There are some games whose descriptions immediately warm the depths of my gentle-game-loving heart. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is one of those games. Early trailers described it as an exploration of Americana, with the player picking up folk stories from across the United States, sharing those stories with passers-by, and watching the stories grow, warp, and change in their re-tellings.
Did I mention that the player's avatar is also a bindle-carrying giant skeleton?
So, when the game came out earlier this month, I bought it immediately and dove in. All the things that excited me were there. The game's core stays true to its original premise and, in that way, it's an exciting meditation on the stories that are the scaffolding of what we think of as "America." However, it's also a game so unwieldy in execution that it feels like the result of branching bad decisions.
The player's character is a down-on-their-luck itinerant who happens to stumble across a game of poker while looking for a place to spend the night. They end up losing to a wolf-faced man (voiced by Sting, of all people), who charges the character with repaying their debt by traveling the land and collecting stories in a search to find a place where (you guessed it) the water tastes like wine.
The player is dropped off in Maine, with the horizon fading into a seeming infinity in the distance. They then wander across the United States, searing out houses where little "search" icons appear overhead. Interacting with these locations reveals little snapshots of life -- workers sharing sips of water in a field; charlatans trying to con the hopeless and needy; storms that rage across the plains; old houses with eerie inhabitants.
The stories are treated like a trading deck. More accurately, they're treated like a tarot deck, with each story falling under a certain archetypal category. If the player hears a story about two people whose relationship is strained by one of the pair needing to travel far away to find a job, that story might be placed under "The Lovers." If they hear a story of a boy who dies while working in a field due to heat exhaustion, it might be put under "9 of swords," the card of anguish.
As the player crosses the country, they encounter a dozen or so fellow wanderers (who seem to be partially based on real people, including Jack Kerouac and Sister Rosetta Tharpe). As they camp around a fire at night, the player's camp-mate asks for stories: "Tell me something sad," "Tell me something hopeful." The player then has the opportunity to decide what stories to tell, of those they collected. If their camp-mate likes the story, they'll open up to the player, telling them about their lives, loves, and hardships. If the player gets them to open up enough, their avatar is replaced by a resplendent image, representing the character's innermost desires and anguishes.
For me, the real joy in the story comes after the player has encountered a few wanderers and told some stories and the map starts to include little icons where one can "hear a story." Interacting with these locations shows the player how their tales have changed. The Hessian rider in black they encountered in Pennsylvania becomes a ghost rider, who becomes the Headless Horseman.
I was particularly delighted by a story I picked up in the Northeast of a man, dressed entirely in leather, who lived in caves around New England. I recognized the story immediately as the fabled Leatherman. Growing up in Connecticut, I know his story well: he was a hermit who built a series of small cave homes around the area, and who would travel from den to den, trading and interacting with people who met him along the way (people who, by all accounts, enjoyed his company). He's the story of my home, my American myth.
It's a big ask to tackle the question, "What is America?" However, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seems to understand that the answer that might work best is, "A place built on fables." This answer covers the wide swath of this country: all of its desires to cover up its past, its Shining City on a Hill desires, its deep-set belief in self-invention and (when that doesn't take the first time) self-reinvention.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine also makes a smart choice in its broad placement in time. Though it mostly seems to be set during the Great Depression (with its railroad hopping and Dust Bowl-related deprivation), there are stories that span from pre-Colonialism to the 1960s and 70s. It drives home the fact that the folks tales that provide structure to this country are still being re-told and are still defining how we think, just like I feel the tug of "home" when I read about the Leatherman.
In short, at its best Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a reminder that we both shape the stories we tell and are shaped by them. They are both created by our hardships and successes, and are also used to define those same experiences. For instance, despite how much I sneer at Aaron Sorkin, I often think of that quote from The West Wing where Jed Bartlet says, "It doesn't matter if most voters don't benefit, they all believe that someday they will. That's the problem with the American Dream, it makes everyone concerned for the day they're gonna be rich."
The American Dream is a fable, just like the Leatherman. It's the story we created to tell ourselves, and it is also the story that defines us. It's both the solution we came up with, and the problem the solution was intended to fix. The gordian knot we're trying to undo is also what makes this country what it is.
I'm excited to see a game tackle such a big question, and equally excited to feel those moments of success. Unfortunately, despite the amount of time the player spends wandering the world, I rarely felt moments of revelation within the game. Instead, I was bogged down by very un-lofty issues in how the game was constructed.
I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt, which is why I've waited to talk about it. But even weeks later, and after many patches, the game still runs in stops and starts on my computer, which has never had trouble processing hi-res games. If my computer is having trouble, I can only imagine what someone might experience if they have a non-gaming PC (my guess: not much in the way of actually being able to play the game).
The controls are also cramped and unintuitive. You can whistle in tune with the background music to move faster, but I this meant juggling the W/A/S/D direction keys to walk, holding down the control button (to prompt the whistling), and pressing the arrow keys (to whistle in time with the music), which felt very un-meditative. The camera swooped in and out randomly, and I couldn't seem to control it.
I also ran into difficulty when telling the stories to the wanderers. "Tell me something scary," they'd ask, and I'd select a story I was SURE was scary. Instead, they'd respond that the story didn't fit what they were looking for. There are over 200 stories, and I was finding it hard to remember which ones were, counterintuitively, in different "genre" categories than what I assumed they'd be. Was the story about the prank-pulling ghosts in Cincinnati scary or funny? I lost track. And then it felt like I was spending more time trying to keep track of these small details, instead of focusing on the bigger questions the game seemed to want to ask. And then I stopped playing altogether.
This game feels like its a beta release. Moreso than that, it feels like the developers weren't confident in the strength of their idea. And that's where I'm disappointed, because it's such a strong concept: a dissection of how we think of "America."
I feel like its an especially important thing to discuss in today's political climate, as politicians bluster on about who is a "true American" and who is an outsider. With a little honing, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine could be a sharp knife, flaying the body politic and exposing our country not as one homogenous form, but as a complex web of capillaries that carry the stories that sustain us. (For better or for worse.)