How Did Game Designers From the Netherlands Capture the Look and Feel of Small Town Oregon Better Than Any Other Video Game?

On paper, the upcoming “Lake” doesn’t exactly read like a nonstop thrill ride. But what it lacks in action it more than makes up for in its immersive environment.

The year is 1986. A 40-something woman named Meredith Weiss has decided to put her software career on hold to return to her sleepy hometown in rural Oregon and deliver mail. And...well, that’s pretty much the whole story.

It sounds like the plot to a slow-paced indie drama. In truth, it’s a video game.

On paper, the upcoming Lake doesn’t exactly read like a nonstop thrill ride. But what it lacks in action it more than makes up for in its immersive environment. Puttering around in the mail truck, players get to soak in the richly detailed landscape of Providence Oaks, a town that doesn’t actually exist but which longtime Oregonians will swear they’ve been to before: lumber stacked next to an aging pick-up parked off-road; an over-large roadside diner with just one or two four doors in the parking lot; a campfire next to a body of water surrounded by slouching pine. Sure, those are all Pacific Northwest stereotypes. But where other games’ depiction of the region is often surface deep, Lake gets the vibe exactly right.

It’s so warmly familiar, you’d have to assume Gamious, the studio that designed the game, was based in middle-of-nowhere Oregon, or at least Bend. It’s a bit of a shock, then, to discover that this near-perfect depiction of the Beaver State came from a company based in the Netherlands.

What would even compel European designers to set a game in the quaintest, quietest part of our corner of the United States? According to Gamious co-founder Jos Bouman, it was simply a process of elimination.

In 2018, Bouman, who started Gamious with his brother, Pim, asked game director Dylan Nagel to pitch them some ideas for a new game. None of them were sticking.

“He sensed that we were not really into his concepts,” Bouman says. “Then he was like, ‘Well, there’s this third concept. I don’t really have much more than one picture.’” Bouman recalls Nagel showing them the photo he had in mind: a lonely shot of a car driving around a lake. “He said ‘I just want to be in that car and drive around.’”

Oregon was not immediately chosen as a location. “It could have also been in Norway, perhaps, or Canada,” Bouman says. But the state fit all the aesthetic conditions—plus, Nagel had briefly lived in Beaverton in the early 2000s. It’s not just the visuals that makes Lake so resonant, though. It’s the sincerity and earnest nature of the game as well. Whereas some PNW-set video games, like Alan Wake or Life is Strange, use Oregon’s occasionally imposing natural splendor to induce fear or mystery, Lake opts instead to reproduce the slow, laid-back pace of life and allow players soak it in, without the addition of a supernatural twist.

The team used reference photos and street view imagery, as well as some travel experience, to tweak the visuals and create the fictional Providence Oaks. Much work went into populating the town with believable and varied characters as well.

“In the typical, cliche RPG, you would walk into a village and walk right into the mayor’s house and hear that his daughter has been kidnapped or something like that,” Bouman says. “That’s not what we’re trying to do here. It’s a game about nothing, but at the same time, because of that, it’s so slice-of-life-y that it’s also relatable in all sorts of aspects.”

To preserve the illusion of reality, Gamious had their United States-based publisher, Whitethorn Games, check the dialogue to make sure everything sounds authentic. Numerous other details, like the VHS tapes on rental store shelves, the angular car bodies and the clothing, work to reaffirm not just the setting but the era as well.

Bouman believes games excel when players can actively participate in stories rather than passively observe them. Lake has a narrative, but it is intended to be more of a frame than a strict path. The experience, Bouman says, lies in the chit-chat, the small daily occurrences, and the reflections made by oneself while the road moves beneath the tires.

Lake takes place over two weeks, at the end of which the player can make a number of choices to wrap up Meredith’s story, but Gamious seems to want players to forget the time limit “and just play, be in the moment and make choices without second guessing themselves,” Bouman says. The ultimate goal is to create something that at once reflects daily life and idealizes it: a kind of nostalgic, romantic escape to a simpler past.

It’s hard not to think of the other ’80s period piece video game about exploring a small town and the lives of its inhabitants: 1999′s Shenmue. History shows that slice-of-life video games are a tough balancing act—to create a full, immersive, open-world experience while also being, in Bouman’s words, “not too boring.”

As the game is still in development, it remains to be seen whether Lake sticks the landing. But according to Bouman, the recent play-tests have been encouraging.

“I returned to my mail truck, the playlist started playing, and I was driving on the road,” he says. “I felt really good about it.”

PLAY: Lake is out this summer for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows.