With its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and unique folkloric themes, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine was my most anticipated indie release of 2018. I followed pre-release announcements with interest, even when things like the casting Sting were being trumpeted. So, it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I began to explore its story sharing world. Did it live up to my hopes, or leave me disappointed?
Much has been written on the subject of walking simulators, with the arguments for and against their status as games being repeated to the point of boredom. Suffice it to say that WTWTLW will not appeal to gamers who seek adrenaline and twitch-based gameplay. Instead, if you are prepared to take the time to explore the combat free landscapes of the game’s strange version of a timeless America, there is a rich seam of storytelling gold to mine. The stories in WTWTLW are more than simple narrative dressing, too, as they serve as the collectibles, power-ups, and abilities in a bizarre take on a kind of literary Pokemon.
The game begins with your character, a nameless hobo, taking refuge from the elements in an isolated bar. A game of poker is underway with a strange figure shrouded in darkness. You join the game and one by one the other participants fold and leave. You’re left alone to find yourself forced into a Faustian bargain by this character, where you must wander the country in search of stories to reveal the true face of others who have been unfortunate enough to run into him before. To assist you, he strips your mortality away along with your flesh, leaving you as a skeletal vagrant.
This narrative framing brings together elements of fairy story, American Gothic and folklore to set the scene for your interstate wanderings. The combination of strong writing, evocative visuals and a perfectly matched bluegrass and Dark Country soundtrack makes WTWTLW a joy to explore. The music in particular is wonderful, setting the mood and really creating the feel of a timeless America. The tracks range from bluegrass to blues to jazz and beyond, with each track playing in a different part of the map.
Link area to different songs is a familiar one in games, but it takes on a deeper significance here, connecting the geography with history and the continuing struggles of the American masses during the Great Depression and beyond. Whilst much of the discussion around the game has focused on this period setting, as you explore its focus becomes much broader with anxieties around the Vietnam war, beat poetry and the rise of free love and hippy culture taking the fore. The result is a powerful message that America’s origins are multifaceted and the struggles for any kind of national identity are far from over.
WTWTLW is, therefore, a worthy and important game that deserves to reach a wide and varied audience. Yet, and this is likely the most important part of the review, it is difficult to recommend the game unreservedly because there are a number of significant annoyances that get in the way of your enjoyment.
Foremost among these is the presumably deliberate decision to make your avatar’s movement frustratingly slow. Whilst this has clear thematic reasons, the end result is that a lot of your time is spent wandering between locations. The soundtrack goes a long way towards alleviating this frustration, but even here there is a problem. The game offers a way of speeding up your walking but does little to explain it. You must hold Ctrl whilst moving with WASD and playing a rhythm action whistling game with the directional buttons. This clumsy and badly explained mechanic seems designed as a deterrent rather than a benefit, and the fact that the whistling obscures the soundtrack makes it even more undesirable.
Much of WTWTLW plays like a tabletop card or board game, with the stories you collect growing in power as you spread them and they are retold by others. This kind of levelling up is a mechanic that recalls Pokémon, along with the ‘collect them all’ aspect. When you find the various NPCs camping out in the wild you enter a conversational minigame in which you employ your stories as abilities to gain further information. After several rounds of this, the characters reveal their true folkloric form and their story is completed. Once all of the NPCs’ stories are completed your task is complete. The most recent developer notes suggest that some more content will be added to the currently underwhelming endgame, which might reward those who look to track down every last story.
The stories are wonderfully evocative, feeding into the myths and legends of America and putting forward the imagined experience of a rich and varied cast of diverse characters. Far from the dominant idea of a white America popularised by the loud voices of the alt-right and prominent Republicans, the true history of the United States is one occupied and created by immigrants and vagrants from around the world. By featuring the vagrants, the downtrodden and the abused, WTWTLW reveals the lies surrounding the American Dream and the sacrifices carried out in its name.
Summing up my experience with Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is more complex than a numerical score can truly represent. The aesthetics, soundtrack, and writing here are wonderful and more than reward the patience required to fully unravel the game’s mysteries. Playing it resulted in an immersion that went beyond my niggles with the gameplay. It is clear from my comments here that the game won’t have the universal appeal to match the political and social importance of its themes and message. It is a game that should be played by many, but that will probably frustrate as many as it ensnares. It more than lived up to my expectations and if you are interested in exploring the ways in which games can go beyond other media in their use of narrative then it is unmissable.