Where the Water Tastes Like Wine defies any sort of comparison to other games. You’re tasked with collecting stories and building up folklore across Dust Bowl America, wandering across the land and briefly involving yourself in other people’s lives. You’re collecting tales so that you can share them with other wanderers who are moving across the country and eventually appease an anthropomorphic Dire Wolf (played, amazingly, by Sting) who, in the game’s opening cutscene, beats you in a card game and sets you to work collecting these folk stories as payment for the debt you now owe. It’s a wholly unique premise for a game, but not necessarily one that reaches its full potential.
You guide a skeleton avatar around the map, moving between states by foot, by train, or by hitchhiking, and collect stories when you encounter them. These are folktales by and large: animals will talk to you, children will be all-knowing (and often touched by evil in some way), you’ll meet ghosts and dying men and people capable of impossible feats. Some will stick with you, offering creepy imagery or neat twists, and others will fade from your memory soon after you hear them, but the hit-to-miss ratio of the 219 stories on offer is pretty high.
The tales you collect fit into one of four basic descriptors: hopeful, tragic, funny, or adventurous. These categories become important as you work your way through the game’s main objective–uncovering the life stories of various fellow wanderers. Campfires around the map house other travelers who will exchange their own life stories for some of your collected tales. The characters cover a spectrum of gender, race, sexuality, and your goal is to visit each person as they move between campfires, telling them stories they like, and eventually encounter their “true” selves, having learned everything you can about them. The real reward isn’t so much the folktales themselves as the artwork of these final encounters–seeing each figure twist into an artistic representation of their own character’s struggles or values is a highlight.
Once you’ve spread your tales among these campfires, they start to mutate, and you’ll begin to encounter retellings of your tales that add or change details as you travel. Telling someone who asks for a scary tale about a demon you met might end in you being chastised for telling a “cheerful” story, while a seemingly hopeful tale about a journalist who always sees the bright side is classified as funny, but as these stories evolve, they become more cheerful and funny, respectively. These versions will have a more significant impact on your future campfire visits and will make it easier to appease wanderers and unlock the next chapter in their story. It can also cause the tale’s classification–which you have to decipher–clearer, which is helpful, because it’s frequently hard to tell and remember.
After a few hours you get into a good rhythm of uncovering and sharing stories, and the way the game works eventually becomes clear (it’s light on instruction). But there’s a problem here–you soon realize that wandering the map, listening to stories, and slowly heading towards the next destination is really all there is to do, and with no satisfying overarching narrative to keep you going, the excitement of the process quickly begins to diminish. The game opens by spreading North America out in front of you to explore, and suddenly starts to look incredibly narrow as it becomes clear that you’re going to spend the rest of the game just clicking through other people’s stories and slowly trudging between campfires.
It doesn’t help that getting around the map can be an extremely time-consuming process. Your avatar walks slowly–you can speed up by whistling a song, but this involves a “press direction keys in order” mini-game that ultimately feels like busywork. You can hitchhike, but roads only go one way, and the controls for hitching a ride are inconsistent–sometimes I could hail down a car, while other times my avatar refused to stick its thumb out. Rivers will slow you down, and using trains requires either money or hopping on one without paying. Doing the latter usually ends with you getting injured and dying, and although death isn’t a big deal here, it will reset you to the last town you visited, which usually undoes the train ride’s progress.
Once you’ve heard half the game’s stories, you start to see where each tale is going from the first paragraph, and it’s much easier to find and identify sad or scary stories than hopeful or adventurous ones. When you’ve had a few dozen tales retold and figure out which classification they fit into, you don’t really need to worry about gathering more, either. You can rely on the same handful of tales, both because they’re the easiest to remember the details of and because the game doesn’t really incentivize diversifying your repertoire, especially since the stores you accumulate at campfires act as wildcards during future encounters. If you’re asked for a tragic story, for instance, selecting any of the tales told by someone you encountered at another campfire will make you tell that story while “focusing on the tragic parts.” I cleared almost every final encounter by just telling stories from other wanderers, and you don’t get to experience this retelling–you just select the option from the menu and get a brief reaction in response.
Over time, even the best parts of the game start to grate. Ryan Ike’s soundtrack, which mixes elements of jazz, bluegrass, and folk music, is excellent, and a great companion for the first few hours. But when you’re engaged in yet another long trek across the plains, it’s hard to resist switching over to your own music. By the end, I was rushing through the stories of the remaining campfires because I just wanted to see what happened when I’d collected them all, and I was skipping over new stories because it had become difficult to keep caring about them.
I spent 12 hours working my way around the America of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but after the first six hours I felt like I had gotten everything I wanted out of the game. Most of the rest of the time was spent checking the map to figure out where the next campfire was, holding W to move forward, and then clicking through dialog (all of it brilliantly voice-acted, but patience only stretches so far) until I was able to appease the Wolf.
If the basic premise of gathering folk stories across a version of 1930s America strongly appeals to you, then Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is worth a look, but it’s probably not worth finishing. Perhaps one day I’ll feel the urge to jump back in and encounter a few more tales, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, for all its interesting ideas and unique elements, outstays its welcome.