Where the Water Tastes Like Wine review
I want to like Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. I desperately wish I could love it, in fact. The supernatural, fable-fueled journey across the American Dust Bowl is a wonderful anthology of short, interactive fiction, to be sure. It’s only held back by being a total pain in the ass to play.
It starts promising enough, with a big gulp of the surrealism that makes the game shine. Your unnamed avatar loses a bet with “Dire Wolf”—a lupine-headed gambler who collects and tells stories—voiced by an appropriately wispy-sounding Sting. To pay off your debt, you must travel the continental U.S. in search of such tales. Some are sweet. Some are sad. Most have a paranormal, or at least folkloric side that weaves a “Weird West” aesthetic that’s more a vibe than a traditional plot.
Unfortunately, a poor explanation at the outset makes the process of collecting these stories feel more esoteric than it really is. Starting on the East coast, you freely maneuver a bindle-hauling skeleton, your avatar, across a desaturated map of the nation. You stop over icons to treat with bits of micro fiction, usually with one or two dialogue options that alter the tone of the tale.
Sometimes you entangle yourself with the story. Sometimes you just listen in on a couple by the pier, instead of striking up a conversation with the man standing by himself. Do you free the talking, baby buffalo from its barbwire prison, or run away before its pursuers come to find it? Do you hide from the rain in the house down the road, or the creepy barn nearby? Are you sure you want to piss off the toddler shaking you down for a bridge toll?
The meat of the game comes when it’s time to put these stories to use. Dire Wolf isn’t the only one interested in hearing them. Other drifters have their own life stories to tell and will trade chapters of them in exchange for anecdotes that meet their requirements.
These exchanges are also when Where the Water Tastes Like Wine starts to show its sloppier side. See, there’s no way to tell what tone a tale fulfills until you tell it. You might spin them what you think is a sad yarn, as they requested, when the game considers it a spooky one. And since you can’t tell the same person the same story twice, you’ll have wasted that opportunity to “level up” your relationship with your fellow traveler. You’ll have to try again in another state, with more stories, and hopefully a better understanding of the game’s virtual genres.
Compared with most of the game’s frustrating wrinkles, this sort of trial and error feels the most intentional. There’s a kind of satisfaction in sussing out what makes people feel which way—even if I wish the game would visibly categorize the stories by emotional resonance thereafter. Having to memorize more than 200 snippets is less satisfying.
The problem is, there’s a lot more rote memorization where that came from. You can’t tell the same story to the same person twice? OK, sure. But I wish Where the Water Tastes Like Wine at least let me see which stories I’d already regaled particular vagrants with beforehand. As it is, there’s no way to know until you strike up a conversation. Then, since you also have a limited number of legends equipped at one time, you’ll likely go into each chat with less than your maximum ammunition.
That I even think about stories as “ammunition” is telling. It says that I’m looking for the most efficient way to play Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which is itself an oddly mathematical process. You siphon up stories, “level them up,” by passing them on to your road companions, and feed them back to others to level the NPCs themselves. As ethereal as the game’s lore is moment-to-moment, it’s juxtaposed against an overarching structure that’s distractingly clinical.
Take the default walking speed, for instance. It’s painfully languid and it doesn’t help that much of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s fantastical vision of the Great Depression-era U.S.A. is full of empty space. That may be true to life, and maybe if you caught me on the right day I’d even call pressing forward and listening to the game’s fantastic music relaxing in its own right. But sometimes I just want to zip around a mountain range to cash in a new story or three with the wandering preacher.
Some limited fast travel ameliorates this, but only slightly. Hitchhiking carries you just a bit faster than walking speed, but you have no control over when you get off. Trains cost in-game currency and can only take you to a handful of cities (which you’ll also have to memorize, since they’re not labeled on the in-game map), depending on where you set out from. You can even play a rudimentary minigame to walk faster, but the novelty wears off quickly—not to mention it requires you take one hand off the mouse to work the keyboard, thus giving up camera control. It’s a puzzling system at best and a chore at worst.
Worst of all, though, you simply can’t always trust the fast travel to take you anywhere at all. That brings us to the most egregious issue: it’s buggy as all hell.
The glitches are as varied in scope and style as the game’s own tales. I can deal with the framerate chugging for seemingly no reason or the voice-over cutting in and out between lines of dialogue. But it’s harder to forgive fast travel that triggers load times but doesn’t take me anywhere, all the lost progress, game-breaking freezes, and in-game events that don’t match what happens to my character on-screen.
You might try to hop a train for free and receive a message saying you arrived safely at your destination—only to suddenly see a death screen that summons up a conversation with Dire Wolf. The worst offender, though, was likely when the game failed to load its user interface between scenes. I was stuck on a static picture of my interview subject with no way to progress or exit, besides closing the program from my task manager.
Or maybe I’m more upset about unlocking a new chapter in a character’s personal story, only for the game to roll me back to the previous one. That would have been bad enough, but when I tried to go from chapter two and back to three again, the stories I’d told the NPC to reach the higher level previously were still marked as already told. I didn’t just lose my progress. I lost part of my ability to get back to where I once was.
In fairness, my worst issues seem to be rare—developer Dim Bulb Games states it never encountered these complaints during testing and I’ve only heard reports of comparatively minor glitches from other reviewers. But even if my personal experience weren’t marred with such problems, the game’s opaque and lethargic mechanics drag its otherwise fine fiction down with them.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s tall tales are surreal and magical, with an obvious focus on the poor, queer, and people of color. The game doesn’t forget whose backs its central nation was built upon and whose hands they were stolen from without being nakedly didactic. Instead, every microcosmic memoir is a statement by those marginalized people in a supernatural flashpoint from history (and, perhaps more importantly, were often written by them in the modern day).
There are times when I’m able to focus on those stories. I’ll get sucked into a two-minute murder mystery, or entirely focused on sharecropper’s tragic family ties. Then something will break, or I’ll have to trek across virtual Nevada because I thought my ghost story was a happy one, not a sad one. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a poor structure to tell great stories in and, more often than not, that’s just not enough for me.
Disclosure: Laura Michet, formerly Editor in Chief of ZAM.com, served as lead editor on this game. To avoid even the appearance of bias, we refrained from covering WTWTLW until Laura had completely left the company. Dim Bulb Games furnished ZAM.com with the same press copy it has provided other outlets. -- Kris Ligman