Lake and the Alluring Escapist Fantasy of the Readily Available, Decent Job

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood to break my own heart with the difference between the world I imagined as a child and the one I’m actually confronted with as an adult, I’ll watch videos like this one:

There are several like it, videos which pair footage of bustling shopping malls from the 80s and 90s with music that evokes the sleek, sparkly synths of the period, but in a way that, for me anyway, strips away the lie of shimmery, sunlit prosperity to which those tunes often served as a soundtrack. Clearly these videos speak to many people — the one above is nearing two million views — and I think I know why. As one commenter on that video puts it, the effect is “like being haunted by the ghost of late 20th century optimism.” So many of us who were young in that time are haunted now by the collective cultural illusions we once believed in, and the ways in which they’ve been stripped away.

I doubt that the makers of the upcoming game Lake are trying to create such an existentially haunting experience, and yet there are ways in which the demo, currently on Xbox and PC, stirred up similar feelings for me of what I’d had, and what I’d lost. (Alas, there is no Fleetwood Mac on the soundtrack but the songs on the in-game radio do evoke a broadly similar sun-dappled nostalgia and longing.) In Lake, you play as Meredith Weiss, a 40-something white woman (like me!) who, in September of 1986, returns to Providence Oaks, the Oregon town where she grew up, to fill in for her mail carrier father for two weeks while her parents go on vacation. The demo lets you play the first four days of those two weeks, and while I admit that the game’s dialogue felt a bit clunky and contrived in spots, its core concept appeals to me in an emotionally complicated way.

September of 1986 is the month I turned ten, and boy, did the world feel different to me then. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that that’s when my illusions were just starting to fall away. My grandparents on my father’s side owned a majestic home on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, and memories of that community, its affluence and its stunning natural beauty, came flooding back to me in my time with Lake. My experience of America was, for a time, an experience of safety and prosperity. Every shopping mall we stopped in on road trips buzzed with commerce and every small-town motel felt welcoming, the sunset sky curving above me a protecting canopy as I swam in their pools each evening. As a white kid with relatives who had money, it never occurred to me that not everyone felt so materially secure and free. But by the time I was ten, my parents had split, we were poor, and I was reeling.

Lake aims to be a comforting experience I’m sure, and if the demo is an accurate indication, it can be that for you if you approach it at face value. Each day, you drive around the gorgeous, peaceful town at a pleasant pace in your mail truck, stopping at each home and business for which you have deliveries. Sometimes you just slip items into their mailbox. Other times you have parcels, which usually result in conversations with the recipients. There’s the slightly prickly old cat lady, the video store proprietor, the (estranged?) best friend — I’m sure the history there will become clearer in the days beyond the scope of the demo.

In this role, you’re more than just someone who delivers the mail, you’re part of the fabric of the community, the connecting tissue between residents, as you take on extracurricular tasks like delivering an ailing cat to a salt of the earth fisherman who knows just what sort of remedy poor Mortimer needs. When you get out of your mail truck to make deliveries, there isn’t a run button, just a walk-slightly-faster button. And although you can drive to destinations on “auto pilot” or fast travel to certain sections of town, I never opted to use these conveniences. It seems to me that giving these straightforward tasks your attention and taking the time it takes to do them is the point.

There’s pleasure in the easy focus of cruising around the town, taking in the scenery and getting your tasks done. It’s exactly the sort of job I once thought I’d always be able to find if all else failed. Though I had youthful dreams of being a movie star and held other, more practical aspirations to boot, I figured at the very least, the world was full of malls with well-lit Waldenbooks where I could get by stocking the shelves with fresh fantasy paperbacks each week. Or maybe I’d be the proprietor of my own video store, like The Flick Shack in Providence Oaks, a cozy place that feels like it comes out of its owner’s genuine love of cinema and not like one of the soulless corporate chain stores that would become so prevalent in the 90s. (Le Video, the last great video store I knew of here in the Bay Area, closed in 2015 after 35 years. Such places are another thing we’ve all but entirely lost.)

Doubtless my childhood notions of what being an assistant manager of a bookstore or video store might be like were grossly simplified, but so is Lake’s vision of being a mail carrier. It’s a fantasy, and not just in terms of what it involves, but in terms of good jobs like it being acquirable by most of us at all. It’s the myth of the readily available, decent, reasonably well-paying job, as something that is there for any American adult who might want it. (Lake doesn’t spell out how much Meredith’s dad makes, but he and his wife do own a lovely house in a lovely town, so it seems they’re doing all right. Meanwhile, for people in my generation, homeownership is becoming increasingly unattainable.)

While Lake may not be deliberately exploring the thematic territory of how this particular American dream has evaporated, I can enjoy the pleasures of the fantasy it offers while also savoring the ways in which I find something complex and disruptive built into its comforts, because I have seen what lies beyond its mid-80s setting. I have seen the dream fall apart in my own life, and like many, I now face a future of tremendous uncertainty. Last year, despite having had some success once upon a time as a video game critic, I was so desperate for work and money that I briefly took a position in an Amazon warehouse, and it was about as far removed an experience from what Lake provides as you can imagine. Rather than humanizing interactions and work that offered some moments of pleasure and satisfaction, I was misgendered constantly, because who I was didn’t matter, only that I maintained a breakneck pace while sorting goods for delivery.

Here’s how it really is: You go for a long time struggling to find work as a trans woman and then people start asking you why you haven’t worked in so long which makes it harder still to find work. You see people on TV and on Twitter say that we shouldn’t pay people working in fast food or at Starbucks $15 an hour because these are “low-skill jobs for young people,” but increasingly these are the only jobs that you and millions of other people in your age group seem likely to get. You hope somebody with a decent job available will come along and say, “Well, your experience isn’t a perfect match for this role, but I have a good feeling about you.” Maybe if I had Meredith’s family connections and generational wealth, I’d be in a different boat. But I don’t. Lake feels like a dream about many of the things I don’t have, things I once naively thought came pre-packaged with being an American.

If the great American epic Kentucky Route Zero charts a tragic course through the illusion’s collapse to suggest a realistic basis for the hope that we might be able to build something new and better, sturdier and more equitable, Lake feels like a chance to step back into the dream at a time when it looked real, and felt like it might last forever. I know now that for a great many people, that illusion never felt attainable at all, and I’d bet that, like so many things, like those videos of shopping mall memories I sometimes watch for instance, what you take away from Lake may largely depend on what you bring to it. Of course, this is all just my reaction to the demo. The full game may elicit entirely different thoughts and feelings from me. But If Lake is successful upon release, I suspect it will be because the fantasy it offers appeals to so many of us right now, who have lost faith that reality might hold such decent opportunities.

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