Trekking through the flat, largely empty plains of Midwestern America is exhausting. There is not much to see, and even if a car passes from time to time, no one seems willing to pick me up, which may have something to do with the fact that I am a giant skeleton with a backpack on my shoulder. But I keep going, the tinkling of some edifying popular melodies in my ears, and eventually I stumble upon a seemingly abandoned farm. It is also good, because it starts to rain. But when I go in search of refuge, it turns out that I'm not alone; In each corner of the barn, there is a man, each identically dressed, looking at me in complete silence. Finally, I fall asleep, and when I wake up they are gone, along with all my cash.
It is a terrifying way to spend the night. But more importantly, it is an excellent story. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine – the first release of Dim Bulb Games, a studio founded by Gone Home co-creator Johnnemann Nordhagen – is an experience that deals completely with stories: tell them, find them and see how they change over time.
The game opens with your nameless character playing cards with a wolf (the wolf wears an elegant suit and Sting also expresses it). When you finally lose, the wolf assigns you the task of venturing around the country with the vague objective of collecting stories from the people you know. As you begin to walk through Dust Bowl America, the country presents itself as a literal three-dimensional map where houses, skyscrapers and farms appear as small pieces of Monopoly. The period of time and the surreal images, for some reason your character is a huge skeleton with hat, evokes the HBO Carnivàle series. While you wander, you will find prominent destinations where you can find new stories; Sometimes they are told, sometimes you experience them yourself.
The first story I discovered involved a child, hiding from his father. Not long after, I met some men who dismantled a car by pieces, while two women watched from a porch. Each of them was only a few short lines, but they had a strange kind of power for them, like a great instant fiction, expressed by a narrator whose deep voice adds weight to each word. When you experience or listen to a story, they are added to an inventory of categories of tarot cards that represent various themes: sadness, family, future.
The stories serve as the main currency of the game
These stories serve as the main currency of the game. During your trips you will find bonfires in which you can spend a night exchanging stories with different characters. The first thing I found was a boy who was traveling with his two dogs, looking to reach each and every one of the states. Later I met an abandoned mother in Los Angeles, before spending an afternoon with an almost blind former naval officer on the outskirts of Seattle. These characters are surprisingly open with very personal details of their lives, but in return, must offer a compelling story of their own. If you are asked to listen to something funny, sad or frightening, you can review your collection and decide what story to tell. If you select to the right, they will open and share more.
These bonfire sessions are the basis of the game, the place where really great writing and memorable characters come to life. Their stories, though short, are fascinating and incredibly diverse. They also feel very different from each other; each one was written by a different author, with the likes of Cara Ellison, Emily Short and Austin Walker. The shorter stories are equally broad: in a half hour, I saw a pair of separated brothers meet for the first time in decades, met a mysterious cow that was guarding a pile of objects and helped two triplets to bury his brother. Narratives are often grim, 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 really change and grow over time. You can witness a strange event, and then, hours later, listen to someone tell their own version of what happened. With just a few words, the tone can change drastically. A Parisian woman with a scar on her neck becomes the ghost of a famous actress. Women who see their car stripped of their parts turn out to be the biggest smugglers in the United States. During the first few hours, finding new stories and seeing them grow and change became an obsession; I could not get enough of the strange tales of ghosts, heartbreaking tragedies or unexpected twists, like seeing how a girl carrying a basket of kittens could eventually turn into something more sinister.
My journey began to feel aimless
But to meet new characters and advance in their various stories you have to walk a lot. The United States is a huge place, and touring the map in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine can be daunting. You are not given explicit instructions, so you can explore in the direction you want, that you initially feel free. If you see something that looks good – a big city in the distance, or a large swath of farmland – you can go there. At first, I loved to know the world, and the moments when I spent little time were a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the incredible soundtrack, which goes from folk to jazz and blues depending on where you travel.
The problem is that the game is so big and loses some speed towards the end, since the slowness and the lack of direction become more tedious. Arriving anywhere takes a long time and, finally, you will reach a point where you start to see many of the same scenarios that are constantly repeated. As my journey began to feel aimless and frustrating, I began to play as if it were a regular video game, trying to be as efficient as possible to move forward. But Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is not a regular videogame, and is much less interesting when played as such. Nor is it easy to force progress; Their systems are often opaque, making it difficult to determine what they need to do, and simple things like managing their inventory of stories are clumsy and tedious.
I wish the water knew that the wine was smaller and simpler. Its elements similar to those of a game, which complete the experience, are not the reason why I enjoy it. They are the fascinating, exciting, and sometimes disturbing stories of American folklore. At best, the game is like walking through an incredible collection of short stories, one filled with memorable characters and the ability to see how those stories can be distorted by time or place. It's worth playing for his amazing feeling of being a wanderer lost in American folklore, and while losing the plot towards the end, you still have to move on if you like a good thread.
Where Water Tastes Like Wine is now available on PC and Mac.