Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Dim Bulb Games
February 28, 2018
Sidequest was provided with a copy of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a patchwork game; a collection of sometimes disparate elements that, nevertheless, come together to make a cohesive, if not necessarily pretty, whole. This is a game that is America right down to its bones, its flaws laid bare, its lofty mythos a lovely, but not entirely honest, representation of the truth.
After a poker game gone wrong, the player takes on the role of a lumbering skeleton who must wander the wide stretches of America in search of stories. Each story you collect can be retold to sixteen named, fully voice-acted characters who individual stories are written by various figures of the games industry (Cara Ellison, Leigh Alexander, and Austin Walker are just a few of the prominent writers featured in these individual stories). In turn, the stories you tell them are then spread throughout America, growing as they go. When you witness an anonymous man planting an orchard and tell that story it to others, the story, through subsequent retellings, blossoms into the myth of Johnny Appleseed. The seance you witness may become a vengeful spirit out to harm fraudulent mediums. And the stories you’re told in return become the foundation on which the myth of America is based, some of them references to real historical events, some to familiar folklore, and some just fanciful gothic Americana.
In other games, this veneer might be a detractor. But in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which is explicitly about the stories—which might also be called lies—we tell about America, it feels like it might also be the point. Because it is about stories; not Story, as in the thing that funnels us from one mechanic to the next, but stories, the narratives we share that may start as truth and turn into more. There is always something true at the center of a good story, and this game asks you to find it.
The game isn’t without a sense of “game”-ness. There are two distinct sections of the game—the overworld, in which you wander the wide expanse of America, collecting stories and hopping trains, and the storytelling section, which feels a bit like a visual novel in that you make choices and interact with characters. Your skeleton in the overworld can die, and stories must be matched to the recipients’ moods. If they ask you for a happy story and you tell them a sad one instead, you will make no progress. To succeed, you need to collect as many stories as possible, and, more importantly, remember the truth. When you witness an event, it’s that event that matters, not the way the story is spun out in its many retellings. The characters are only interested in truth, not the many embellishments a story goes through in its lifetime.
It’s a grand vision. And like any grand vision, there are pitfalls. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is riddled with strange bugs—more than once, I encountered problems in the overworld. Those problems could be simple, such as coming to the end of a road and falling through the map; or merely frustrating, such as needing to restart the game to access a story; to rage-inducing, such as dying every single time I boarded a train whether my health was full or not.
In the demo I played at PAX West, the overworld was beautiful, but not particularly engaging to play. The version in my review copy (which is labeled as a beta build, so it’s possible these kinks will be ironed out in the full release) is not much of an improvement. The frame rate frequently dips below acceptable levels, ruining what is otherwise a beautiful landscape. While the slow walking pace could be an intentional means of making the player sit with the stories they hear, it feels too slow. The new rhythm minigame (which can be accessed at any time in the overworld) allows you to walk faster, but feels more like a reprimand than a good mechanic. By virtue of being both boring and annoying, it seems as if the game is shaking a finger at me for wanting to walk faster; pressing one button after another to make the character whistle certainly gamifies the action, but does little to engage the player.
It’s messy. The overworld section adds a sense of space, but is frustrating to play. And yet, it’s somehow necessary; as a player, I understand why it’s there. We need to feel how big America is, and we need room to travel to collect the stories on which the myth—which the game calls the Big Lie—is built.
These problems, which are not particularly small, aren’t enough to outweigh Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s strengths. The writing in this game is exceptional—everything from the flavor text to the individual stories of characters like Quinn and Dupree are stunning. These stories last; both the ones that are tinged with fantasy or horror, and those that are real with the serial numbers filed off. Even when they’re fictionalized, there’s truth at the center.
There’s a deliberateness to the game design, the pattern of telling stories with truth buried inside of them. It’s all part of the Big Lie, the stories we tell each other about ourselves, about our home. It’s embellished with incredible artwork and music, smoothing out some of the rough patches into a cohesive whole.
My feelings about Where the Water Tastes Like Wine are complicated. There are things about this game that are genuinely frustrating and unpleasant; to be honest, I’m not absolutely certain I finished the game due to some recurring errors. But I’d recommend it in a heartbeat to anybody who loves stories, particularly those who are hungry to see what kinds of unique stories video games can tell.
We’re in an era where American myths are being exposed and written in equal measure. Where the Water Tastes like Wine, for all its love of stories and embellishments, is interested in the truth at the center of everything. It would be easy—and dangerous—for this game to slip into a romanticized notion of American history, but it decidedly doesn’t do that. Its writers, who cover the Long Walk of the Navajo, labor politics, and sharecropping, expose the truth through fiction. These are all real events woven deep into the fabric of what we tell ourselves about America, even as the privileged, who never had to look, finally come to see these problems have been here all along.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, like America, is messy. Its ambition is greater than it can ever hope to measure up to. There are flaws all the way through it, flaws that make it hard to recommend. But the stories that make it up, the music, the voices: they’re worth the investment, even if the systems that tie them together aren’t.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.