I saunter up to a poker table for a game of cards with a sinister-looking wolf. He greets me and after some time I find that I don’t have a winning hand. Unfortunately, I’ve quite literally bet my skin on it. As the wolf rips the flesh from my bones he sends me on a quest…
Now in the form of a massive wandering skeleton, I packed up what little I had left to my name and set out from Maine to collect some tales worth telling. I was enthralled, living in this world of magical realism set in a warped and painted version of the landscape of America’s past. I was a storyteller and I was ready to collect amazing accounts.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is Dim Bulb Games’ debut release and features a laundry list of incredibly talented writers, voice actors, and musicians. It is clear from the beginning that a lot of love was put into the ideation of this game, with each story I encountered being skillfully knitted into microscopic tales of love, loss, hope, hilarity, and fear. Dim Bulb developers clearly know the value of a good folktale, and with them, the player is encouraged to discover how a simple story can be transformed into a lasting legend over the course of a night.
I heeded the wolf’s call and set out to discover the stories of the “true” America. A playlist of beautiful-themed songs began to play and whistling along put a little pep in my step. Dotted across the landscape were little markers that showed where I needed to stop and investigate a new story. As I journeyed across the ink-washed mountains and plains, there were a few major map markers of worth.
The first marker was a small dot above a building. This was how my skeleton was able to sniff out a good story. I strolled up to each residence, business, and barn one-by-one and absorbed every story inside. These stories told the lives of American frontiersmen, farmers, hunters, and outlaws, as well as the struggles of the hungry, the enslaved, and the cursed. Every once in a while, I would even find stories of love and family. From time to time, I had a bit of say in the outcome of these stories, but for the most part, I just waited for them to play out in front of me. I'm going to take this chance to note my severe disappointment in this mechanic for one main reason; I felt like I had been deceived by the trailer. The teaser video features beautifully animated encounters which were visually captivating. Instead, I found narrated placards. Bummer. On the bright side the illustrations were skillfully rendered, but they were nowhere near as impactful as the teased animations.
The second main marker was a campfire. In these locations, I would find men and women who, much like me, were wandering the country looking for something. A cast of well known voice actors narrated their tales. A woman was looking for work after the dust storms ruined her farmland; a poet was wandering the fields after his lover, Silas, had decided to settle down with a woman instead; a former slave was looking for the true meaning of freedom even though his chains had been unlocked years ago. Some stories held great sorrow while others inspired me. But no matter who these campers were, they always somehow needed to hear my collected stories.
When speaking to new people at a campsite, travelers agree to share part of their story in exchange for one of yours. In this way, I think the developers hoped to give the game progression, but it often left me unfulfilled. These incredible stories I found had been reduced to simply a currency to be bartered with. All of these well-planned and sectioned tales to be uncovered were being cast by the wayside as collectible trading cards. I remember telling a character a sad story about a child who had been abandoned in the woods by his father. It was a story I had just picked up a couple moments before, and it was still fresh in my mind. I remember the boy telling me that he was sure his father was coming back for him; after all, it had only been three weeks. In response, the traveler I shared this with just said "Huh. That was a real downer," and launched into a five paragraph tirade about his own life.
A point that really surprised me was that in the game I couldn't ever go back and re-read the stories I had just found. Just like in real life, there is no experiencing an event a second time, and you only have your memories to carry you through. By the time you collect all 200 stories, it can be hard to remember which one was which and I think it would greatly benefit the gameplay for the player to be able to re-read past experiences.
Various other markers were used for general navigation, which was purposefully slow and plodding. I think the developers hoped to give us some time to think about the stories we had heard and to reflect on them, but after a couple hours of walking around, I just set a weight down on my “go key” and checked back from time to time to see if I was near anything worthwhile.
The landscape, while beautiful, tended to be similar in the different places I went. When I reloaded my game after sleeping through a night and eating breakfast, I couldn’t tell where I was. I guessed Montana but it was actually closer to Texas.
The game makes the plodding pace worthwhile when I actually happened to encounter things in the world. Beautifully illustrated stories can be found at random throughout the country, and I’ve kept a few collected memories for my own even outside of the game. I won’t ever forget the story of the bull who was stabbed with ten swords so that the people could taste his sweetened blood, or the little boy who wanted to trade a demonic pet for the answer to a riddle.
Some tales make themselves clear on what they are to become, like the tale of the twins in the hotel hallways we remember in The Shining, or the story of the incredibly strong lumberjack with a blue bull that we know will become Paul Bunyan. They are stories we heard as kids and images we've seen in old movies. That being said, there are over 200 stories to discover and collect along your travels, and not all of them are so memorable. I spent many conversations trying to recall which story The Man in Arizona actually was and if the person I was talking to would like it at all.
As I played, I realized that the game was really affecting the way I saw the game world and its relation to the real world. People may or may not care about my stories, they’re often only waiting for their turn to talk. The path is long and slow, so patience is key. I sometimes don’t see a reason to carry on, especially after going a long way to find a story I may or may not care for. I have to try to remember what happened because there is no cheat sheet. So in the end, I think this was less a “game” at all, and more an experience that gives us insight into what it means to be a storyteller.
I decided to play several more hours of this game after initially attempting to review it, and I'm still somewhat at a loss. I really want to give it a poor review, but I can't quite justify it. It isn't a game for gamers. It might not even be a game for casual gamers. Overall I don't think it's actually bad. During the course of my playing I oscillated between genuinely enjoying the stories and loathing the idea of taking another step, but that won't be true for everyone who plays it. I showed it to a friend of mine who majored in mythology and she was thrilled. At the time of this review, she's already spent about twenty hours on it. My boyfriend didn't even make it out of the state he spawned in before quitting.
Storytelling is subjective, just like this game. If you like exciting games, this will be a waste of money for you. If you like games where your choices matter, you'll fall in love with the idea of this game. If you're a writer or just really like oral histories then you'll probably have a decent enough time. So make your choice, readers, because as you'll learn, only you can tell your own fate.