For decades, adventure games and linear storytelling have gone together like peanut butter and jelly. From the hand-crafted backdrops and methodical puzzles of point-and-clicks like Monkey Island to the guiding pathways and meticulous detail of first-person games like What Remains of Edith Finch, the adventure genre is one that is predicated on tight design and deliberate story beats.
More and more, however, adventure games have begun to buck this trend. Telltale's The Walking Dead has popularized player agency and decision-making in modern narrative games, while thatgamecompany's Journey eschewed traditional dialogue in favor of a visual and audio-driven experience.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, co-developed by Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge and published by Good Shepard Entertainment, continues to push the adventure genre into uncharted territory. Boasting a non-linear, open-world map of Depression-era United States to explore, WTWTLW leaves players to uncover its story and characters at their own pace.
With its tantalizing world, fantastic presentation, and open-ended approach to storytelling, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine offers a new and refreshing experience for fans of the genre. While its aggravating controls and skin-deep narrative prevent it from being a truly revolutionary adventure, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is certainly a game worth exploring.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine opens with the player walking in on a game of poker in a mysterious saloon. After making a wager and losing to a cunning, humanoid wolf, the player loses his life as payment. However, the wolf allows the player a chance to restore his life in exchange for labor—namely, the collection of stories. With America as vast as it is, the country is home to a variety of compelling people with unique backstories. By traversing the 48 States (Alaska and Hawaii haven't yet been admitted), players are to gather the greatest of these tales as currency to repay their debt.
However, obtaining these interesting tales are easier said than done. Much of the story of the American people has been falsified and exaggerated over time. As interesting as stories of demons, ghosts, and ghouls may be, what the wolf values most is the inner truth that courses through America. By trading these distorted, entertaining stories with honest individuals, the player has an opportunity to earn a valuable story of truth and hardship. Only by gathering these can the player find what he or she truly seeks: the place "Where The Water Tastes Like Wine."
Once briefed with their task, players are whisked off to begin their journey. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine begins in a quiet corner of Maine. As a curious cross between an undead skeleton and a ragtag vagabond, the player walks on an overworld map from U.S. city to city, listening in on stories and meeting people along the way. Think Final Fantasy, but with vignettes instead of random encounters.
The size and scope of WTWTLW's world is its greatest strength. Apart from needing to head south to exit New England, players can travel in whichever direction they choose from the get-go. Want to hug the East Coast until you hit Florida? You can do that. Want to make a bee-line through the Midwest and the Dakotas to get to Washington state? You can do that as well.
The states, while obviously miniaturized versions of the real things, have a real sense of scale to them. Players can hop on trains and hitch rides in cars to speed up the process, but moving from state to state takes time. By the time players hit the West Coast (or whatever their distant destination may be), they are bound to feel an immense sense of gratification and relief. Couple this with a fantastic suite of bluegrass, folk, blues, and jazz music that changes when crossing state lines, and WTWTLW's America practically begs to be explored.
Unfortunately, WTWTLW suffers from some several small but annoying control issues. The game's camera is controlled by moving the mouse up and down as opposed to using the scroll button; unless you have a steady hand, expect the camera to zoom in and out unexpectedly while playing. Additionally, holding "Q" to hitchhike often left me waiting for seconds on end for cars to stop on the road, with little rhyme or reason to which cars would stop when for me. Even when a car would stop for me, I had about a half a second to make up my mind to get in—otherwise it would take off without me.
Finally, while the game allows players to "whistle" in order to move quicker on foot, doing so requires manipulating both the arrow keys and the wasd keys at the same time. As you can imagine, this led me to attempt whistle-walking without using the mouse to control the camera. While a small inconvenience, this made navigation needlessly tedious at times, especially considering this is a PC game that doesn't allow in-game button remapping.
While wandering the States is a huge part of the experience, players will spend just as much time reading stories. In terms of these narratives, WTWTLW has much more in common with The Oregon Trail than anything else. While moving across this stylized version of the United States, the player will find scores of small pop-ups indicating various action markers. These actions can either trigger a short story, an embellishment of a story, or a random event.
The act of collecting different stories in WTWTLW is both the game's blessing and its curse. The short stories themselves range in topic from relationships and companionship to murder and theft. They touch upon themes like love, death, hope, and sadness, while the tone of each varies greatly between the real and the surreal. Accompanied by vibrant visuals and beautifully told by a gravely narrator, these stories provide a great mix of short scenarios for the player to witness.
At the same time, however, when I say short, I mean short. The vignettes here are far closer to pieces of "blink and you miss it" flash fiction than traditional short stories. While the narration does a great job of dramatizing the events of each story, it often feels as if these stories aren't saying anything at all. Too brief to offer depth, and yet too generic to make for compelling flash fiction, I often found myself clicking through lines of dialogue out of sheer boredom. As a mellow, Bastion-esque mood setter, these stories get the job done. However, don't expect nuanced characters and gripping plot twists.
Far more interesting, thankfully, is WTWTLW's approach to the way in which these stories are embellished and retold. When encountering a "listen" marker, the player overhears other Americans retelling a story that he or she will have previously learned. While a story initially starts off as a banal truth of life, these retellings give the player new, yet exaggerated, details to add to the original. A story of two men mistaking each other for being each other's brother, for example, might then become the story of four men from different mothers mistaking each other as siblings.
This act of playing telephone plays into the game's "main quest" segments, which task players with sharing juicy stories with individuals around campfires scattered across the country. Voiced by a variety of strong male and female performances and accompanied by catchy theme music, these encounters feel like WTWTLW's take on the Persona series' social links (tarot cards and all). By sharing stories that fulfill a request—such as being thrilling, hopeful, tragic, or funny—these individuals, who range from a brokenhearted beat poet to an exploited blues singer, begin to open up to you and share moments from their own lives.
It's in these periods of sharing tales that WTWTLW's storytelling succeeds the most. In these moments, the plethora of mostly forgettable stories I had amassed came into play in ways I hadn't expected. I began to treat certain stories—the ones that had stood out to me—like powerful tools; my thrilling tale of a shootout between the police and a pair of deadly outlaws became a story I could rely on at the campfire. Likewise, those that I couldn't fully remember would become challenging thorns in my side; did that story about the lighthouse end on a good note, or a bad note? As the stakes grew bigger at the campfire, the more I came to value the smaller, insignificant beats that had brought me here.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a welcome addition to the adventure genre. While its minute-to-minute narrative lacks the complexity and pull of classic adventure games, its open-world design and unique approach to storytelling make it something unlike anything I've ever played before. For those looking to lose themselves in an atmospheric world with phenomenal music and voice acting, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is worth experiencing. It's certainly an acquired taste, but the water tastes pretty good here.