Developer: Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Review code provided
A lot of us like to romanticise life on the open road, to live vicariously through the words of Kerouac and make our own stories. It wouldn’t be a glamorous existence, but it sure would be an interesting one, meeting new faces in new towns and learning their stories before melding them into something of your own making, a half-truth wrapped up in hyperbole.
That’s the ethos behind Where The Water Tastes Like Wine: a drop-dead gorgeous rambling simulator where you have to trudge across Depression-era America at the behest of a wolf who claims your soul after a poker game. Never let it be said that the gaming industry is running out of ideas.
The task at hand is a simple one: collect stories, whether it’s those you hear in passing, an unlikely encounter, or one that’s told to you by one of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine’s varied cast of freaks, oddities, and downtrodden citizens. I will stop short of calling it an open-world, but the whole of the US is open to you to explore from a 2D overworld which your 3D skeleton avatar dutifully explores.
If you’re looking for industry-shifting gameplay, you won’t find it in Where The Water Tastes Like Wine. Those of a particularly cynical persuasion might say that it’s the embodiment of everything wrong with walking simulators with its hands-off gameplay sure to be dissuaded. As with most games of its ilk, however, it’s not about the spectacle — it’s about the people.
The citizens of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine are its beating heart, their stories far more captivating and original than anything I’ve come across in a game in a long while. The writing is inarguably Wine’s strongest light, pulling talent from a veritable who’s who of gaming and literature. Of the 200 stories you will hear, few are hackneyed or unoriginal and even if they follow some familiar beats, the way in which they are told and mutated is what’s so compelling.
After hearing a story, it’s added to your “arsenal” to help you become a legendary storyteller; the vagrant version of Tolkien and just as fantastical. As you travel the lands, your stories become twisted through hearsay so that they may not be close to the truth but are far better suited to the campfire. Just how wildly and seemingly randomly they can vary is a testament to Wine’s deep, intricate writing and creates a loving portrayal of American folklore in the process.
Take, for instance, a pigeon-keeper who you will (probably) encounter early on in the game. He’s an unusual sort, his sumptuously detailed character portrait painted him in a disconcerting light. With the added flourish of some blood, his story eventually metamorphosised into him breeding pigeons to be killers and a plague on the land. It’s a brilliantly simple mechanic that can turn even the most innocuous of stories into nightmares.
Walking solo across early 20th century America obviously comes with its dangers, though there doesn’t seem to be a clear end once you meet your demise — your malevolent overlord revives you and proceeds to act smart each time you die. Your health takes a hit during particularly gruesome encounters, such as when a seemingly demented veteran launches at you with a knife or when you trying to ride a train without paying and the attendants pay you back with a beating.
The main hook –beyond rambling– of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine are its campfire encounters, which are like a literary game of chess. These are, essentially, the game’s boss fights with you having to find the right combination of tall tales to impress them and get them to divulge their own. It’s clear that these were supposed to be the game’s shining spots, but apart from some inspired writing and some wonderful illustrations once you reach their “final form”, they ended up providing me more frustration than inspiration.
Your deck of stories is separated into different tarot cards for different themes, though this is only briefly explained — I could eventually figure it out, though. When one of your campfire compatriots asks to hear a particular story, however, it’s more than a little jumbled trying to figure out the best tale to tell. Some of them seem to have unique takeaways from particular stories, so it’s a lot of trial and error until you find one that really resonates with them.
Each of these encounters takes place across multiple stages with the characters moving on to another area once they have been sufficiently wowed. This gives you the opportunity to build up your deck before trying to find them again, but if you have a pretty strong collection already, it’s tiresome to trudge to them just to get to the next section. It’s a slow-moving game, so slow that holding the same keys without interruption for such along while gave me hand-ache — I eventually switched to a controller which suited the game’s leisurely pace. You can hail a lift from a generous passerby or hop a train to speed things up, though these hardly seem worthwhile when they only go to specific places and your next encounter might be out in the wilderness. I understand that they recently rolled out a patch to make travel easier in the later stages, so you may not have the same issues that I did.
What absolutely cannot be argued with, however, is the game’s stunning soundtrack, which features some of the most endearing folk music you are ever likely to hear. Ryan Ike has composed an almost perfect body of songs and soundscapes for rambling across America, each suiting the melancholy of a life forcibly lived on the road. If Vagrant Song (and its many variations) aren’t nominated during video games award season then there’s something seriously wrong.
Performance-wise, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine defies appearances and seems to be relatively intensive in terms of hardware designs. My admittedly rather tired laptop struggled with it on the lower settings thanks to some consistent framerate issues. After trading up to a PC, the game ran better but it never felt entirely seamless — even with an quad-core the frames wouldn’t often hang, or struggle to load after travel.
Despite some gripes, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is still easy to recommend to any budding writer or those who want to get lost in the bazaar of an unconventional narrative. It seems destined to go down as a cult favourite, to be as vaunted as the stories it presents.