Let’s start this review with a bit of an obscure reference. Does anyone remember Jack the Giant Slayer? Don’t be ashamed if you can’t recall it, it was a crappy big-budget live-action fairy tale film, easily forgotten. But the final scene, to its credit, actually stuck with me quite a bit. Over shots of the Crown Jewels being formed (just go with it), we hear narration as the events of the film are passed down from a parent to their child as a story, then to another generation of children, and so on, each time forgetting or changing details for various reasons until the tale finally resembles the standard version of the classic fable. It perfectly illustrates how stories are passed from one to another, and how legends and folklore are forged in the process, either from the ordinary or extraordinary. I was reminded of that when playing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, a narrative-focused game from Good Shepherd and developers Dim Bulb Games, which covers similar themes. The only differences are that this game doesn’t have a $195 million budget, yet ends up being an infinitely more enjoyable experience and a truly stunning title overall.
Beginning in the Northeastern-most United States, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sees you playing as a weary traveler, stumbling across shelter with a mysterious poker game going on at the moment. As you join in, you eventually play until you have a perfect hand but no money, deciding to offer up a sort of blood oath in place of cash. Of course, things immediately go south, you lose and then your host is revealed to be a dire wolf (voiced by Sting!) who now wants you to pay off your debt by collecting stories all across America, telling them along the way and having them grow into the tallest of tales, all while trying to collect the most powerful, true, impossible-to-flub stories. So after stripping you of all your flesh (presumably metaphorically, or maybe not), it’s now up to you to explore a vast, open land.
Now having been given our mission to gather and spread as many of the stories you can find across America as possible, one may exactly ask how Where the Water Tastes Like Wine plays out. Well, the best way you could describe it is a cross between a walking simulator and a visual novel, the former in that we are literally walking all across a scale model of the United States. You control your giant skeletal figure as you wander from state to state, town to town, in search of new tales. Of course, you can also hitchhike, pay for a train ride in a city or hop on a train hobo-style at your own risk, but where the choice of options is appreciated, you really can’t beat just walking across the land, going off the beaten path in search of an elusive anecdote.
Of course, what makes walking around enjoyable are the simple yet striking aesthetics used throughout the game, coating America’s farmlands, mountains, coasts and more in a splendor of sunset and twilight-kissed colors, making it seem like a painting come to life in a minimalist yet rather impressive fashion. The soundtrack is also incredible, providing a perfect assortment of haunting blues, country, and folk tracks that change seamlessly as you enter different regions, such as going from gospel-style organs in the South to more Latin tunes as you head into the Southwest. It’s an assortment of amazing compositions that definitely won’t be leaving your head anytime soon.
Getting back to the gameplay, though, in every area you find buildings with little circular drawings above them. Upon inspection, a vignette begins describing a new encounter you experience first hand, typically requiring at least once choice to be made from the player. These choices are a key ingredient in shaping the story, as they determine what category and tone the tale eventually takes on, even diverging wildly at times. You come across a winged goat sipping from a crystal blue pond that seemingly has no bottom to it, and have to decide whether to follow the goat or drink from the pond. That one action ends up defining whether the legend is about the mysterious winged creature or the seemingly magical lake.
Despite that example, though, the encounters you come across run the gamut from the mundane to the straight-up supernatural. One moment you’re getting a chuckle from a irritated housewife’s daily chores, the next you’re talking with a bull that sports a flaming crown. You can meet up with police officers arming up for a strike in one city, then come across a haunted orchestra in the very nest. Even the time period never stays the same, because despite mainly giving the appearance of a despression-era setting, you can go west and encounter VW vans and a woman whose boyfriend dies in Vietnam, then go back east and hear a ’20s-era porter talk about seeing one of those newfangled “moving pictures.” It may seem a bit jarring, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game all about Americana as whole, not just from any one period (and the supernatural elements add a bit of a handwave as well), and regardless, the stories are still so experty-crafted and told with amazing writing, narration, and hand-drawn illustrations (even if a few get re-used) that it won’t be a bother at all.
After you’ve gathered some stories, now you have to tell them and thus plant the metaphorical seeds. Littered across the land are campfires belonging to sixteen unique individuals, ranging from pastors to blues musicians to former naval officers, each with their own story about why they’re hoofing it across the country, their current views on the state of the land, and what happened in their past. Aside from each one having a stunning design (especially during later visits), they also boast incredible voice acting from such talented veterans as Cissy Jones and Dave Fennoy. Anyhow, as the two of you sit by the campfire, they request certain types of stories (ones of hope, sadness, action, horror, or comedy), and you have to select an appropriate one to tell them.
This is easier said then done, of course. You have five different types of stories, as mentioned, but they also fall into sixteen different categories, each based on various tarot cards. So you have tales related to nature, those related to fate, those related to love, and more. You can have three stories active at any time per category, and each one makes a different impact based on how far the story has developed, so you have to choose wisely. Oh, and the game doesn’t actually tell you what type a story is. No, you simply have to pay attention and figure out the tone. It’s a bit straightforward in some cases, but then you have moments where you try to recall if, say, the ecstatic grandfather with the superhuman strength was something more happy or comedic. Oh, and you have about a hundred or so stories to memorize as you move on, of course. Let’s just be thankful that these are some captivating tales.
So there’s a bit of trial and error during occasional moments where you may try and figure out the tole for an occasional tale, but even with that, it’s hard not to enjoy the fun presented by Where the Water Tastes Like Wine of being a talented storyteller, especially when in involves entertaining a host of colorful personalities. The end goal is to impress your host enough (as measured by a widening eye) across three or four chapters and campfires across the land (thankfully within short distances of each other) in order to unlock their stories, the true ones that are the most captivating. Said stories can be retold to others as “wild cards” of sorts that fit into all types (for example, your character will focused on the story’s thrilling aspects if asked for an exciting yarn), giving you an extra edge.
But after telling enough campfire tales, you may notice a building in a nearby town or city with an eyeball above it. This is where you hear other stories from locals upon examination, based on the tales you’ve told, except now exaggerated with each development. You start out telling the story of your encounter with a man who makes huge amounts of molasses and molasses bread for his local community, gladly sharing it all for free. Then when you hear it again four states over, suddenly it’s the story of the man who only ate nothing but molasses. And later, now it’s the the saga of the infinitely multiplying molasses that feeds an entire town. Aside from each story being more powerful in conversation the more outlandish it gets, it just perfectly illustrates the way these kinds of legends are passed on.
All of this may still sound quite simple, gameplay-wise. And it is. But what can I say, it’s all just so damn enjoyable, with bizarre and spellbinding stories that perfectly replicate the best urban legends of the United States while standing alongside genuinely moving tales of loss, betrayal, and the revolutions, adjustments, and hard times that come with an ever-changing land, among other things. And it helps that this is one particularly lengthy game, easily going into double digits and able to keep you hooked for hours. The only thing that can ever end your trek is potential death, as you do have health, money, and rest meters to watch our for, the former two of which can be depleted (or filled) depending on your choices in various encounters. You can also try to earn money of purchase food in big cities, or just come across certain marked areas for a random, free pick-me-up thanks to some kindness. That said, the odds that you’ll actually die are incredibly rare, as moments where you gain back your losses are fairly frequent.
If Where the Water Tastes Like Wine does have one flaw, it’s that it does have have the occasional issue with not explaining some aspects. For example, it doesn’t tell you that in order to change your active stories, you have to go into your inventory. Actually, for the first couple of hours, I wasn’t even aware there was an inventory. It also doesn’t mention that your health, money and rest meters have caps, leading to a few wasted moments. The camera is also a little tricky when walking, sometimes a bit too eager to zoom out, as if we suddenly wanted a landscape shot. I mean, as mentioned, it is a pretty land, but still…
One might say that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t for everyone, that it may be seen as a more “artistic” title with a smaller amount of gameplay. But for those willing to take the chance, what awaits is a fantastic, mesmerizing trip across America and its parables and oddities throughout the ages, with a journey that’s easy to get lost in full of amazing writing, splendid characters and superb performances all around. It’s a place where the craft of storytelling can be experienced in a unique, enjoyable and even addictive form. It’s easily one of the year’s standout games and one everyone needs to know about, so pass along the tale of the beautiful Americana-themed game if you can.