Sometimes, one of the most compelling things about writing about video games is that the medium is culturally evolving so fast that certain titles defy easy classification. Think about it. Imagine you’re trying to sort video games into the genres in the same way you do books, films or music? What’s your point of reference? Aesthetics? Mechanics? Perspective? Time Period? Are video games defined the sum of their parts or something that extends beyond it?
It’s a tricky question, and releases like Dim Bulb Games’ Where The Water Tastes Like Wine don’t exactly offer any clear-cut answers. If anything, they contribute to a broader mosaic of conflicting ones by bringing its own meta-textual baggage and tensions to the fore.
This all might sound like pretty heavy philosophical stuff but, at its ragged, windswept core, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. From the outset, it lays out rules that feel accessible enough for almost anyone to grasp and lets you come to your own conclusions. It’s a game about stories. More specifically (and in its own words), it’s perhaps best summed up as “a bleak American folk tale about traveling, sharing stories, and surviving manifest destiny.”
A Thousand Miles
After an introductory sequence, wherein you lose your soul to a talking wolf (voiced by Sting) in a game of cards, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine sees you cast out into a sprawling, silhouetted vision of 1930s America.
Your goal? To seek out and find new stories to bring back to the Wolf. Manifesting as a larger-than-life skeleton with a cowboy hat on your brow and a swag on your shoulder, you wander up, down, across and throughout the land of the free.
As you wander, you’ll either come across encounters on the map. Interacting with these encounters will see you play through a snippet of short interactive fiction. Sometimes you’ll make decisions that shapes the outcome of the tale. Other times, you’re just there to bear witness and spread the word.
Eventually, you’ll come across other travelers. Over a campfire, you’ll try to impress them with the stories you’ve collected. They might be after a scary story or a genuine tear-jerker. Your goal is to then pick and share the right yarn. Do this enough times, you’ll impress them and they’ll share their own stories with you. Sometimes their stories are funny, sardonic or adventurous, but they’re usually stained by their own undercurrent of tragedy.
Perhaps most appropriately given its subject matter, each of these vagabonds has been written by a different author (credited each time you encounter them in in-game). This anthology-style approach allows Where The Water Tastes Like Wine to offer up a portrait of early 1900s America that’s far more defined by the everyday perspectives of the marginalized than it is those in power.
The final piece of the puzzle doesn’t reveal itself until later. Eventually, you’ll start to come across stories you already know - but no longer recognise. Over time and whether you like it or not, the tales you share inevitably grow in the telling. Their meaning or message or tone morphs.
A tragedy can easily become a comedy told in the wrong way and, almost right out of the gate, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine pulls no punches when it comes to interrogating the idea that a nice, shiny, relatable lie just might hold more meaning to some than a “dingy and battered truth”.
Stranger In A Strange Land
Of course, for all these lofty storytelling goals, it feels like the actual experience of playing Where The Water Tastes Like Wine leaves things a little too open-ended for its own good. There’s an aimlessness here that - while tonally appropriate - leads the whole thing feeling like a bit of a slog to get through.
Sure, America is a big place, but it traversing it shouldn't feel nearly this tedious. At times, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine comes across as frustrating slow-paced. This isn’t helped by the fact that the game’s very hands-off approach to its main narrative meant that it felt like it took far longer than it should have before the long-term goals you’re supposed to be working towards become apparent.
Even if the actual prose in Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a delight, managing a pretty strong track-record across both the shorter vignettes and lengthier traveler’s tales, the shine begins to fade long before the narrative gets close to its proper conclusions. Every new story begins to feel like just another story and things inevitably begin to blur together.
Likewise, the first thousand miles you walk in Where The Water Tastes Like Wine are probably going to be less interesting than the second thousand miles. Eventually, my journey began to feel like one defined more by silence than it was by the stories I discovered. This might make this game one of the most true-to-real-life depictions of what traveling is actually like. Unfortunately, that's doesn't always translate into something fun. Sometimes, the long boring stretches in this game just feel too long and too boring - usually once you're past the 5 hour mark.
The Bottom Line
Like I said before, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is one of those games that defies simple categorisation. It’s a fascinating romp with a lot to say on the topic of stories, what it means to travel and the kind of place that America might have been and, in some ways, still is. All the same, it's the kind of thing meanders a somewhat in its own telling. There’s a rich tapestry of tales to be found here, but they won’t necessarily unfurl at a pace that’ll keep you hooked all the way through.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a stranger that shows up on your doorstep with one hell of a tale to tell and a great sense of how to tell it, but one that can't help but overstay its welcome nevertheless. It's flawed but I kinda dig it anyway.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is available on Steam now.