Holidays, huh. A time to rest and relax, and play a bunch of video games. It’s nice to get away from the office, have a bit of time switched off from it all. I’ve started playing Lake, actually – a 2021 game about delivering the mail in a small rural town. It opens with main character Meredith Weiss travelling home from the big city, taking over the mail for her dad while he’s on holiday. It’s very Stardew Valley in its opening beats, right down to how you take over a family business on behalf of an absent male figure. Seemed like an appropriate holiday game – breaking out of the cubicle and getting back to nature, albeit in a video game form that really only raises the question of why you’re not out in the actual wilderness instead.
Probably Lake‘s big distinction from Stardew Valley is that the main character is not moving out to some unfamiliar rural town, but returning to her roots. At the start of the game, you learn that Meredith has not been back to Providence Oaks in twenty-two years. It’s not an escape to an idealized rural space, but a return to the historical past – closer to Night in the Woods than Stardew. A key part of the game is working through all the things that have changed since you’ve left. Your best friend grew up and married the quarterback, and Stan from Stan’s Diner has died – his widow, Maureen, has renamed the place Mo’s Diner. “I decided it was time for a change,” Maureen offers. Lake aligns with Stardew Valley, in that the small-town setting is a site of authenticity, a place of reconnection with your inner core against the alienation of the big city – but Lake attributes that connection to Meredith’s past rather than to the countryside in and of itself. As a marker of the past, the small town in Lake also serves as a site of change, loss, and memory – all largely foreign ideas to the idealized space of Stardew Valley.
The game’s temporal setting also ties into this broader thematic concern. The game takes place in 1986, meaning that for us in 2021, we are already put in the position of looking back on the past. It’s not gratuitous, but there are some key features of the 80’s. Meredith is a programmer, and will sometimes haul out a little suitcase computer – something in the ballpark of a Commodore PET – and one of her potential love interests, Angie, runs a video store, which is stacked with non-copyright-infringing altered movie posters (Blade Jogger, Tsarface, Ghostblasters) – all films released before or during 1986, as far as I could tell, so points for historical accuracy. In playing the game, we are already looking back on a vanished world. Change, loss, and memory are all key parts of our experience of play.
In a sense, then, the theme of loss in Lake is doubled – we observe both the losses from Meredith’s past, and the losses that we know are yet to come. When Meredith first returns to town, she meets the general store owner, Nancy, who remembers Meredith as a child. Nancy assumes that Meredith has failed in the big city, and has come crawling back to her home town – “It’s best not to feel bad about it,” she says. “Only a few people ever really make it.” Nancy is clearly projecting onto Meredith her own failed attempt to leave Providence Oaks, seeing in Meredith’s return a repeat of her own experience and a suggestion that the same thing will keep happening to future generations – both past loss and the losses yet to come.
There are other small instances of future loss as well – at one point, Meredith’s childhood friend Kay goes to a Journey concert, presumably their Raised on Radio tour if it’s 1986. It’s not covered in the game, but at the end of that tour, the band breaks up. We also know that Angie’s video store is headed for the dustbin of history. Over the course of the game, Angie’s business does fail – although curiously not because video is outdated, but (she suggests) because it’s too far ahead of its time, at least in Providence Oaks. The sequence bookends the history of the video store, showing an early failure to an audience that is living through the final days of the industry.
Of course, the ultimate context for the spread of past and future loss is the decision that you have to make at the end of the game – do you leave Providence Oaks and return to your high-powered computer company job, or stay as the resident mail carrier? Or is there even a third option? The moment of decision is genuinely quite bitter, as three enticing futures stretch out in front of you. Each choice is a foreclosing of the other possible options – a loss again projected into the future. And you come to that decision with the knowledge of all of your previous choices, and the regrets that followed them. Personally, I chose to leave – not back to the job, but on a road trip with Angie. I couldn’t stay in Providence Oaks. It’s not like Stardew Valley – it’s not meant to offer an escape from reality, an escape from choice and change and loss. At most, it can offer a holiday.