is already rolling with concepts and connections regarding this conflict. Perhaps that mailman has his teenage punk daughter with him as a sort of “punishment” since she got suspended, and admires the protagonist for having been able to escape this “podunk town in the middle of nowhere”. A sort of reflection of the protagonist’s younger self that also allows her to effectively have a conversation with who she used to be. “If old me now could have a conversation with young me then” sort of thing.

    Here, let me try my hand at some of this script-writing thing:

    Pa Mailman: Hey, why don’t we stop for some coffee before getting to work? I know a good place.

    Punk Daughter: It’s not “a good place”, it’s the only place. One! We can’t even get a Starducks in this no-name town!

    Pa Mailman: Bah, Lotta’s Lattes is better than any crummy ol’ Starducks.

    Punk Daughter: How would you even know? You can’t because you’ve only had coffee from one place!

    Protagonist: Oh, believe me, Starducks is over-rated. If Lotta’s is as good as I remember, then it can stand up to most of what I’ve had in the city.

    Pa Mailman: See? Told ya.

    Punk Daughter: But that’s my point! She only knows because she got to taste the difference! To taste the world! I want to know what I’m missing out on, good or bad! I want a coffee shop with scones! Or croissants! The fanciest thing on Lotta’s menu is a chocolate chocolate chip muffin! Whoo hoo!

    Protagonist: I dunno, I do love me a chocolately chocolate chip muffin more than I like a croissant.

    Punk Daughter: But you stop loving it if that’s all you can have every day!

    Protagonist: Well… *Can’t disagree but doesn’t feel comfortable giving in, either.*

    How was that? I’m no script-writer, but I feel like an exchange like that could have added some conflict as well as character to the entire proceeding. I also pondered what it’d be like for someone from the city with anywhere between 500 to 2,000 Facebook/parody-name connections (I have seen people with over 2,000 connections and I dunno why or how they do it) compared to a small town where 50-80 connections is the average. Coming back to see a bunch of folks you went to high school together that haven’t really changed, or maybe seemed to have a bright future but instead fell into hard times, and that mass of friends on Facebook means you were never really connected. However, I was also unaware the game takes place in the 80’s, which… why?

    That’s about all I can really ask, I think, is why. I’m kind of sick of the 80’s and am dreading when 90’s kids decide everything needs to take place in the 90’s. I lived through the 90’s. It was an okay time. I have no desire to go back.

    Regardless, I knew I had seen the trailer during E3, but forgot about that 80’s connection, or that it just looked like a “mail woman simulator” sort of thing. As a fan of Harvest Moon since childhood, you can make a good game out of anything. Heck, remember Paperboy? Let’s revive that with some crazy Tony Hawk stunt mechanics, man (and it would even make sense to put it in the 80’s since who reads newspapers anymore). But I don’t see why she has to be taking a break from her crazy life in the city as a software developer unless you’re going to use that for some sort of character arc and growth.

    Granted, I’m basing my own assessment on less than you are. You at least played the demo. But it sounds like they’re not really doing much with it.

    1. Shamus says:

      I also found the 80s thing to be confusing. It’s not like this is a Stranger Things styled period piece. We don’t see references to 80s pop culture. No legwarmers, popped collars, 80s shades, or big hair. We don’t have a soundtrack made up of synthwave or hair metal.

      The story seems focused on a bunch of middle-aged people, so this isn’t cultural nostalgia for Gen-X people like me who were young in the 80s.

      Which, fine. I think there’s more than enough of that sort of thing right now. But then why is the game set in ’87? Why not just… now? Aside from the protagonist’s archaic computer at the very start of the game, there’s nothing here that would feel out-of-place in a modern setting. There’s nothing particularly retro about the design of the main character.

      It’s an odd design choice. Was the goal to just set the story in a pre-internet world with no cell phones maybe? Modern phones have a weird way of allowing our work to follow us around. Before mobiles, if you went to a small town then nobody could reach you unless you left a forwarding number. I don’t know. Seems like you could accomplish the same thing by having her deliberately leave her phone at home, which is something a lot of people do while on vacation.

      I don’t know. It’s not wrong, just odd.

      1. RamblePak64 says:

        Something else that occurred to me is the nature of it being the Pacific Northwest in the mid-to-late 80’s. This is about when Grunge was developing in the Seattle area, before it became a big hit in the US in the early 90’s, and I feel like if you want to capture a unique, unexplored part of the 80’s, that’s a perfect one to do. But Grunge by its very nature kind of goes against the tone they seem to be trying to set with The Lake, which now just has me wishing for a narrative that would explore an era I have no familiarity with (I was born in ’85 so my memories of Grunge are “those bands my brother loved” more than anything else, and it is still a genre I’m kind of meh on), and has not really been explored in pop culture since.

        I guess from my perspective, I see nothing but missed opportunities with this game. Which, as you say, is not anything wrong on their part, but… I guess feels unambitious?

      2. bobbert says:

        Land prices might be part of it. When my parents were first married, dad was able to find some work out west for a time. When he retired, they remembered it fondly and scouted out the possibility of moving back. You have to be a multi-millionaire to own land in Oregon these days.

      3. Joshua says:

        I’m reminded of Donny Darko, filmed in the early 2000s, but set during the 1988 election.

        Why?

        Not because it’s in any way essential to the story, but because the screenwriter was a teenager during that time and didn’t feel comfortable trying to write dialogue or have cultural references to the present day. This always seemed kind of odd and lazy to me.

        1. Syal says:

          It’s also a pretty easy means of future-proofing; if it’s already old, it won’t become old.

          1. Mephane says:

            Another reason for choosing a setting in the 1980s or earlier: technology, or rather the lack thereof. A lot of movie plots would fall apart if the characters had smartphones, for example.

      4. Trevor says:

        Also, in your driving screenshot you appear to have a HUD map with up being the direction you’re traveling. Those didn’t exist in the 80s and also I would think for an immersive environment game you’d want the player to learn the world. I realize pressing pause to go to a separate map screen to figure out where you’re going is initially annoying, but you very quickly learn the place and so rely on the map less and less.

        GTA 4 and 5 give you automatic GPS directions on your map and so you can follow a line on your map to the next objective. The GTAs before that had a HUD map, but you didn’t get turn-by-turn directions (which is also era-appropriate). I’ve probably spent more time in GTA 5 but I know the world worse than I do Vice City where, because the game forced me to learn, I know where every alleyway lets out still.

    2. Dreadjaws says:

      I’m kind of sick of the 80’s and am dreading when 90’s kids decide everything needs to take place in the 90’s. I lived through the 90’s. It was an okay time. I have no desire to go back.

      See, the thing is, nostalgia tends to make people in their 20s do their work based on it. This is why we started getting 80’s nostalgia all over the place when the 2000s started. But instead of ending at the start of the 2010s, it kept going. And I think the reason for this is that precisely no one has real nostalgia for the 90’s. It was a very awkard era with a personality we today look back at with cringe rather than love. I suppose in a few years we’ll start getting nostalgia for the turn of the century and the 80’s thing will slow down, but I don’t think we’re gonna see much interest in 90’s stuff.

      1. Joshua says:

        As a kid of the 90s (graduated in 1995), I loved the period. It was certainly a period of innocence (between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11) and rapid change (computers, internet, and music).

        However, I still have no interest in revisiting the era. Being a transition period to the current era, it doesn’t have the same over the top nature and bombasticism of the 80s. Most of the distinctly 90s things are just cringe bad* instead of so bad it’s good like the 80s. Even Wandavision didn’t seem to have much to say about the era like it did the previous decades.

        * One distinctly bad thing about the era was it was the decade of the edgelords.

        1. Gaius Maximus says:

          You guys are crazy. The 90s was the best decade ever. I still haven’t totally come to terms with them being over. (Note: I was born in ’82.)

        2. Thomas says:

          1990’s gets a harsh rap. Apparently Jurassic Park doesn’t count because “1993 is still the 80’s” but Lord of the Rings doesn’t count either because 2001 is definitely not the 90’s.

          We’ve been squeezed not by the actual decade, but by the older folks who got to set the narrative of the decade. People like ‘Holy SNES MovieBob’ claimed our good stuff and discounted the rest.

          We had Toy Story, Lion King, Aladdin, Reservoir Dogs, The Matrix, Fargo, Groundhog Day, Pulp Fiction, Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, Trainspotting, Blair Witch, Big Lebowski, Princess Monoke, Teen Spirit – Nirvana, Enter the Sandman – Metallica, Bittersweet Sympathy – The Verve, Creep – Radiohead, The Real Slim Shady – Eminem, Wonderwall – Oasis, Around the World – Daft Punk…and a book series about this Harry Potter guy.

          There’s plenty there that changed culture forever and plenty enough connections to define a decade, but the people who write the ‘X defines a decade’ articles weren’t interested

          1. Lino says:

            Don’t forget Beast Wars, Face Off, and Californication! Although I’m not technically a 90’s kid (I was born in 1993), I grew up amidst 90’s culture (as did most of Eastern Europe during the 90’s and early 2000’s), and I’m extremely fond of it. Which is why I also lament the bad reputation the 90’s get. But I think there’s still hopes for it – as more and more people like us get older, some of them will inevitably start their own YouTube channels, will become TV, film and video game producers, and they’ll recognise the niche of people having 90’s nostalgia. I think we’re just a couple of years off from that happening…

          2. Joshua says:

            There’s a lot of cool stuff that happened *in* the decade, but not a lot of stuff that *defined* the decade in the same way as previous decades.

            Fashion wise, I remember people (including me) wearing flannel in the first half, and …”The Rachel” in the second half? No Fear tshirts?

            Is there anything like the cultural ubiquity of discos were in the 70s? Mosh pits and a brief revival of Swing dancing around 1998 didn’t approach the same levels.

      2. Erik says:

        As it did at the time, sounds like a rerun of the ’70s – the other decade there’s no nostalgia for. Us 70s kids got NO love in the media. Too young to be Boomers, too old to have 80s nostalgia… GenX is always forgotten.

        1. RamblePak64 says:

          I think there is and isn’t. It’s weird how there seems to be nostalgia gaps, because while there were things like That 70’s Show and you occasionally have films like The Nice Guys, the 70’s seem to be an era that isn’t tapped nearly as often as the 60’s were throughout the 90’s, or the 80’s have been for the past decade.

          It’s funny because some of this ties into a discussion my brother and I had regarding why any attempt to reboot Back to the Future would be a disaster. The cultural gap between teenagers of the 1950’s and the 1980’s was wider than just a difference in technology, it was an entire attitude. You got a sense of what things hadn’t changed – Marty’s mom wasn’t nearly as pure and innocent as she suggested – but there’s definitely a nostalgia to the era that is far more clean and innocent than the 80’s. It’s likely this was, in part, done out of nostalgia, but if you were to try and transport a kid from today back to the 90’s, the vast majority of jokes and gags would be the technology gap. Culturally speaking and in terms of attitude, the 90’s weren’t quaint, it was effectively bookended by wars, it was starting to get “Edgelord”, and the biggest thing Grunge introduced to the music scene was nihilism. The first half had a distinct look, and then Kurt Cobain shot himself and the 90’s lost its identity, spiraling into a desperate effort to find one while launching into the new Y2K millennium. Remember the brief revival of bell-bottom pants? It happened. Remember when there was some pastiche swing number on MTV? That was around 2000. Recall the really, really, really baggy pants that goth/metal kids wore that effectively swept the floor of the school and gathered a ton of dust?

          Our culture has changed throughout the decades, but not in any clearly identifiable manner. 50’s and 60’s have some similarities, but 70’s and 80’s have distinctive looks, and honestly, the neon pseudo-futurism and synth of the 80’s is I think what keeps it alive. Perhaps it’s a cultural connection, where that sort of synth was used for so much sci-fi that there’s a “future-like” identification to it, but it’s also quaint and old-fashioned.

          Basically, if you look at 70’s and 80’s, it wasn’t just technology, it was fashion. If you compare a photo of 2015 to 2005 to 1995, you might get some bleached tips in 2005 and some stray flannel in 1995, but these things neither went away nor have we ventured drastically far from them.

          We’re kind of living in an era where decades have lost a collective visual identity, which means you’re likely looking at a more gradient blend of cultural identity as well.

          1. RFS-81 says:

            Weird, baggy pants were totally a hiphop thing in Germany.

          2. Joshua says:

            Something I’ve said for awhile. Maybe I’m biased because that’s when I came of age, but the 90s don’t 1. feel as drastically different from 2021 as 1955 felt from 1985 and 2. don’t have the same unique identity of a decade as something like the 80s, or 50s, or 60s. It’s just kind of a listless decade.

            Of course, I have a hard time distinguishing between the 2000s and the 2010s on any kind of hard line other than smart phones and social media. Is there a 2007 hairstyle that seems instantly dated in 2017 like we would see in 1987 vs 1997?

          3. Mr. Wolf says:

            If feel that our apparent cultural homogenisation is a direct result of recording and communications technology.

            Traditionally, fashions, trends, ideas and the like were passed from person-to-person. From friend to friend, from neighbour to neighbour, from stranger-on-the-street to stranger-on-the-street, etc. Influential people were better at it, broadcast media spread it faster, but it worked pretty much the same way. Every now and then you’d get a throw-back to some earlier era or a cross-cultural import, but those ideas spread the same way too.

            Enter THE INTERNET. Suddenly you have access to all the world’s information. Records of popular trends going back decades, even centuries, from all over the world. You love your old friends, but your internet friends have seen all the old films you enjoy. Your neighbours had a good idea on how to best prune azaleas, but you read about a better one online. That stranger-on-the-street is dressed pretty well, but not as well as that stranger-on-the-street-in-Tokyo.

            We’ve collectively homogenised but individually diversified. We exist in a melting pot that covers the entire world: it looks like a tasteless brown goop from a distance, but up close you can see every spice we can find.

      3. Syal says:

        And I think the reason for this is that precisely no one has real nostalgia for the 90’s. It was a very awkward era with a personality we today look back at with cringe rather than love.

        Shoutouts to Hypnospace Outlaw. We love because we cringe.

    3. Syal says:

      I’ve had that overly cheery boss who forgets important parts of their job. So for my part, the conflict is already firmly established.

      some sort of “self rediscovery” narrative, where the protagonist was intentionally escaping back into a small town after the hustle and bustle of the city and is now trying to figure out her place.

      Looks to me like the character is taking a vacation back home as a way of avoiding making a more substantial decision. I actually like this version, because I’ve actually done this version.

      Presumably the local intricacies will make the true decision harder and harder to avoid, probably with a “forsake your current existence yes/no” option at the end.

  4. Rariow says:

    Even if all these flaws do seem pretty bad – even bad enough to kill the game, perhaps – I think ironically this piece has convinced me to pick Lake up. I find the idea of an open world free roaming Telltale-like completely fascinating, and I’m really curious to see how the game goes about trying to pull it off over the course of the whole game… Plus damn it, it looks absolutely gorgeous. Good job, Lake demo! You sold a copy of the game! I just hope you didn’t un-sell any copies by showcasing all these issues, I really want the age of demos to return.

    1. Shamus says:

      Agreed. I’m grateful these demos exist.

      Also, I’ll probably buy Lake too, for all the same reasons. I just want to drive around the town and live in this place for a few days. There are a few notable locations on the loop that goes around the lake – like a hotel – and I’m curious how these places will work their way into the story.

    2. Radkatsu says:

      Unfortunately, game demos are unlikely to return in any significant way. The moment publishers realised demos actually DECREASE sales was the moment demos were unceremoniously killed off.

      1. Joshua says:

        Today we tend to have discounted (or free) early access instead.

        1. Radkatsu says:

          Early Access is a different beast altogether and is primarily a way to get funding. Yes, it can act as a demo, but considering how early a lot of games go into EA now, I wouldn’t say it’s a very good demo.

          Steam’s 2 hour refund has also helped with the whole try before buying thing. I’ve only needed to use it a few times in my 7 years on Steam (and however many years the refunds have been a thing, which I believe is a similar length? I don’t remember now), but that’s because I avoid AAA garbage like the plague.

  5. The Rocketeer says:

    Well, the game is set in Oregon, so you can recontextualize the game experience by imagining it directly precedes the events of Days Gone. They thought they’d be safe this far from the interstate, even after everything went dark.

    But no one is safe.

  6. Freddo says:

    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.

    Almost as if looking in a mirror. Tempted to add something about “my lawn”, but this blog is of course your lawn (nicely kept too, regularly watered and everything).

  7. Dreadjaws says:

    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.

    The Balan’s Wonderworld developer: *cries in Sonic*

    Anyway, Lake is one of the demos I downloaded these days, but I didn’t get to play it because as it turns out the damn things were temporary. Once Steam Fest was done, the demos couldn’t be played anymore. As much as I want to praise Steam and these developers for bringing demos back, this is absolutely a bullshit way to do it.

    Granted, one of the demos still can be played from my library, so clearly it wasn’t a general thing, but still.

  8. Hal says:

    Without having watched/listened to the dialog, your descriptions (and recreation) make me think “Hallmark Movie.”

    Which, to be fair, is a niche genre with a specific appeal, but making video games to appeal to that audience is probably not the dumbest idea in the world. If that IS what you’re doing, however, then you might want to make sure that Hallmark Movie: The Game is actually reaching your target audience and not everyone else who will respond to the dialog exactly as you did.

    1. Will says:

      This. At first blush, it reads like a Hallmark movie simulator. The only thing missing is setting it at Christmas.

      But as you said, it’s a niche genre, with what I suspect is very little overlap with PC gaming among the audience. Mobile would probably be a better platform to reach the target demographic.

      Either way, screw up the tone/dialog/delivery in a drama-first genre, and you’re definitely going to have a lot of trouble convincing people to jump to an “interactive” format.

  9. Mark says:

    As a PNW native, one of the interesting things about the ’87 setting I think is the PNW economy. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem to be present at all (although, this is just a demo). I think the story, and Meredith’s character would benefit from some references.

    This is supposed to be Oregon, so it is a bit removed from Seattle, but the Seattle economy had some pretty big changes during that time which have affected the whole region. In the ’70s, there was a sign in Seattle that said “Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights” because the economy was so bad due to issues with Boeing. Boeing, of course, was the city’s most important employer. Alongside the timber industry with Weyerhaeuser down in Tacoma, that was the heart of the region’s economy. Farther out there was, and still is, agriculture as well (Washington apples, Palouse wheat, and all that)

    In ’87 though? Things were just starting to change in the area and it was because of computers. Mostly Microsoft, but Microsoft led to other things. In the ’90s, for example, it attracted Jeff Bezos, Mackenzie Scott, and their new online book selling business, Amazon.

    Meredith, of course, works in software. She’s a part of this business that is on its way to transforming the area. Does she work in Seattle and is getting back in touch with her rural but regional roots? Is she coming from California? Did she make loads of money starting out at Microsoft and is now working with other startups? Have others like her already visited this town?

    At the time, a rural town in 1987 Oregon probably wouldn’t think much about a software developer other than that she’s a bit weird and maybe out of place – software hadn’t transformed the PNW (and the whole world) quite yet – but in the years to come, people with money made in the Seattle tech industry will bring that money to many, many such rural areas. They will vacation in these locations, they will buy second homes, and they change the area in many other ways. I won’t comment on here about whether that has been a good or bad thing, but it certainly has been a thing. As a viewer who lived through the era and is now can look back at how these two worlds in particular have collided, I think it would be a failure not to explore the relationship between Meredith’s profession in tech and her roots in rural PNW.

    1. The Stranger says:

      Yeah, I don’t get a strong impression that the game is going to capitalize on anything unique to rural Oregon in 1987. Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like “rural Oregon” could have just as easily been “small-town Wisconsin” except that they wanted the visuals of big mountains in the background. Like, it’s just a backdrop for the dialogue and riding-around-in-a-mail-truck parts of the game, but it’s really just a generic small-town setting with maybe a few nods to PNW-specific stuff (half of which will probably be slightly anachronistic and/or a mashup of very different parts of rural Oregon).

      Which I think is probably fine for most people without any particular interest in rural Oregon. Those of us who have spent some time there might be looking for something that resonates with our experiences of the area (I really need to know if this is east side or west side, for instance), but most people will just take a bunch of characters in a small town at face value.

      Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the developer grew up in Klamath Falls and this is a lovingly-recreated, lightly fictionalized version. I think that would be preferable to Anytown, USA, with pretensions of specificity. If you’re going to set your game in a specific time and place, you should be faithful to that time and place, lest you annoy people who are actually familiar with that place at that time.

  10. Rosseloh says:

    Your mention of directing voice actors reminds me of my primary issue with Cloudpunk – which, by the way, I adore as a game – the voice acting is not great, and it’s mostly that way because as far as I can tell, they just sent some lines off to various small time VAs and called it a day.

    Some of them are pretty good. Others are….very much not.

  11. jobsworth says:

    Her boss Steve is basically a nice guy and the two have no discernable conflict.

    I must disagree strenuously, I hated that man almost immediately. He’s that disgusting sort of fake nice where he will make unreasonable, soul-crushing demands but say it with a warm smile so you’re the asshole for calling him out on it and making a scene. He booted Meredith out of the launch party so she could actually finish the software for them to launch, tries to convince her not to take the time off afterward, and then enroaches on her time off with phonecalls and more work in the mail anyway.
    It would almost be cartoonish how insufferable he is if I had not had the privilige of suffering under people like Steve in real life, and it is very obviously a setup for Meredith to snap and say she’s not going back to the city at the end of the game.

    1. Shamus says:

      That’s probably what the writer intended, but none of that is supported at all by the vocal performances. Steve wishes her a wonderful trip using the exact same super-friendly tone of voice that Frank uses in the next scene. There’s nothing in Meredeth’s voice to indicate ANY level of frustration, animosity, or bitterness. There’s no sudden change in her voice when she gets home. She doesn’t sound relieved.

      Heck, in the first couple of lines of the script are supposed to set this up, where she talks about missing the launch party because she’s finishing the software. Except, she delivers the lines in a “Aw shucks. I went to have cereal and we’re out of milk.” tone of voice. She isn’t angry, tired, or frustrated.

      I’m willing to buy the premise, but the director is refusing to sell it to me.

      1. jobsworth says:

        That’s a fair point, they’re not making good use of Meredith to react to Steve and her frustration is dulled if not absent, but I must still take issue with labelling Steve as “basically nice”. His friendly demeanor is nothing but practiced and manipulative: he says “have a nice vacation!”, sure, but he also says “you must have a lot of free time out there on vacation! I’ll send you all of our technical copy to review.” There is even a note on that parcel of work that says Steve lied to whomever sent it out and claimed Meredith would be happy to get that work done.

        1. jobsworth says:

          I dunno. Maybe I’m giving the author too much credit and projecting my own experiences with Steves onto the game.
          Still though I would very much like the option to completely ignore all the work Steve mails in and sabotage the product.

      2. Syal says:

        From that one hour clip you linked, I think Meredith’s voice actor is doing well. Everything she says has a practiced diplomacy to it; Steve, Frank and the crazy cat lady get the same tone because they’re all their own equivalent of crazy cat lady.

        Maybe I’m just reading myself into Meredith, but I’ve met all three of those types of people in real life, and that’s roughly how I try to sound with them. Steve’s not necessarily a bad person, but he’s a bad boss, the kind who makes promises he can’t keep and desperately passes them off to his employees. Frank’s the friend of your folks who still remembers you being a child and interacts with you that way. The crazy cat lady is… well, she’s off in her own world.

  12. Radkatsu says:

    “In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the excellent Firewatch”

    Or Stardew Valley, which I’d much rather spend my time on :)

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