Set in a folklore packed 1920s United States filled with thunderbirds and dust storms, deals with the devil, blues, bums, and apple trees; Dim Bulb Games’ Where The Water Tastes Like Wine delivers a refreshing take on vintage Americana and is a fine example of inspired wanderlust and the joy of the journey.
Over the course of the story the player takes on the role of an unlucky vagrant tasked by a wolf headed dealer with finding the seeds of stories and spreading them, letting them grow and weave their way into the “big story”. To this end the player must travel across the United States, hitching rides or hiking, picking up stories in choose-your-own-adventure style vignettes and telling them at campfires to a fully voice acted cast of vagabonds and travellers in an interesting tarot deck mechanic focusing on abstract themes and how they relate to what the listener wants.
For the most part the mechanics work fine. It can be frustrating at times to reach a campfire and not have the right kind of stories for the character or for the character to tell you their next destination is back the way you came but these were thankfully rare occurrences.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine has two key focuses: Narrative and Theme, both of which are refined and polished and held proudly for the player to immerse themselves in. And in a game about stories it makes sense that the writing should be the focus: a look at the credits reveals that while there is only programmer, at least 23 writers worked together to fill the world with tales and we can feel it. By dipping into the creative well of nearly two dozen writers the world feels varied and each story has a unique charm to it that makes it feel believable. Campfire horror stories rub elbows with love and tragedy in vignettes clearly inspired by American classics and the works of Poe, Twain, and Hemingway with the more surreal aspects feeling at home in the world of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
WTWTLW doesn’t draw its inspiration solely from folklore and literature though, it proudly takes inspiration from the world of folk music and it shows. Travelling across the land we were immersed by Ryan Ike’s wonderful folk music and the ever changing Vagrant Song, a travelling song that changes singer/tone/style depending on which part of the States you’re in. With great blues guitar in the background, each new story we uncovered was a joy to listen to as the narrator’s (Keythe Farley) growly oration lent a strong sense of place that would not be amiss in a blockbuster period drama. However, this is where one of WTWTLW’s more questionable design decisions rears its ugly head. The narrator is the sole voice outside of campfire characters and while this makes sense from a budget standpoint, hearing Keythe Farley’s growling narration pause as he attempts a woman or child’s dialogue is hilarious at first and cringe inducing as the game continues. One scene has a child abandoned in the woods and while I want to feel for the seriousness of the scene I can’t help but picture a lumberjack in a diaper from the voice on offer.
While WTWTLW’s grasp of its theme is especially refined, its lack of focus on modelling leaves parts of the world feeling rough. Larger cities seem to balance on the geography instead of feeling part of the world and forests are just colourful blobs. This was likely done to reduce the graphical fidelity and the processing power needed to render the world which is an understandable sacrifice seeing as the US is presented as mostly flat, allowing the player to see far, far down the road. And while the world can seem rough, it never detracts from the experience as little touches like the names of states along the state lines, river names actually flowing downriver, and cars and trains traversing the named highways that crisscross the map more than make up for it. On the other hand while the story art may not be everyone’s cup of tea, its three-tone style vignettes are clear and have a unique look that emphasises the action and often with some degree of symbolism.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a walking simulator and to some that may sound like an insult but Dim Bulb Games have taken the genre to new heights with the inclusion of story collecting and an amazing soundtrack that made every second enjoyable. Apart from some questionable voice acting decisions, WTWTLW is an excellent game that shows original and accessible ideas can still be found in the medium.
It’s still early in the year but this may just be a contender for our game of the year.