American culture and history have gone hand-in-hand with storytelling. Through the tall tales that frontiersman passed on in their travels, to the songs and hymns that have spread from state to state, America has been shaped as much by the stories passed on through generations as much as it has by the people that have traveled across it, and that is where the heart of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine beats.
Of course, the game’s name ties very deeply into a song that’s all about the unknown and looking for “the promised land,” which is “Goin’ Up the Country” by Canned Heat:
I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go?
I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go?
I’m going to some place where I’ve never been before.
I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.
Well, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.
Coming from developers Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is as much an adventure game as it is an experience that delves deep into the art of storytelling, and more specifically the American myths and folklore that have defined the country since its humble beginnings.
From tales of desperation and heartbreak, to outlandish stories set in the backwaters and rolling mountains of America, each yarn in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is memorable and fantastical at the same 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 tells are no less fascinating as your own character searches for the “promised land,” and what you find along the way will surely surprise you in unexpected ways.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an indie adventure game that has players traveling along the roads and highways of the United States seeking out the stories of strangers you meet along the way. As a nameless, skeletal wanderer with nothing more than a sack tied to a stick, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is the definition of the journey being the main part of the adventure, rather than the destination, as you encounter around 16 or so characters that each have their own reasons for being on the road, as you hear their tales and then pass them on to others.
As you gather the stories of other travelers, you hold on to them as a collection of tarot cards that you can then use to share the stories with the characters you encounter. As you hear their own tales, the new characters that you meet will ask to hear specific types of stories — such as “thrilling” stories, “sad” stories, etc. — and after fulfilling their requests for a certain number of times, you will then add their own tale to your collection.
This is by-and-large the main mechanic of the game, but what really makes collecting and sharing your stories from the road compelling is the fact that the stories and characters you encounter often come up more than once throughout the game, and as you travel around the country they grow and change to fantastic proportions.
Like all the best folk stories and tall tales, the humble stories you might encounter at the beginning of the game can eventually grow into urban legends and tall tales of their own as they’ve (presumably) been picked up and shared by other travelers. Likewise, a character you might meet in the beginning of your journey — say a small boy who ran away from home, or a down-on-his-luck grifter on the train tracks — may wind up coming back into your stories later on in the game in a vastly different state. Seeing how far they’ve come (or how far they’ve fallen) is one of the game’s most fascinating elements, as these stories ebb and flow and can change drastically as the game goes on.
The storytelling of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is continually its most impressive element, and given that there are several dozen stories that you will discover throughout the experience, there’s pretty much always something new to find or uncover on your travels across America.
Gameplay-wise though, I will say that the “exchanging stories” segments can sometimes feel like a crapshoot when it comes to correctly guessing the right type of story that a character may want to hear. Some of the story categories such as “Sadness” or “Love” are easy enough to decipher, but many others are a bit more vague (like “The Future”), and so I sometimes found it frustrating when a tale that I thought was interpreted as a “hopeful” tale to me was instead received by one of the characters as being too sad or too horrific to enjoy, losing valuable chances to collect their own story.
There is an end goal in trying to collect all of the travelers’ stories as a way to repay a debt owed to the mysterious being known as “The Wolf” (who is voiced by legendary artist and musician Sting), as the player ends up making a deal with the devil and losing their hand in a fate-filled game of cards against him in the opening segments. But honestly, you could go into Where the Water Tastes Like Wine without having that goal in mind and just enjoy the experience on its own. Much like a road trip or travels without any sort of set destination, part of the fun of traveling through the game’s rendition of America was following wherever the wind (or my own curiosity) took me, and enjoying its many stories along the way.
The game itself takes place over a large 3D map of America that you guide your character along in a variety of ways. The majority of this time will be spent simply walking from town-to-town as you gather stories, money, and the occasional bruise or two, but as the game goes on and you reach 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 earn money, buy items, and more.
Of course, your travel options also expand as you explore more of the country, as 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 hitchhike your way on the road from passing nearby cars to find other characters that 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 some players. There isn’t 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 to be a bit tedious. As each of the characters you encounter has multiple parts to their stories, you’ll have to track them down a couple of times to get the bigger picture, which will lead to more than a few cross-country trips to hunt down that last segment of a character’s story you might be missing in your collection.
That being said, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine makes finding each character worth the adventure, as their distinctive personalities and traits are brought to life through exceptional writing and style. As each of the characters were written by individual authors (ranging from game journalists, to game designers, and numerous others), each character has a distinct personality and tone that ranges from tragic characters, to the incredibly funny, and to the ones that you can’t help but feel for in the their plights across America.
From a down-on-his luck train conductor to a young boy seeking to venture out on his own a la Huckleberry Finn, each character that you encounter brings their own distinctive flair to their recollections of traveling across America. That point is even clearer thanks to the game’s excellent voice acting from some incredibly talented (and familiar) names, such as Melissa Hutchinson and Dave Fennoy (Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, Cissy Jones (Firewatch), and as previously mentioned, Sting leading the pack as The Wolf.
Though the game mostly relies on its writing and performances to carry it through, the art and audio design of the game also carries home the impressions and influence of its Depression-era America setting. While the over-world map that has players traveling across the country is a bit more of a mixed bag visually, the cutscenes and dialogue interactions between the player and other characters are beautifully realized with lush illustrations and imagery and provide a much stronger impact.
If there’s one element to single out from the game though, it’s in the game’s soundtrack by composer Ryan Ike that wonderfully captures a blend of music as diverse as the stories and characters that the game introduces. Scored to the sounds of longing harmonicas, rough hewn guitar strings, twinkling banjos, and more, the soundtrack of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is already a contender for one of my favorites of the year. There were moments as I traveled through the country that I sometimes stopped to take in the scenery set to the game’s music, letting its country blues-infused sounds wash over me: it truly is that good.
As a game devoted to the art of storytelling itself, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine shines with its powerful writing, exceptional voice-acting, and its visual and aural elements that bring players back into the time of tall tales and endless stretches of road to explore. While its gameplay structure 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 that much sweeter, even if there is no telling what is on the horizon.