Many video games like Alan Wake and Days Gone use the Pacific Northwest’s woodlands to create mystery and build tension for players. But Lake isn’t following that narrative. It’s set in the 1980s, and players take on the role of Meredith Weiss, a woman in her 40s who moves back to her hometown to deliver mail. While putting letters in mailboxes and leaving packages by front doors, Wiess begins to reconnect with the community she moved away from. The game was released as a digital copy in September but now will be selling physical copies for PlayStation consoles in Europe. Dylan Nagel is the game director for Lake, and he joins us to share what it took to create the fictional Oregon town of Providence Oaks and what he thinks audiences can take away from the game.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: A car, a road and a lake. That was the initial inspiration for what turned into a narrative video game centered in a fictional Oregon town. It’s called Lake. It was made by the Dutch game company, Gamious. It was released for PC and Xbox in 2021. Earlier this month, Gamious announced it will now be available on PlayStation. Dylan Nagel was the game director and co-developer for Lake. He joins me now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Dylan Nagel: Hello, thanks so much, Dave. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. So, I want to start with that inspiration. I mentioned a car, a road and a lake. What did you have in mind?
Nagel: Some time ago, actually, about four years ago or so, I ran into a bunch of friends of mine, again, who happened to be the founders of Gamious, the studio which you mentioned, and they were just coming off other game projects. So they basically had their hands free for something new. They invited me to pitch a couple of ideas, one of which ultimately became Lake. And while I was coming up with that idea, I first had the notion of making a more arcadey game that had players transport stuff from A to B as fast as possible with all kinds of hazards that they would encounter on their way. And while I was doing research into mail trucks and other environments that it could take place in, I stumbled upon a picture. I’m still not sure who took that picture, but when I stumbled upon this image was of a lake and a road winding around it and mountains in the distance and a single car on that road. It felt as if I stumbled on something great. And instantly, I knew that the game had to be about that particular situation, just being in that car, driving somewhere in nature in a beautiful environment. And that is what I pitched almost the same way as I describe it now. And now, three and half to four years later, there is a game that people can play.
Miller: You know what to me, what’s so fascinating about that is your pitch wasn’t an objective or a challenge or as you noted at the beginning, trying to get objects from A to B, with things in the way. It seems like your pitch was a vibe. Just a feeling.
Nagel: Absolutely, yeah. As I mentioned, I was invited to pitch a number of ideas and the first and the second one were much more concrete and much more game-like, as most people think about games, I would say. And then this third option was more of my wild card and was the last which I presented to my friends. And it was very vague. I said, “I have this picture, I’m not sure what the game will be about. I’m not even sure what you’ll do. You’ll probably drive around in that car, but there’s something there and I’d love to explore this.” And they were immediately intrigued by this, by this idea and this notion, and they had a good grasp of the same vibe that I tried to convey to them.
Miller: And it’s important to know that this was pre-pandemic, right?
Nagel: Absolutely. Yeah.
Miller: Because it seems sort of like a pandemic dream. If many of us are stuck inside our homes, the idea of hitting the road and being in a beautiful place seems even more enticing.
Nagel: Absolutely. In that sense, it was absolutely two worlds colliding. We had this idea and this plan actually two years already before the pandemic hit everyone. Still when we developed the concept and we started to figure out what the game would be about– because of course it is about something– we figured what is the draw of this image. Why would we want to be in that car on the road next to the lake? And ultimately we did find that it had to do with escapism, but not so much that we wanted to escape from life because it’s so miserable, but just because we wanted to find a version of life which is universally appealing in a sense. So we try to take out a lot of chaos, a lot of noise, just focus on an ideal, basically what a lot of people seem to really appreciate.
Miller: Why base this on delivering mail?
Nagel: Well, essentially it came from the idea of delivering mail. And then when we started connecting the dots, we figured out that it’s still actually a very literal and figuratively-speaking vehicle for having some kind of threat in the whole experience. So rather than you have to start at A and end at Z and then you in between, you have to fight all the monsters, but also not a completely open world that you say wherever you’d like to go, that’s where you can go. Rather we had found some middle ground in the sense that there’s definitely an itinerary every day. You have a very strict list, essentially of about 10-15 locations that you have to deliver the mail to, addresses in a small town by the lake, but still it’s completely up to the player to figure out their route. And that the game takes place over the course of two weeks of in-game time each day, about 20 minutes of gameplay or so. So actually, it turned out that the initial idea, the initial constraint, maybe even of delivering mail was perfect for gently trying to get people to find their way in this new environment, as with all games is the case of course. And then on some of those addresses, it’s not just a mailbox or not just a porch that you have to deliver the package to but of course the beauty of this game–and I guess also for a lot of actual mail carriers–is that you meet people along the way. And as soon as we had one character in the game that you could talk to, how simplistic at first as it was immediately it felt as if everything was connected.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for some of the people that Meredith, the character that players inhabit, the people that she runs into?
Nagel: Absolutely, I already mentioned Meredith herself, Meredith Weiss. She has a 40 something. The game takes place in 1986. So this is pre-internet, pre-smartphones which helps to cement the theme of going back to basics. Normally at her regular day job is at a commercial company where they make IT software. And actually the premise is that she fills in for her dad who is the regular mail carrier in the town that she grew up in, this fictional Providence Oaks somewhere apparently in Oregon. And during those two weeks of in-game time she runs into all kinds of characters, some of which she already knew from when she grew up there. She runs into her best friend but they have not been in contact for about 20 years so a lot has happened to Meredith but also to this friend of hers. And one of the dozen or so storylines is that we allow the player to figure out if they want to get closer again with their friends or maybe too much time has passed. So that’s one. There’s also a bit more archetypal characters, I would say that we borrowed from stories or even sitcoms or movies, especially in the, in the 80′s. So there’s also this grumpy fisher guy who of course turns out to be not as grumpy as you might expect. Then there is also your colleague at the post office who might have more on his plate than he bargained for. There’s also, the motherly figure at the diner, we also know from when Meredith was a kid and she of course immediately takes interest in and almost coaches you.
Miller: And also definitely seems like an 80′s tv character and the motherly diner person.
Nagel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So when we understood basically why we were trying to figure out what this game would be and what it would be about, as soon as we understood that the game needed characters to really come into its own, we just grabbed a piece of paper and then brainstormed what are some of the relatable characters that we all love and we all know from movies from tv series, from books and so forth. And we had a super large roster, of course there’s overlap in some of those archetypes and ultimately we ended up with 15 to 20 characters that you can run into. Some of those you run into more frequently and some, some are reserved for only one or two scenes actually but it was a lot of fun to figure out on the one hand, how can we make them relatable? How can we make them instantly recognizable for people who love movies and love characters in those sorts of mediums? On the other hand, also try to figure out how we can stay clear of some of those more stereotypical archetypes and how we can make them more human. That’s one of the goals.
Miller: You could have put this anywhere in the world. Why choose Oregon?
Nagel: That’s a great question. And we also considered other locations in the world. We also had Scandinavia in mind. For example, we considered a number of other countries ultimately, especially because we had such a good association with the 1980s and in the Netherlands in Europe, we all grew up, I’m 43, we all grew up with American movies, American sitcoms and so forth. So ultimately for us it was very logical. It was almost a love letter to that era and also those locations. So we definitely wanted to place it in the US and then based also on the original image which I came across, we did a lot of virtual location scouting. So we virtually visited endless numbers of locations all around the States. We also considered Wyoming, Wisconsin and Northern states and ultimately Oregon kept coming up, I would say in the top three at least. So ultimately it was just a question of whether it looked beautiful. Maybe it’s personal, but I also feel as if Oregon somehow also feels a bit, maybe even European innocence, that we, or at least I as a Dutchman can relate to how you view the world or maybe how you go about things. And then on a very personal level, as I said, I grew up in the 80′s. I was a kid then and one of my favorite cartoons was Transformers and that also takes place in Oregon. So that was a fun fact that sealed the deal for me personally.
Miller: What did you hear from players or beta testers about how the game made them feel? I’m particularly curious because as you noted your pitch for this game, it was itself a feeling it started before there was an objective. So what did people tell you when they actually got a version of the game in their hands?
Nagel: We tested the game on multiple occasions, also on convention floors and just gave people a controller in their hands to test it out. We didn’t give any sort of introduction. Of course, there’s also driving around in a mail truck and a lot of people are familiar with that experience. So they picked up the controller, and they started driving around. They understood because there was a delivery list that they had to go to places that they saw on the mini map. So a lot of the mechanical stuff, the setup, was very clear from the start; and, at first most players were kind of waiting for something to happen, the story maybe to kick in or so.
Miller: A monster to attack them.
Nagel: And a monster to attack them, absolutely, a place in the woods, a remote area. Nobody trusted this concept. It seems as if collectively we are maybe even trained or even force fed drama or external forces that we simply don’t trust idyllic situations anymore. So we took that to heart and we figured there’s two things we can do or we can add the monster in the lake or we try to embrace what we have so far and make it even more clear also in the, in the marketing, also in everything we do, how we talk about the game, how the game feels, what the setup is also in the narrative. And of course, we chose the second option and over the course of several playtests, it seemed to work that people instantly figured out what the deal was. Of course, they were still skeptical, still expected monsters to pop out of the lake, but ultimately, and especially with the version that we launched last year, new time players really get the concept very quickly. They said, whoa, this is amazing, finally a game in which I don’t have to look over my shoulder, where I don’t have to carry a gun with me at all times, where I don’t have to be sarcastic to each and every character I come across. So it has been, in a sense, healing for a lot of players, with the pandemic of course, still holding us in its grasp last year. So it has done a lot of good, it seems. I am super happy and super grateful.
Miller: Do you have a favorite place in this fictional town?
Nagel: That’s a great question because there are so many which I really love. It’s been my privilege as a game director to work with every single team member on this production and also trust them to do their best work to come up with their own wonderful places in the game and wonderful characters. But to answer your question, one of my favorite places is on top of the watchtower which looks out over the lake, which offers the best view of course, and that might be because it’s not super straightforward to find. It’s not hidden per se, but you do have to go look for it, essentially. It’s not even part of the plot per se, but that’s one of my favorites because if you stumble upon it and then are rewarded with a view, you really feel as if it was you yourself that explored and got the reward for it.
Miller: Dylan Nagel, thanks very much.
Nagel: Excellent. You’re welcome. Thanks so much for having me.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.