This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Storytelling might be one of the most ubiquitous human traditions. From the earliest days of life, children will beg for bedtime stories, and as they grow, so too does this interest in anecdotes. Whether it’s sitting around a campfire telling tales of horror or gossiping with coworkers by the water cooler, the things we share bring us closer together. Without realizing it, stories become currency, a means of growth, of change, and of connection. Dim Bulb Games’ debut title, WHERE THE WATER TASTES LIKE WINE, illustrates this value of stories and where they come from in its ardent expression of the Great Depression, Manifest Destiny, and the rise of folklore in America.
Galvanized by the works of Twain and Steinbeck, WTWTLW explores the world of folk and the folk of the world. You play as a soul cursed to continuously wander the American countryside, gathering rumors and stories of all shapes and sizes from those you meet. Along the way, you may come to find that some tales may not be so tall after all. One thing is for sure, though: only through gathering enough personal tales and crafting the ultimate story that encompasses the truth of human life and nature can you hope to ever break this curse and finally get the rest you deserve.
From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew he was not a good boy
Playing through this game, it is clear that drawing its roots from interactive storytelling like those provided by Telltale, Inkle, or even the late LucasArts has not limited WHERE THE WATER TASTES LIKE WINE (which you better believe I’m not going to keep writing out) in attempting to establish a distinct flavor of its own. Though the way in which world traversal offers the player opportunities to delve into puzzles or encounters is similar, the separation arises from a broad degree of player freedom.
Within 15 minutes of starting WTWTLW, players are given an absolute freedom to explore the entire American countryside. When playing, you aren’t “told” to go anywhere or guided to the hottest scoops. The agency afforded to the player is overwhelming, and beyond the open world, WTWTLW leaves players with only a single broad objective: listening to the stories of the world. Thanks to such a single and all encompassing goal in a world of opportunities, players easily find themselves sinking into the mindset of a traveler, setting off to discover the mysterious world and people that lie beyond.
What lies beyond are the experiences made from discovering incredible life stories of American wanderers. In my time playing, I found that rather than placing significance on the stories I created, WTWTLW merely used my tales to gather records from the journey of others. The most memorable interactions in this game were those where I would handpick a story to retell a fellow traveler so that I might entice them to confess more about their own lives. My own background was merely a channel through which I could experience honest interpretations of others’ lives. Discovering their tales of woe, their dreams, their passions, and so much more was both the goal and the reward.
Like a Hitchhiker’s Guide to America
Beyond the focus on these stories from wanderers, WTWTLW comes into its own through the loving detail it places into the subtle and normally inconsequential details. Often, text-heavy games neglect the importance of sound design and atmosphere, necessitating constant breaks to overcome the strain of reading for long stretches at a time. Luckily, WTWTLW is aware of the pitfalls in presentation found in wordy games, and circumvents the problem with completely voiced-over dialogue by a stupendous ensemble of voice acting talent who set every scene and capture the historical tone the developers set out to portray. In addition to the fully voiced text, WTWTLW provides a score that is worth listening to even when the game is turned off.
It would be easy to tell the player stories in a game set during a period where folktales were a dime a dozen, but harder yet is designing a game that represents the growth of folklore. When I began playing, I understood that stories were the currency of the game. In order to learn about the lives of others, I would need to tell them of my own experiences. My surprise came after discovering that the tales I told would grow and mutate over time, like a cross-country game of telephone. A story of a couple living a peaceful life together in a lighthouse turned into a rumor of a place of refuge and safety for lovers everywhere. An allegory about a farmer trying to chase a tornado became the legend of Pecos Bill, a cowboy who rode a tornado across the countryside. Each and every time I learned of a new form my shared experience had taken, the world of the game felt even more alive and connected.
He sure looks like he’s chomping at the bit to tell this story
“Connected” certainly is the word that I would use to describe WHERE THE WATER TASTES LIKE WINE. With so many titles in the medium emphasizing player action of various stripes, it’s refreshing to get a chance to sit back and listen to others for a change. If you are a fan of the interactive fiction genre, have been in search of a new world to explore, or just enjoy a good story, then I cannot recommend this game highly enough. WHERE THE WATER TASTES LIKE WINE is a roller coaster of emotions, delivering the kind of cathartic gut punch that I would hope for in a journey focused squarely on learning about the trials and tribulation of those you meet along the way.
Reviewed on PC