Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game that is hard to categorize. It’s a narrative adventure, unlike anything I’ve ever played. It invites you to explore the vastness that is the United States as you wall across the nation. Along the way, you explore what makes the country unique by examining the stories that are part of the collective folk history of the citizenry. This is our Where the Water Tastes Like Wine review.
Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge have created a game that expands the genre of narrative adventures. It presents players with a non-linear open world map — literally in WtWTLW’s case — that at least in its visual presentation takes place in Depression-era America.
The story opens with a poker game. Doing well, your character is challenged by the dealer, a humanoid wolf voiced by Sting from the 80s era band The Police, to an all-or-nothing bet. As expected, you lose the bet that also includes your life. The Wolf offers you a deal: Restore your life by performing a simple task to collect stories for him. This begins the game itself. You will walk across the breadth of the United States in pursuit of stories on your quest to find the best and greatest to satisfy the terms of your quest.
As gorgeous as traversing the map is, it is probably the game’s weakest point, mainly from a navigation standpoint. Perhaps it’s a nod to how crossing the country could take days in an earlier era. It simply felt tedious walking slowly from point to point with vast empty spaces in between. Again, this is probably a design decision to present the vastness of America in a literal way, but it was boring after the initial blush wore off. You can move a little faster by whistling as you walk, but it requires the weirdest combination of using both WASD and the arrow keys at the same time. Needless to say, I gave up and just walked. You can also hitchhike, but I rarely got a car to actually stop for me and, honestly, it wasn’t much worth the effort, not so much because of the faster travel, but because I wanted to be out in the world collecting stories.
Everywhere you see an explorable point is one where you can stop to hear a story. Some are brilliant. Some are less so. Some are just dull. At first, I loved the narrator’s gravelly voice, but as the game wore on, I found myself more inclined to read ahead of his slow-paced speech and keep things moving along. Stories follow a number of themes including death, hope, sadness, love, and fear. They can be mundane and pedestrian or more surreal and frightening. However, too many of the stories feel unsatisfying and far too short given the overall premise of the game.
What occasionally makes them so interesting is to hear them evolve as you walk across the country. Sometimes along the way, you can stop to listen to others and the characters will often retell stories they have learned. Every time the story is retold, it evolves slightly with exaggerated details added to embellish it and make it more interesting. The story of a crazed cowboy riding his horse into a tornado suddenly becomes that of the brave Pecos Bill lassoing the tornado to bring it to heel. In a sense, it’s a huge version of the playground game “telephone” where the story begins at one end and in each retelling changes until it’s barely recognizable.
From time to time, your character will find campfires randomly scattered across the map. Sitting down to tell your stories is where the game really succeeds. You’ll “equip” several stories for these encounters that can be shared to fulfill a request from one of the other “campers”. They might ask for a story that is funny or tragic or exciting and you’ll need to make sure to use your tarot cards and your equipped stories to fulfill those requests. If you’re successful, you’ll gain in your reputation with them. If you don’t have enough stories, you may leave the campground feeling unsatisfied, the same if you don’t have the right stories equipped. Luckily, these same archetype campers are relatively common and you can try again. And it’s worth it too. Sitting down with these characters, brilliantly voice, by the way, is like sitting down with an old friend to share the gossip and memories you share.
As you move through the game, you’ll be treated to a wonderful soundtrack that is as broad as the country you’re traversing. You’ll hear jazz, blues, country and Mexican-themed music depending on where you are walking at the time. It’s really amazing and worth the extra $6 to get the Wayfarer Edition that includes the soundtrack. You won’t be sorry.
In the end, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a fascinating study of a bygone era in America, though it clearly has roots in today’s world and modern urban legends It’s got so much personality, so much to offer and provides such an insight into how our culture developed over the course of its history. While featuring clunky controls, it’s well worth the price of admission.
Note: A PC / Steam game code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Review Score: 8/10
- Brilliant art style
- Amazing soundtrack
- Unique gameplay mechanics
- Fabulous stories wonderfully written
- Slow pace of travel
- Performance issues on the world map
- Some stories feel like there’s no reason to be there other than as filler