Where the Water Tastes Like Wine opens quietly, with a wanderer entering a bar and joining a card game. Shadows flicker as the wanderer plays the game, winning more and more until only a mysterious dark figure is left, grinning on the other side of the table with high stakes in front.
The card game ends as you would expect, and the grinning creature is revealed to be a wolf with a task for the wanderer. The wanderer, to pay off the astronomical debt, has to travel across the country, gathering stories of all kinds. These stories are everywhere, and they form part of the tapestry of life itself. But the wolf is particularly interested in personal stories, the ones that people unburden from their souls around the flickering flames of a campfire in the dark.
In the game, you wander around and interact with landmarks on the huge map of North America, encountering situations which turn into stories. Stories are then categorised according to the tarot (your wolf friend is a fan) depending on how you choose to make them unfold. Do you choose to make an encounter with two people in a lighthouse into a story that embodies ‘The Lovers’? Or is it not romantic at all? Your aim is to collect as wide a range of stories as possible, seeking out encounters to fill in the gaps in your collection. This comes in handy for the main encounters you will have with fellow travellers at campfires dotted around the map.
Campfire encounters centre on a particular character who will request to hear stories of a certain type. If you can fulfil these requests, the character will reveal more of their life story, furthering the narrative of the game as a whole. You can’t do this without collecting stories – characters won’t open up if you tell the wrong stories, and you can’t tell them something you’ve told them before, either. The campfire and story encounters are also fully voiced to great effect – each campfire character has a distinct voice, and the voice of the narrator weaves its way around everything in perfect folklore fashion. There are lots of talented voice actors here – Dave Fennoy (The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series), Cissy Jones (Firewatch), Kimberly Brooks (Mass Effect)… Even the esteemed Sting lends his voice to the wolf at the start of the game and throughout. This attention and nod to the oral storytelling tradition is mighty fine indeed, even better thanks to the wonderful artwork it is all paired with.
The stories are easily the best aspect of the game and experience. Collecting stories, then using them in a creative way is a wonderful way of paying tribute to the importance of stories in human culture and history. As you travel around, you may also come across other, further embellished versions of stories that you have already picked up – the stories grow in the telling and it’s a nice touch to see the description of these stories change in your collection. What started off as an encounter with a rider in the woods may slowly morph into the story of Sleepy Hollow as you travel, as you hear it told in different ways by different people. As you go through the game as well and hear all of the tales start to weave together, there is a developing, creeping sense of the fantastic, the surreal and the downright spooky.
It’s such a shame, then, that the in-between parts are so dry.
You have to travel to seek out the stories so the other half of the game is walking a character across a map to find the landmarks, trying to hitchhike, hop trains and cross rivers. Your character trundles along while accompanied by a folk soundtrack, and everything feels incredibly remote. This isn’t helped by the slow speed of your character’s amble and the general clunky feel of the 3D overworld art in comparison to the beautiful 2D art of the story encounters.
As you travel, there is some minor balancing of stats to be done – your character might die if you deplete your very basic health or energy meters – but these events are not really of any major consequence. Entering a major city gives you the opportunity to find more stories, or to earn money to buy items that replenish your stats or a train ticket to another location. But really this stat management is so basic that it feels more like an interruption than anything else.
Not even a very fitting folk soundtrack can make these bits less tedious because it repeats all too quickly. I found myself staring blankly at the screen as my character traversed the landscape, no story landmarks for miles. A little whistling minigame to make your character walk faster doesn’t help to break the boredom. Train tickets allow you to go far, but they are expensive. You can hop trains in certain locations but doing so usually results in a beating that depletes your health. Attempts to hitchhike often just involve standing or walking for long periods in the hope that one of the very few cars on the road will even pick you up. As a representation of the ‘wandering hobo’ trope so common in Americana, I can understand it (your character even carries a bundle tied to a stick) but within the game, what at first was quaint quickly became dull.
There is also no option to switch off just the soundtrack – it’s all or nothing when it comes to sound in the game, so muting the game to listen to my own folk playlist meant losing out on the excellent voiceover that gives the game much of its character. Turning the game’s volume back on meant being able to hear the voiceover, but having to put up with a limited library of songs on constant repeat, punctuated by odd whistles when I felt like attempting to move faster to temper the tedium.
With patience, you will be able to uncover an interesting narrative experience that fully embraces North American folklore. It’s a shame that the game seems to have embraced that folklore tradition without considering the impact on the pace and the rest of the play experience, not just the narrative one.
Hearing the end of the stories is a worthy goal, and it is satisfying to see the way that the narratives build as the game progresses. Still, exploring the whole of the map is a daunting task and even as an avid reader of visual novels used to lots of text and a slow pace, I found the strange filler between the stories frustrating. A beautiful and interesting narrative experience may not be worth the pure drudgery for the majority of players, and yet to forego this game entirely means missing out on something that is curious and lovely. Maybe this dilemma is, in fact, another intended layer to the game – a faithful representation of the experience of being indebted to the devil himself.