Last night I finished pushing my ghost bones across this haunting, dream-like digital America.
The credits rolled and that heartbreaking soundtrack was twangin’ and I knew I would have to write about it because I was just gobsmacked by what a beautiful earthen jewel this game was.
I’m truly sad it’s over. Got that emptiness that often accompanies the end of a great novel. Probably because I haven’t been home to the States in a couple years now. No burning desire to go back — for obvious reasons — but still, homesickness can be a thing you carry with you. This game poked me there until it hurt.
Now it’s not a perfect game by any means. There are some pretty glaring flaws, especially toward the end. That said, there’s so much here to fall in love with. So much energy. So many exuberant ideas. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is Dim Bulb Games’ story-telling journey through a metaphysical, magical realist America. If that kind of things sounds like your jam, if you like adventure games or choose-your-own-adventure game or flash fiction or just straight up folklore served up under a ladle-full of Americana, I implore you to play it.
You play as a drifter who loses a game of cards to a dapper wolf in a grey suit. He’s voiced by Sting, because of course he is.
Paying off your debt means wandering the hills, dales, and deserts of a fantastical, mid-century U.S.A. You start in the northernmost tip of Maine, but where you head from there is up to you. You collect stories as you travel, guiding a spooky little skeleton hobo over a colorful, low-poly 3D over world.
And so you venture forth. Mountains loom. Towns and cities prick the horizon like Monopoly pieces. Markers indicate where there’s a story to be told, and these stories play out as tiny vignettes. You execute a bit of choose-your-own-adventure-style agency, then add it to your collection. There are 200+. They range from sad to hopeful, scary to exciting.
You’ll also stop at campfires along the way, where other characters ask you to tell stories in exchange for their own. Telling a tale that suits their mood opens them up, and they share more of themselves. The characters embody various archetypes that together form a pretty holistic overview of the American cultural tapestry. I spotted analogues to Huck Finn, Jack Kerouac, Robert Johnson, while others were more generalized but no less compelling.
As you tell your stories, they spread, eventually coming back to you in embellished form. It’s a bit like playing telephone. Subsequently, these embellished stories carry more weight at later campfires, creating a simple, satisfying loop.
I just can’t tell you how weirdly fulfilling it is to play through a bit of interactive flash fiction about a buff ass lumberjack, share it a few times, then have it return a dozen or so hours later as the legend of Paul Bunyan.
The whole thing kinda plays like 80 Days mixed with the friendship system of Persona. Funny enough, I picked up a whiff of Pokemon in the way you fiendishly collect stories, have personal favorites, and “evolve” those favorites over time.
Where the game fumbles a little is in the controls and the ending. Your skeleton hobo moves like molasses. You can speed him up by playing a whistling mini-game, but it never stops feeling like a chore. Hitching rides is an option, but it’s often spotty (I never quite knew if it was buggy or if some drivers were programmed to ignore you). You can also hop trains, but it’s never worth it. Three-headed crows and Confederate ghosts couldn’t kill me, but the train guards did on multiple occasions, forcing me to the last city I visited and a session of pained backtracking.
Another small nit-pick has to do with representation. You can tell the team was very thoughtful in crafting stories and characters that encompass the vast diversity of America. They do a good job overall, but I noticed a strangely glaring lack of Asians. Only one of the vignettes I played featured characters that were recognizably Asian (though I missed about 15, so maybe that’s where they’re hiding?), and there were none among the 16 campfire characters. Considering how invested the game is in exploring problematic aspects of America’s past and present, I thought it weird to see nothing about, say, Japanese internment camps or Chinese railroad labor.
None of this is game-breaking though. In fact I weirdly forgive the shitty traversal mechanics, because it seems to me that hoofing it across the vastness of the United States should be a total pain in the ass. And there’s a real sense of hope and excitement when you emerge from, say, the Sonora Desert, spying a small town you’ve never been to off on the horizon, knowing a batch of fresh stories is nestled within.
What’s a bit less forgiving, however, is the game’s final stages. You’ll inevitably hit a point about 4/5 of the way through where new stories have dried up, and all that’s left is to muscles through the last remaining campfires. You’ll suddenly notice you’re scarping the bottom of the barrel. A staleness sets in. You’re going through the motions. This is especially a shame in that it undercuts the culmination of a few characters’ stories. When you gotten them to open up enough, their artwork changes. They transform into something fantastical as they reveal their “true selves” to you. At their best these moments are deeply moving, so it’s unfortunate that by the time you’re getting through the last few it feels like a slog.
Comparing it to 80 Days, the game with which I think it shares the most DNA, we see the tensions that arise when attempting to wed absolute player freedom to a compelling, coherent narrative. 80 Days’ premise and mechanics play into its breakneck pace. Its momentum never stops increasing. The story branches, but always surges forward, before it coheres at the end. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is infinitely more open. As soon as you take control you’re free to go where you please, engage with whatever stories you like. You could B line straight from Maine to SoCal if you so desire, and the game won’t punish anything save your middle finger on the “W” key.
This grants Where the Water Tastes Like Wine an overwhelming sense of freedom, but ultimately makes the game a messier affair and it suffers for it.
But I don’t want to dwell on the negative. There’s a triumph in this game, in how evocative it all is, especially considering the modest the tech. It’s open structure might feel like a hindrance in the moments right before the credits roll, but they also amounted to some of the most transportive gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Today, I’m thinking of the Native American construction workers who paid me for an honest days work, and how their tale grew into that of thunderbirds swooping in the high places in the telling.
The black porter forced to wear many faces.
I’m thinking of Pecos Bill. I’m thinking of Casey Jones.
I’m thinking of the monster who showed me the deed to the boxcar he slept in.
And the underground network of communist steelworkers.
And the girl who kissed me during an eclipse.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a testament to how far quality writing can go in game design. Seeing that wild, violent, beautiful, contradictory land spill out in all directions, ripe with stories to be told; tales to make you snarl and smile and weep.