American culture and history have long gone hand-in-hand with storytelling. Throughout the tall tales that frontiersman passed in their journeys, to the songs and hymns which have spread from state to state, America has been shaped as much by the stories passed on through generations just as far as it gets by the folks who have traveled over it, which is where the center of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine beats.
Needless to Say, the game’s name ties very deeply into a song that’s all about the anonymous and looking for “the promised land,” which is “Goin’ Up the Country” from Canned Heat:
I’m going up the country, babe, don’t one wanna go?
I’m going up the country, babe, don’Can you wanna go?
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all of the time.
Coming from developers Dimbulb Games along with Serenity Forge, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is as much an adventure game as it is an experience that delves deep into the craft of storytelling, and even more specifically the American myths and folklore which have defined the country since its humble beginnings.
From stories of desperation and heartbreak, to outlandish stories placed in the backwaters and rolling mountains of America, every yarn in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is memorable and fantastical at exactly the identical time. Whether or not you take them as fact or fiction is ultimately up for debate, but the stories that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine informs are no less fascinating as the personality searches for the “promised land,” and what you find along the way will certainly surprise you in unanticipated ways.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an indie adventure game which has players traveling along the roads and highways of the United States seeking the stories of strangers you meet on the way. As a nameless, skinny wanderer with nothing more than a sack tied to a stick, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is the definition of the travel being the main part of the adventure, rather than the destination, because you encounter across 16 or so characters that each have their own motives for being on the road, as you listen to their tales and pass them to other people.
As you gather the stories of other travelers, you hold on to them as a collection of tarot cards that you could use to split the stories with the characters that you encounter. As you listen to their own tales, the new characters that you meet will request to listen to specific types of stories — like “thrilling” stories, “gloomy” stories, etc. — and afterwards fulfilling their requests for a certain number of times, you will then include their own narrative for your collection.
This is by-and-large the main mechanic of the game, but what actually makes collecting and sharing your own stories in the street compelling is the fact that the stories and personalities you experience frequently come up more than once throughout the game, and as you travel round the nation they grow and change to fantastic proportions.
Like all the best folk stories and tall tales, the humble stories that you might encounter in the beginning of the game may eventually grow into urban legends and tall tales of their own since they’ve (presumably) been picked up and shared by other travelers. Likewise, a personality you might fit in the beginning of your travel — state a little boy who ran off from home, or some down-on-his-luck grifter on the train tracks — might wind up coming back into your stories later on in the game in a vastly different country. Seeing how much they’ve come (or how much they’ve dropped) is one of those game’s fascinating elements, because these stories ebb and flow and will vary drastically because the game continues.
The storytelling of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is continually its most impressive part, and given there are a few dozen stories you will discover throughout the experience, there’s pretty much always something new to find or find on your journeys across America.
Gameplay-wise however, I will state that the “exchanging stories” sections can sometimes feel like a crapshoot when it comes to guessing the right sort of narrative a character may want to listen to. Some of the narrative categories like “Sadness” or “Enjoy” are easy enough to decipher, but many others are a bit more vague (like “The Future”), therefore I sometimes found it frustrating when a tale which I believed was interpreted as a “hopeful” narrative to me was instead received by one of the characters as being too gloomy or too horrific to appreciate, losing precious chances to collect their own narrative.
There is an end target in trying to accumulate every one of the travelers’ stories as a way to pay back a debt owed to the mysterious being called “The Wolf” (who is voiced by celebrated artist and musician Sting) since the player ends up making a bargain with the devil and losing their hands in a fate-filled game of cards against him in the opening segments. Much like a road trip or journeys without any type of place destination, a part of the pleasure of traveling through the game’s rendition of how America was following wherever the wind (or my curiosity) took me and enjoying its many stories on the way.
The game itself takes place over a 3D map of America that you guide your character together in a variety of ways. The majority of this time will be spent simply walking from town-to-town since you collect stories, cash, along with the occasional bruise or 2, but since the game continues on and you realize more of the major cities and metropolises (such as New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, etc.), you can take on additional tasks like exploring the cities finding work to bring in money, buy items, and more.
Obviously, your travel options also extend as you explore more of the nation, since you can either buy a train ticket (or risk hopping a ride on the train that can result in a beatdown from train security agents), or even hitchhike your way onto the road from passing nearby cars to find other characters which are working their way through the states.
By-and-large you’ll be doing a lot of traveling in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, and that might make it an acquired taste for a number of players. There isn’t even a whole lot of evolution or change in the basic routine of traveling from state-to-state to find the remaining characters, and so the repetitive gameplay structure might leave some feeling it for a bit tedious. As each of the characters you experience has multiple components to their stories, you’ll have to follow them down a couple of times to get the bigger picture, which will cause more than a couple of cross-country trips to hunt down that last segment of a character’s narrative you might be missing in your collection.
That being said, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine makes finding each personality worth the experience, because their distinctive personalities and traits are brought to life via exceptional writing and style. As all these characters have been written by individual writers (ranging from game journalists, to game designers, along with numerous others), each character has a distinct personality and tone that ranges from tragic characters, to this incredibly amusing, as well as those that it is possible to’t help but feel for in the their plights around America.
From a down-on-his fortune train conductor to a young boy seeking to venture outside on his own a la Huckleberry Finn, each personality that you experience brings their very own distinctive flair to their recollections of traveling around America. That point is much clearer thanks to this game’s outstanding voice acting from some incredibly talented (and familiar) names, like Melissa Hutchinson and Dave Fennoy (Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, Cissy Jones (Firewatch), and as previously mentioned, Sting leading the bunch as The Wolf.
While the over-world map which has players traveling throughout the country is a bit more of a mixed bag visually, the cutscenes and dialogue interactions involving the player and other personalities have been beautifully realized with lush illustrations and imagery and provide a much stronger impact.
If there’s one component to single out from the game though, it’s in the game’s soundtrack by composer Ryan Ike that beautifully captures a mix of music as diverse as the stories and characters which the game introduces. Scored to the looks of longing harmonicas, rough hewn guitar strings, twinking banjos, and more, the soundtrack of all Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is already a contender for a few of my favorites of this year. There were minutes as I traveled through the country that I sometimes stopped to take in the scene place to the game’s music, letting its nation blues-infused sounds wash over me : it really is that good.
As a game devoted to the craft of storytelling itself, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine shines with its powerful writing, exceptional voice-acting, also its visual and aural components which bring players back into the time of tall tales and endless stretches of street to research. While its gameplay construction might be a bit loose for some players, the tales and characters that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine introduces make the journey to the promised land which much more bizarre, even if there is no telling what is on the horizon.