Review: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Review copy provided by developer
Gaming has immense potential as a storytelling medium, thanks to the mix of human interaction with more conventional art forms. A player can be immersed in a tale, given choices in the plot, and even phased between the narrative itself and the meta-narrative beyond. But Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t really about that aspect of storytelling. Instead, it makes you the storyteller in a grand journey of discovery and camaraderie. Your story is a patchwork of tales from all across a lost America that bears frightening similarities to the America of today. Despite these lofty aims, though, this one gets bogged down in the work of telling and loses some of its magic in that rut.
Your story begins as so many fateful tales have before, at a card table. What feels like an unbeatable hand falls to a mysterious and otherworldly stranger who gives you a mission to repay your debt. He’s a collector of stories, and he wants you to travel the roads and ranges of 1930s America gathering and spreading whatever stories you can. As a shadowy drifter you’ll meet folks struggling through the Great Depression in their own ways, find hidden pockets of the country where the fantastic is made real, and swap stories with sixteen drifters on journeys just as fateful as yours. As you cross the nation the stories you hear and share will grow, becoming the folklore and fables that underpin a society looking for a path out of despair.
In gameplay terms, you are a giant hobo skeleton wandering around a vast papercraft diorama of the lower 48 states. You’ll come across numerous points of interest as you ramble, most prominently small story vignettes. These are short tales of love and loss, suspense and the supernatural, told in a handful of voiced scenes. Most of them don’t form complete stories but are more of the “For sale: baby shoes, never used” persuasion. They’re snippets of America’s hidden side, tales of great bulls with flaming crowns, centuries-old drifters, talking animals, and vengeful ghosts to name only a few. What they lack in length they more than make up in depth, giving you plenty of angles to mull as you meander to your next encounter.
Your growing collection of stories is used when you camp with the other vagrants travelling the country. You’ll meet sixteen different persons of interest, each representing a different aspect of the nation at the time like the Bonus Army veteran, the fallen bluegrass star, the weary sharecropper, and the union miner. Over the campfire you’ll trade stories, you sharing tales from your collection that meet their requests and them revealing bits of their own lives as they warm up to you. Once you tell a story there’s a chance you’ll encounter it again, hearing it told by someone else after it’s grown in the telling. This makes the story more potent, and more likely to open one of the sixteen drifters up when told to them.
There are other aspects to the gameplay like health, fatigue, and money stats to track and beef up in the cities, but these rarely come into play and feel mostly vestigial. The real focus is on collecting stories, growing them in the telling, and using them to complete the chapters of your companions’ lives. And this feels like it should be a grander, more fulfilling quest than it is, but it suffers in both scope and structure. The sixteen drifters never really tell their stories, but rather dance around them with vague mentions and lines that feel tailored to sound insightful. They become less about themselves and more about what they represent, which is a noble aim but weakens the appeal of working through their chapters. There are no great revelations to behold, only a slow string of truisms about the fabric of America.
When you make camp with a fellow traveler, they’ll ask for four or five stories from you in specific genres, like hopeful or funny or scary. The stories you collect are sorted into categories but not the same ones they ask for, but rather into themed groupings of Tarot cards. You can only have three stories ready to tell per card, too, and each card can only be used once per camp, so altogether there are elements of strategy, economy, memory, and guesswork in fulfilling the needs of your campmate. If you can’t get them to open up in the course of one night, you’ll have to track them down again and do it all again, hearing many of the same canned responses about fate and luck and whatnot each time. And as much as I appreciate some of their messages, the journey started to feel too much like work after a few hours.
The saving grace of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is not in the big stories surrounding the characters, but in the little ones you collect along the way. These snapshots of a bizarre, vibrant, cruel, and ultimately familiar America are expertly written, masterfully voice acted (by a shockingly versatile actor who does all the voices in each tale), and contain the sparks of creativity that set the mind to wandering all manner of fantastic places. A simple story about being caught in a thunderstorm can evolve into a terrifying encounter with a great bird that holds the clouds themselves in its talons. A poker game in a department store hides decades of smoldering animosity. The tale of the murdering twins made my jaw drop, and the story of the girl in the trainyard nearly brought me to tears. These are powerful pieces of writing, powerful because of what you can make of the stories yourself.
It’s this promise, this fulfillment of the game’s potential that keeps me wandering America in spite of its weaknesses. There are 219 of these stories to collect, and finding even a fraction of them will take you hours upon hours. A big part of this is the molasses pace of your skeletal drifter, which you can speed up by hitchhiking or playing a whistling mini-game but will still be left at times creeping across the plains. The developers recognize this issue and keep adding new options for fast travel on top of the trains you can ride, and I appreciate the effort but it’s clear that slow, contemplative pace is core to the experience. Similarly essential is the voice acting, headlined by the excellent aforementioned narrator and talents like Sting, but also dragged down by some inconsistent actors and recording quality. Random bugs like controls randomly failing to register and the third-person camera spazzing out only add to the potential aggravation.
It’s hard for me to call Where the Water Tastes Like Wine a great game, despite the undeniable excellence to be found in its writing, performances, and the absolutely breathtaking folk soundtrack that I keep humming days after I’ve put the game down. That genius is sadly inconsistent throughout the game, and is further bogged down by design choices and other flaws magnified by the length of the experience. So I would call it that instead, a great experience that translates into an okay game. And I’m not sure how much better it could be done differently, because the core of collecting and sharing stories is engrossing in small parts but not in the overall journey. I love playing this one for an hour or two at a time but find it hard to return to, making it a buried gem that takes real effort to unearth and behold.