by Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Editor-in-Chief
Your deepest desires? Your greatest wish? Heaven? Big Rock Candy Mountain, El Dorado, the Promised Land, that place just over the ridge where they all say that the water tastes just like the sweetest wine?
At PAX West, I sat down on a genuine bale of hay with Johnnemann Nordhagen, designer and programmer of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (henceforth abbreviated WTWTLW). As I questioned him, and learned more about the game – which I knew very little about before I stepped into the campfire-style booth – I found the busy bustle of bodies and constant thrum of voices and electronics fading away. It was here that I found the ambrosia I’d craved: a narrative video game that cut to the oldest part of the soul. I wrote about that experience, but ever since I stepped away from that demo, the ghost of a folk song has hummed quietly in my head, waiting for the day when WTWTLW would launch.
That day has now passed, and I’ve spent long, dusty hours losing myself in the stories of the game: Hours lost as the distinction between the Vagrant and myself fade and warble in the smoke of campfires. Even as I work, I whistle its familiar tune. I can’t say that I have finished Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, yet; there are too many stories to discover and shape in a single play-through. But this is one game where the journey is the goal; what matters is not how the game ends, but how it plays.
You don’t mention the small feet trampling outside your door, or the dreams of blood seeping from the bedframe. You don’t say that every shadow seemed to contain something vicious and alien, threatening to escape.
WTWTLW is a storytelling game. It’s not quite RPG, as it lacks some traditional progression models, but it’s not simply a walking simulator, either. With an open world, and open choice on how stories progress, the game is more like a vast choose-your-own-adventure visual novel with a deeply interwoven set of over 200 mini-stories and 16 major stories. The player takes the role of the Vagrant, a nameless, faceless (and very quickly into the story, also fleshless) wanderer during the Great Depression era in the United States. Tricked by the Wolf (voiced by the musician Sting), the Vagrant must wander the continental States, looking for and telling stories great and small. It is by interweaving these stories that one pays their debt to the Wolf, though the journey gets heavier with each step.
The landmass available to explore in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is vast, and while far from the real world scale, the size of the map is still palpable. The Vagrant has limited means of transportation: Walk at a slow, steady pace, which can be sped up to a moderate trot by playing a mini rhythm game called “Whistling”; hitchhike on the main highways before getting dropped off somewhere along the road; or take a train (legally or stowed away). The closest thing to a Fast Travel option is the train, but even then, each train runs only between two stops and will cost the Vagrant money or health. With plenty of stories to discover and grow across the map, taking a long walk isn’t as terrible as it sounds.
The map zoomed fully out – about four hours into my journey.
Different types of location events can be found along the map as the Vagrant travels. The most common is the local story. These small events are the seeds of bigger stories that evolve as you travel. Some of these stories are folk tales pulled straight from Americana’s real narrative: the Headless Horseman, Paul Bunyan, The Devil of Leeds, the Leatherman to name a few. Others are full original stories. Almost all of these stories give the player choice in how their narrative plays out, giving some control as to whether stories will become stories of excitement, hope, horror, or tragedy.
Stories are organized into categories denoted by signs of the Tarot deck – sixteen of the 22 major Arcana. Choices during the story dialogue reflect what Arcana the story is currently leaning to, giving the player some control on how to fill out their “deck” of stories. Each story also progresses through the eye symbol. In its first stage, a story is closed-eye; as the player progresses and evolves the story, the eye opens. When it is fully open, the story has evolved to its final form.
Story evolution takes place naturally throughout the game in a second type of location event, “Hear a Story.” Here the player encounters a random event which will give new details to one of the stories, progressing the “eye” meter of the story. It’s key to note that, just like any other story, once it has begun, the player is out of control on how it develops through the retelling. Despite this, you have the opportunity to watch a story develop from the kernel of truth you found. Only three stories of each Arcana can be active at one time, which becomes important to manage later as you encounter the third – and most important – location event: the Campfire.
Sixteen characters roam the map and appear at Campfires. These are special events in which you trade stories with the stranger, discovering their true self in the process. A progress bar along the top of the screen showcases both the passing of time (from night to morning) and the current trust of the character (using the familiar eye symbol). During each stage, the character will share some about themselves, and then ask you for a particular type of story. These can generally be categorized as Hope, Horror, Thrill, and Tragedy, though each character will refer to these types of stories differently. You are then presented a wheel of the Arcana, and may choose a story from the three active stories in each to share with the stranger. Stories cannot be retold to the same character, nor can you use the same Arcana twice in one night. These Arcana also serve as a prompt for the character in sharing part of their story. When the night has passed, the character will move on, pointing you in the direction they’re headed (which you will also be able to see on your map).
The cast of characters, and the stories told, is as diverse as a modern player should expect from any video game, especially one that aims for some historical accuracy. Among the major characters are a ex-sharecropper, a wandering black preacher, a Diné (Navajo) woman, an elderly curandera, and a veteran of the Great War. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine does not shy from ethnic and cultural diversity, nor does it shy from gender and sexuality – as several stories can be discovered that reveal non-heterosexual relationships, without apology. While the game could not possibly hope to represent the full diversity of the United States and its stories, WTWTLW does a remarkable job of it: more so than I have ever seen in a game so devotedly about “America.”
Each of the major stories has been written by a different author – making for not only a diverse cast of characters, but a truly diverse and representative cast of stories. The narratives encountered aren’t afraid to punch straight to the soul, with words both biting and wise. This is not a soft game. It is mature, not in the sense of “sex and violence,” but in the sense that it handles very difficult themes, including race, genocide, slavery, and grey morality.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is cerebral in the stories it tells, emotionally and psychologically evocative in its presentation with art that focuses on light and contrast and music that changes depending on the region of the United States the Vagrant is in. The voice talent that speaks almost every word of the game is a pleasure to listen to. However, the gameplay itself is less smart, and even after I discovered additional features of the game – like the Vagrant’s ‘survival’ stats of money, health, and rest – I felt less engaged as the hours passed. I wanted – and still want – every morsel of story, every sip of the wine-flavored water promised. The journey to these words, however, becomes – dare I say it – a grind.
There’s no denial that the travel mechanic is slow, and it lends to the scale and discovery of events across the map. However, there remain vast stretches of land that have no events to discover, or stories set so far from the rest of civilization one must walk for several minutes to reach them. It is these less dense areas that also prove the hardest to travel, with no roads or railroads in sight. One can use Whilstling, but it is a rather awkward mechanic on mouse and keyboard, as it requires you to hold down CTRL and use the arrow keys to play, all while using WASD to move and the mouse to change your camera angle. The result is a little too realistic as the Vagrant walks across the great Midwest without an event in sight, despite being surrounded by farmland. This is a problem that could be solved in two ways: add more events in these areas, and add another travel mechanism in the form of a horse that tires after a certain amount of time.
Additionally, the “Hear a Story” events are too few – not simply in encounters, but in the encounters themselves. It wasn’t long before I found myself seeing the same woman in the soupline, passed by the same cop arguing on the radio, or stopped to chat with the same office workers, all in different towns. The repetition of these base scenarios ruins the immersive storytelling in an otherwise remarkably deep narrative. Likewise, some pieces of dialogue with the characters at campfires can repeat, as if they cannot recall they have already told us of a memory, or only have one way to ask for a ghost story.
There are major cities which have events and shops. As mentioned, the Vagrant has three ‘stats’ – Money, Health, and Rest. All of these can be lost or gained in random events, or restored in the major cities. Money can be used to restore health or rest, and can be used to purchase a legal ticket on the railroad. Beyond this, after hours of play, I never really found any purpose or difference in gameplay if my meters ran low. Nor did they make much sense to me; the Wolf tells the Vagrant that he will strip away the flesh and only leave the ability to feel pain. The Vagrant is a walking skeleton: what need have they of sleep or chille relleno? These elements simply feel tacked on in an attempt to add a semblance of game depth.
Eight hours into the story (not even halfway through the game at this time mark), and I’d started to feel weary. I found myself thinking more like a ‘gamer’: thinking of the shortest way from point A to point B, pointing myself straight toward campfires rather than wandering about. Part of this, I reasoned, was that WTWTLW is not meant for long sessions; it is best enjoyed an hour here or there, rather than devoting larger chunks of time at once. Part of it was simply dreading those long stretches of nothing.
Despite these flaws, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a fantastic game, produced by an amazing team of creative talent. Though it lacks depth in its gameplay features, the narrative is some of the best you’ll find in a video game, and the value of this is far beyond the game’s asking price of $19.99. This is the story of the Great Depression that should be heard, a collection of stories with far more worth and truth to them than The Grapes of Wrath. Imperfect, WTWTLW is still a game well worth playing.
Final Verdict: Great (4/5)
Note: A game key was provided for review purposes.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Screenshots