Sometimes, playing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine feels like you’re tramping across the pages of the mythical great American novel. Dimbulb’s USA is a land built from hundreds of stories, as if torn from the spine of some eternal hobo’s dusty pocketbook and scattered to the four winds. Branching, twisted tales with roots deep in the soil. Blossoming vignettes of hope and tragedy. Whiskey-soaked whispers and hushed occult ramblings.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is filled to bursting with the most stylish and gripping prose I think I’ve ever encountered in a game. But if it makes great strides for the medium with its writing, the ways in which it weaves these tales into its gameplay sometimes feel like huge steps backwards.
Meeting at the Crossroads
The devil comes in many forms, they say, and while I can’t blame a weary traveler for the odd misstep, not entering poker games against men with the head of wolves seems like a fairly basic caution for those wanting to avoid Faustian bargains. When Where the Water Tastes Like Wine begins, your nameless traveler bets all they’re worth on a single hand – sealing the deal with a crimson drop of freshly squeezed palm juice – and loses.
As payment, your lupine debtor demands that you set out across the country, collecting the stories of those you meet. “I’ll strip away your flesh to make the journey easier, but still you’ll feel pain” he tells you. And so your travels begin; as a shiftless, rootless skeleton with nothing but a bindle, a hat, and an ear for stories.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s world map is a landscape straight from thumbnail-ravaged whiskey label. A scratchy, blocky facsimile; crude, sparse, and honestly, quite unattractive. Early trailers show a more fleshed-out, cel-shaded look that’s just not present here. A simple aesthetic doesn’t have to mean blandness, but this America feels unfinished, like a tale abandoned just as it was getting going.
Outside of the landscape though, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s art is powerful and expressive. From the Tarot inspired UI to the travel-worn, shadow flecked faces of those you share campfires with, each image feels electric and alive with archetypal power. Like old myths made manifest, each has both a rich aura of history and a modern graphic minimalism. The hundreds of unique art pieces all feel both current and timeless, like a classic Dylan song.
From the opening guitar slides and Appalachian fiddles, to the Mariachi solos of the southwest, the regional variations on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s theme – Vagrant Song – follow you throughout your journey. It’s wonderfully effective as leitmotif. The familiarity of the song provides a constant sense of home and focus, while the different renditions evoke travel and change.
Each of the characters you’ll meet along the road has a different voice actor, and most are convincing and unique. Voices crack with strained optimism, heartbroken sighs and smoke-stained sorrow. While a few occasionally slip into caricature, meeting new fireside companions generally feels enlivening and soul crushing in all the right places.
Outside of these meetings, the stories are all read by the same narrator. His default voice is thick, easy, and rich with experience, but unconvincing when reading the voices of women or children. This is utterly jarring when it happens, draining the story of weight and power. For the most part though, his sonorous baritone is a welcome companion.
Setting off from that fated card game at the start, you’ll soon meet Quinn, flanked by his two dogs, clutching a pocket knife. He’s young and brash, and his time on the road has made him cautious, but he welcomes you still. He’ll tell you a little about his hopes and hardships, then ask you to tell him a story. Something exciting, or tragic, or terrifying maybe. You’ll choose one from the tales you’ve heard on the road so far. As the night goes on, and the fire burns down, Quinn will ask for more stories. By morning, if he’s enjoyed his time with you, he’ll tell you a bit about himself, and move on.
You’ll travel awhile across the country, using WASD for directional movement. Maybe you stop at a city, earn a little money by talking to locals, and take a train. Perhaps you hitch a ride. Or maybe you simply walk, speeding up your steps with a simple whistling mini-game. (Walking is – by the by – extremely slow by default, but the sense of travel and distance goes some way to making up for this). You happen across a brother and sister playing outside a bar. Stopping to listen, you hear them tell a familiar tale. It sounds like one you yourself have told earlier, but wildly embellished – a tale grown in the telling. The next time you sit down to share the fire with another soul, you can be sure this new tale will grab their attention.
Books and Covers
This is Where the Water Taste Like Wine. A game of travelling, collecting stories, and using those stories to access more stories. And if the phrase ‘using stories’ sounds strange to you, as if it commodifies something that’s best left intangible, that’s because it does. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes its moving, evocative vignettes of freedom and loneliness, and cages them in a system that feels like collecting upgrades for boss battles.
The traversal aspects of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, while occasionally slow, feel absolutely vital in establishing a sense of place, of evoking the feeling of distance. Similarly, the lack of direction, objectives, or failure states lends itself well to an atmosphere of free-flowing discovery. It’s always tempting to ask with purely narrative experiences like this why they wouldn’t have worked just as well as a graphic novel. That isn’t the case here, as far as the act of travelling this landscape goes. At the same time, what is effectively a hidden scoring system underlying the act of discovery feels directly contradictory to the mood the game is going for.
The way these stories are separated from each other also mean that there’s no central driving force behind your journey. The thousand other voices you’ll hear drown out your own story. You play the part of yourself, someone here to track these tales down and experience them. That’s enough, sometimes, but play can feel meandering. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is the sort of game best stretched out across many short sessions, dipped into occasionally like a weighty compendium. When the stories are no longer enough to hold your attention, the grind makes itself known. The romantic becomes dull, and mechanical.
Should You Buy It?
There’s something undeniably singular and powerful about Where the Water Taste Like Wine, but much like the titular water, storytelling works best when it flows freely. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sets you loose in an America rich with gothic romanticism and dustbowl grit, then confines you to a gameplay mechanic that taints the joy of discovery with hidden scorekeeping.
This contradiction sits at the core of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. A game where your character is imprisoned under the open sky, chained to the road, and commanded to go wherever they wish. For a game about freedom, Where the Water Taste Like Wine can feel deeply constrained by its systems.
Reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.