by Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Editor-in-Chief
We are all weavers of stories. The art of storytelling, born long before the written word, has survived and adapted through every technological advancement that our world has since produced. And though we focus often on facts and ‘verifiable’ data, we yet participate in an obscure process that grows tall tales from small seeds of truth. We are intrinsically players in a game of “telephone” that has lasted, and will continue to last, so long as humans exist.
As gamers, we’re often subject to foreign narratives. Many of our stories focus on cultures not our own, and this is particularly true for United States gamers who are bombarded mostly with stories from China, Japan, and Europe. Over two hundred years of US history – not to mention the stories that came before the country was founded – are often glossed over, or hyperfocused on moments like the Civil War or participation in the Great Wars. When I was offered the chance to preview Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, a roleplaying game with Americana as its central theme, at PAX West 2017, I knew I would be in for something different. What I discovered was even more of a sweet surprise than the clementine handed to me by Johnnemann Nordhagen, designer and programmer.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t just a role-playing game with a strong storytelling component; it is a game about storytelling. Set in the 1920s during the Great Depression, the player takes the role of a traveler who loses a bet with an unsavory creature – the Devil, if you must. To pay the debt, the traveler must gather the stories across the land and spread them, to rebuild the ‘shining lie’ that has become the narrative of American existence with new truths. It’s a rather heavy task to bear – even if your flesh is burned away so that you need only experience pain.
The traveler is free to roam the United States as they wish – the landscape is a large open world which can be explored in any direction at any time. As they roam, they will encounter smaller stories of their own, which they can shape through choices which in turn will dictate what type of a story it will become. They will also encounter sixteen primary characters, and it is these stories that they must collect in full – several chapters for each – in order to complete their task for the Boss. These characters, too, roam, and it is up to the player whether they will chase down a single character until that story is complete or simply wander and complete a more mixed narrative.
Every story that is collected is filed under one of sixteen categories, based on the Tarot. When one of the primary characters is encountered at a campfire, the traveler will sit with them and trade stories over the course of several stages – represented by an “eye” at the top of the screen. At each stage, the character will indicate what story they would most like to hear, and will respond based on the story that you share with them. As you appease their desires, the eye will open further, representing the character’s growing trust and repertoire with the traveler, unlocking more of their story. At the end of the campfire, the character will let the traveler know where they will next travel, if they would like to find them again.
At first, this is straightforward. But as the traveler encounters more characters, and tells more stories of their own, they will begin to encounter their tales in new ways. As storytelling goes, what was a true tale begins to spin into its own yarn and legend, shaped by the people who tell it. You not only become a storyteller, but you are able to see the effects of your storytelling over time as your stories spread. It’s a micro-demonstration of the folklore process, in a beautifully designed game format.
This unique gameplay narrative style of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t its only remarkable feature. Each character’s story has been created by a different writer, including Cara Ellison (Dishonored 2), Anne Toole (The Witcher), Emily Short (The Sunless Sea, Fallen London), and many others in the game industry. The writing cast is as diverse as the character cast, representing a swath of American experiences across ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. This is not The Grapes of Wrath, not a regurgitation of history books written by white scholars. This is an attempt to reach down deep and grasp the roots of American culture and folk lore.
While the traveler will encounter no actual historical characters, there will be familiar narratives based on historic situations and well known tall tales like Paul Bunyan. There are also original stories, however, new tales woven from the dust of culture, built from the threads of stories that still weave and cross America like her highways. The end result will be a rich tapestry of Americana, told in a powerful modern medium: the video game. It is a story I look forward to hearing, and telling, when the time comes.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is now listed on Steam if you want to add it to your Wishlist – the current release date is planned in early 2018.