"Where the Water Tastes Like Wine stands tall as a paragon of world-building and writing, and its unique approach to storytelling is something many developers should take note of. What holds it back is its obsession with being a game as well as an interactive book..."
Sharing stories is an integral part of life. Whether the stories are real-life tragedies or fantastical adventures, there's something special about swapping experiences that crafts who we are as people and shapes the world around us. What we're told changes our perception of what we see. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (WTWTLW) takes this premise and runs wild with it in a beautiful fashion. Acting as a Walking Simulator, a Visual Novel, and an Adventure game, it allows you to craft your own vision of America and share it with the people you meet.
Set in the Depression era, you are a lone traveller who is tasked with collecting stories across America in an attempt to find just where the water tastes like wine. The Depression has hit America hard, and as you travel across the country, many of the cities are tinged with melancholy, struggling to get back on their feet post-war with many people turning to crime, gambling, and illegal activities just to make ends meet. While your adventure is mournful throughout, there are stories of happiness and hope, of families working hard to make their lives the best they can. Everyone has a tale to tell, and that's what makes the journey so special.
The quality of writing throughout WTWTLW is fantastic, which is no surprise in a game headed by Gone Home's co-creator, Johnnemann Nordhagen. Each tale is woven delicately and masterfully by many famous writers throughout the industry, and every single one evolves in ways you can't imagine. Once you've found a story hidden away in the many nooks and crannies of America, it spreads across the country and develop beyond your wildest dreams. One of these involves a young boy who sits with his dead dog. Further down the line, you hear about the pair of them again, only this time they have a supernatural connection, and when the dog dies the boy will die too. There's also the man who rides his horse into a tornado, which later turns into an exciting adventure of a man who rides a hurricane. All 219 stories develop in this way, becoming more vibrant the farther they're spread. With so many, a few are bound to slip by you, but the vast majority of these are emotionally affecting. Voice talents such as the musician Sting, Cissy Jones of Firewatch fame, and Kimberly Brooks from Mass Effect bring the adventure to life, helping to immerse you in every single second of the game's many narratives.
As you trek across the country, you encounter 16 other wayfarers from all walks of life who wander across the land to make some kind of meaning of their lives. There's a hobo girl who's run away from her family to prove she can live by herself, a curandera who practices and preaches the Old Way of her home and family, and a porter who's trying to hide the pain of racial abuse. You meet these lost souls at campfires and share the stories you've picked up along the way with them according to what they want to hear. They might ask for a scary story, a hopeful parable, or a tragic tale, and each time you give them what they want, they open up even more. After numerous encounters, they quite literally show you their true personalities, which appear as uncanny versions of themselves. These characters are designed to resonate with different people, so while I might find the beat poet affecting because I aspired to be a poet, others may find the blues singer is their favourite. They exist to show just how diverse America really is.
The world looks beautiful, too. WTWTLW's America is very minimalist, using simple colours and landscapes to create a storybook-like country, and this acts as the perfect backdrop for your journey. The areas aren't too busy, and even when there are cars driving past you, it's truly a lovely sight to see. The heat of the deserts are captured perfectly through the warm yellows and oranges, but the barren wasteland also makes you feel lonely. There's not much to look at, but it's humbling, allowing time to gather your thoughts and prepare yourself for the next tale. When you get to your destination, you're presented with some gorgeous hand-drawn artwork which illustrates the uncanny nature of the character you've met, or the sorrowful message of the tale you're about to listen to. It's because of these illustrations that I was always excited to see what each town looked like, or just how the story of the Thunderbirds would be depicted.
Accompanying you on your journey is Ryan Ike's eclectic soundtrack filled to the brim with blues, bluegrass, country, and soul music. It's almost impossible to play WTWTLW without humming along to one of the slow guitar tracks, or bopping along to the Americana. It's definitely an acquired taste for many, but I can't think of anything better than listening to this music while sitting around the various campfires. It makes me want to crack open a bottle of whiskey. Tracks like "Dust to Dust" sound like they've been ripped straight out of a Western, and "Soulsucker Blues" is the kind of music you'd hear if you walked into a bar full of cowboys. It's full of charm, and not like anything I've heard in a game for a long time.
The joy of these encounters is listening to their adventures and living their lives through their words. What's not as fun is chasing after them and collecting each little piece of a narrative to progress. Everyone knows how big a country America is, but actually walking across it in WTWTLW can be painful at times. Despite an update to speed up travelling, there are often long stretches where there's nothing to do. The further along you get, the more tiring this becomes. Quick travel has since been patched into the game, but everything is so far apart that even though you can transport to one city, you still could be miles from your destination. Controls are fairly simple, but they get a little fiddly when you're scrolling through the menus or selecting a tale for your campmate, and the cursor will sometimes stagger and stick. All it needs is a little bit more fine-tuning.
Other than walking and talking, there's very little to do in Dim Bulb Games' vision of America. If you're a fan of thrills, you might want to sneak onto a train to cut down your travel time, but there's a risk of being beaten or starving to death. You need to make sure you have money to eat, and plenty of rest. Sometimes you come across people willing to lend you a bed or hand you some chicken, but often you have to take on a quick job in one of the many cities, and sometimes these can cause more harm than good. These are all presented in text boxes too, so while it appears as though you're doing something different, in reality you have no control over what will happen. Combine this with WTWTLW's insistence on being a game as well as an experience makes the whole thing feel frustrating.
Dim Bulb Games' debut is so close to being a truly great game. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine stands tall as a paragon of world-building and writing, and its unique approach to storytelling is something many developers should take note of. What's holding it back is its obsession with being a game as well as an interactive book, and it struggles to balance the two mechanics perfectly, so much so that many of the journeys, despite the rich writing, don't always feel worth it. This game might not be sweet enough for my tastes, but with a strong debut, Dim Bulb Games' next project is bound to be even sweeter, and even more exciting.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.