When several travellers decide to cross the dark waters of Sinnlos, they do so with the knowledge that they have invited death to walk alongside them. On the shifting labyrinth of bridges, under the hostile gaze of the guardians of the lake, the companions will have to consider what they are willing to do to survive. This strange and harsh place causes sorrow to echo throughout Lake of Voices, yet it also instils the game with a sense of wonder.
The ill-fated journey occurs in a dreamlike haze, with a perpetual fog reducing surroundings to a blur of indistinguishable shadows and empty horizons. It is a deliberately restrained artistic style that emphasises the bleakness of surroundings, while allowing for embellishments to important details like the feeble glow of a lamp. In such an unforgiving environment, where the characters are simultaneously trapped and unnervingly exposed, even minor misjudgements have the potential to lead to tragedy.
At times this melancholy makes the game difficult to experience, with the narrative touching upon an array of heavy subjects including trauma, grief, and suicide. The manner in which it handles the characters’ complicated and varied responses to these situations though, is what ultimately leaves the work feeling thoughtful, instead of merely nihilistic. There are a number of ways that this tale can commence and conclude, depending on the choices made by the player. While some endings may be more tentatively hopeful than others, the narrative takes care not to frame any of these routes as superior to another, and all come with a sense of loss for fallen friends, regret for what could have been and questions left unsolved.
Undoubtedly the greatest strength of Lake of Voices is its writing, which strikes a delicate balance between cautious joy and suppressed despair. Though the time spent with the five characters is brief, they are clearly shown to be complicated individuals with their own values, flaws and desires. All of them have the potential to grow over the course of the venture, for better or ill, yet these developments never feel forced. Their flawed humanity, with its moments of callousness but also generosity, makes it difficult to not become invested in the survival of each of them, despite knowing that not all of them can make it to the distant shore.
The emotional depths that this game reaches are all the more impressive when considering that it is the creation of an independent studio, supported by crowdfunding. It would be amiss not to acknowledge that there are a few blemishes to the game, however the unfortunate side effect of something being highly polished is that specks of tarnish often become more noticeable. Conversations and arguments between characters are bought to life by the ambitious decision to add voice acting, but the effect is slightly tempered by characters mispronouncing another’s name. Certain choices have to be made within a time limit*, which has the potential to allow the player to express indecision and neutrality, while amplifying their sense of culpability for choices, yet too often this has identical results as another option. Time has been taken to individualise the protagonist’s many potential deaths, and there are also several lines whose awkward phrasing comes about most likely due to be written to be multi-purpose. Although these are legitimate points, they are perhaps better viewed less as critique, than pointing out bugs; small things that may distract you for a few seconds, before being dismissed.
It is difficult not to be drawn in by Lake of Voices, whose deceptively simple premise belies a narrative which will remain at the back of your mind long after finishing. With each resolution distinctly bittersweet, it is a journey that is frequently difficult to experience precisely because it is aware of the weight and complexity of its subject matter. This is an undeniably captivating game, enthralling the player with its passion and finesse, and one that really does need to be experienced.
* For those who find responding to quick time events difficult, and or prefer to skip through scenes they have already seen, by pressing ‘Page Up’ players can scroll back through text, reset timers and retake choices.