Trekking across the flat, largely empty plains of Midwestern America is exhausting. There isn’t much to see, and while the occasional car passes me by, no one seems willing to pick me up — which may have something to with the fact that I’m a giant skeleton with a rucksack over my shoulder. But I press on, the twang of some uplifting folk tunes in my ears, and eventually stumble across a seemingly abandoned farmhouse. Good thing, too, because it starts to rain. But when I head inside for shelter, it turns out I’m not alone; in each corner of the barn, there is a man, each identically dressed, staring at me in complete silence. Eventually, I fall asleep, and when I wake up they’re all gone, along with all my cash.
It’s a terrifying way to spend a night. But more importantly, it’s an excellent story. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine — the debut release from Dim Bulb Games, a studio founded by Gone Home co-creator Johnnemann Nordhagen — is an experience that is entirely about stories: telling them, finding them, and seeing the ways they change over time.
The game opens with your nameless character playing a game of cards with a wolf (the wolf is wearing a fancy suit and is also voiced by Sting). When you eventually lose, the wolf tasks you with venturing across the country with the vague goal of gathering stories from the people you meet. As you start walking across Dust Bowl-era America, the country is presented as a literal, three-dimensional map where houses, skyscrapers, and farms pop up like tiny Monopoly pieces. The time period and surreal imagery — for some reason your character is an enormous skeleton wearing a hat — calls to mind the HBO series Carnivàle. As you wander, you’ll come across highlighted destinations where you can find new stories; sometimes they’re told to you, sometimes you experience them yourself.
The first tale I discovered involved a young boy, hiding from his father. Not long after, I came across some men stripping down a car for parts, while two women watched from a porch. Each was only a few short lines, but they had a strange kind of power to them, like great flash-fiction, voiced by a narrator whose gravelly voice adds weight to every word. When you experience or hear a story, they’re added to an inventory under categories of tarot cards that represent various themes — sadness, family, the future.
These stories serve as the game’s primary currency. During your travels you’ll come across campfires where you can spend a night swapping tales with a number of different characters. The first I came across was a young boy travelling with his two dogs, looking to make his way to each and every state. Later I met an abandoned mother in Los Angeles, before spending an evening with a nearly blind former naval officer just outside of Seattle. These characters are shockingly open with very personal details of their lives, but in return, you need to offer a compelling story of your own. If they ask to hear something funny, sad, or scary, you can rifle through your collection and decide which tale to tell. If you pick right, they’ll open up and share more.
These campfire sessions are the meat of the game, the place where the truly great writing and memorable characters come to life. Their stories, while short, are fascinating and incredibly diverse. They also feel very different from each other; each one was penned by a different author, with the likes of Cara Ellison, Emily Short, and Austin Walker all contributing. The shorter stories are similarly broad: within a single half-hour I saw a pair of estranged brothers meeting for the first time in decades, met a mysterious cow that was guarding a pile of objects, and helped two triplets bury their brother. The narratives are often bleak, but they can also be hopeful. I keep thinking about the stranger who kissed me under an eclipse in Boston.
One of the most fascinating things about these stories is that they actually change and grow over time. You may witness a strange event, and then hours later hear someone tell their own version of what happened. With just a few words, the tone can change dramatically. A Parisian woman with a scar on her neck becomes the ghost of a famous actress. The women watching their car being stripped for parts turn out to be the biggest bootleggers in America. For the first few hours, finding new tales and watching them grow and mutate became on obsession; I couldn’t get enough of the weird ghost tales, heart-wrenching tragedies, or unexpected twists — like seeing how a girl carrying a basket of kittens could eventually turn into something more sinister.
But in order to meet new characters and advance their various stories you need to do an awful lot of walking around. America is a huge place, and making your way across the map in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine can be daunting. You aren’t given any explicit instructions, so you can explore in any direction you want, which initially feels freeing. If you see something that looks cool — a big city in the distance, or a huge swath of farmland — you can just go there. At first, I loved taking in the world, and the moments where little was happening were a great chance to soak in the incredible soundtrack, which shifts from folk to jazz to blues depending where you travel.
The problem is that the game is so huge and it loses some speed towards the end, as the slow pace and lack of direction becomes more tedious. Getting anywhere takes forever, and eventually you’ll reach a point where you start seeing many of the same scenarios repeated constantly. As my journey started to feel aimless and frustrating, I began playing as though this were a regular video game, trying to be as efficient as possible to progress forward. But Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t a regular video game, and it’s much less interesting when played like one. Nor is forcing progress easy to do; its systems are often opaque, making it tough to figure out what you need to do, and simple things like managing your inventory of stories are clunky and tedious.
I wish Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was smaller and simpler. Its game-like elements, which pad out the experience, aren’t why I enjoy it. It’s the fascinating, gripping, and at times unsettling tales of American folklore. At its best, the game is like wandering around an incredible collection of short stories, one filled with memorable characters and the ability to see how those tales can distort based on time or place. It’s worth playing for its amazing sense of being an aimless drifter lost in American folklore — and while it loses the plot towards the end, you should still push through if you love a good yarn.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is available now on PC and Mac.