Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Reflections on my Journey Across America

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game I want to enjoy more than I do. It has a lot I enjoy and find interesting. I wanted to finish the game before I wrote anything up but I’m having a hard time pushing myself to complete it. It’s lasted longer than I thought it would and honestly it’s lasted longer than it should, given what type of game it is. I will eventually finish it, I want to, but it will be a slower process. It’s not an unplayable game but if you do choose to give it a shot you should keep a few things in mind regarding the experience.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes place in America during the Great Depression. At the start of the game you are tasked with traveling across America’s landscape to collect stories. Stories you collect are treated like items in an inventory. Along your journey you encounter other travelers. Successfully tell them the stories they want to hear and they’ll slowly reveal their own personal story. The game ends once you have completed revealing the stories of these fellow travelers.

Skeletal figure walking across landscape

story inventory screen

The Great Depression setting is a compelling one. Periods of distress in American history are not often explored in video games. It is a period rife with potential for narrative focused games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like you get a greater sense of that history from the game. While the personal stories convey the struggles people went through you don’t get the narrative of the Great Depression itself. If you’re not familiar with the history it will just be some time in the past when America was poor.

The art style and music of the game initially drew me to the game. The pre-release marketing didn’t reveal much about the actual gameplay of the game so I didn’t know what to expect in that regard. The art and music did not disappoint. Both fit the setting pretty well, though the art style is the more unique and pleasurable aspect of the game. The voice acting is top notch. The majority of the game is voice acted with pleasant narrations of the stories you experience.

The focus of the game is stories and it is the most polished mechanic of the game. The main way you collect stories is by investigating locations and experiencing something which then becomes a story you can tell. When you come across the fellow travelers, you tell these stories to them. Except they request certain kinds of stories. I mostly enjoyed this except for one aspect.

Each story is a certain kind of story (tragic, funny, hopeful, etc.). Most of this is clear cut, except for thrilling or scary stories. Stories are not labeled as such, you have to figure that out yourself. Which can be difficult if how you define a genre is different from how the game does. Progress in the game is defined by how much the other travelers reveal their own story. This only happens if you tell them the kind of stories they request. It’s really aggravating to tell stories you think are thrilling but they read as scary or vice versa. Otherwise I enjoyed the mechanics of collecting and telling of stories and would like to see it developed and adapted in other games.

story selection wheel

house and traveler in scary storm

There are some other mechanics in the game. You walk around the map using your choice of controls. You interact with smaller locations or cities to collect stories. Larger cities can be entered where you are able to look for work or experience a unique story in the city. Otherwise there isn’t too much more, the cities can feel a little repetitive. Surprisingly there is a health mechanic in the game. It didn’t register to me until I died. I think I only lost health after hopping trains. The railroad people find you and beat you. You can heal yourself by eating food in the cities. There is also a currency and sleep mechanic. You use money to buy food or to pay to be on a train instead of hopping. And you usually get sleep when camping with other travelers.

city interaction screen

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine firmly falls into the walking simulator genre. These games usually last just a few hours. Any longer and you risk losing your player. I played about ten hours of the game and I’m having trouble keeping my interest and engagement up. There is no personal narrative to entice you along. Just stories from other travelers where the pacing is dependent on how well the player does with the other the travelers, so things can feel drawn out or repetitive. The mechanics are not varied enough to carry the game for hours on end. Even for others who enjoy the walking simulator genre this may be a tough one. Looking around, the game takes around twenty hours to complete. Which feels somewhat like a chore now.

The game should not be avoided completely. It has merits but it is a niche game in a niche genre. I’m not surprised to read that the game is not doing as well (sales wise) as the creator hoped (I have my own thoughts on his reflections concerning video games and the landscape of video games but that is a conversation for another time). The game is enjoyable but falters because it is a longer game for the mechanics and gameplay loop it offers. But it is still a game that can offer us a lot to reflect on for what we do narratively and mechanically in future games.

Difficulty in Video Games

Difficulty in video games is a frequent topic of discussion. Some think games have become too easy. They bemoan the days when games used to be more difficult. Others dismiss difficulty’s role as a part of the medium’s experience; asking easier modes be added to games selling themselves as a difficult experience. How difficult a game is, is dependent on the kind of experience the developers want to provide. Video games are an interactive medium and difficulty is an integral part of the experience.

To talk about difficulty we have to define what difficulty is. Difficulty is how easy or hard the mechanics and systems of the game are to engage with and master. Different kinds of games have different mechanics and systems. So a player might find some types of games more difficult but not others. Someone who plays shooters might find adventure games more difficult and vice versa. And in each type of game some games will be harder than others. Some shooters are more difficult than others; some adventure games have more difficult puzzles than others.

Broadly speaking there is unintentional difficulty and intentional difficulty. Unintentional difficulty is the difficulty of a game caused by poor design or implementation. Unintentionally difficult games are difficult due to of bugs or glitches. The developers did not do a good job of designing or implementing aspects of the game. Intentional difficulty is the intentional design and implementation of the systems of the game to provide a particular experience to the player.

Difficulty is an inherent aspect of the video game medium. Sometimes an element of the medium that can be taken for granted. People don’t always realize how difficulty can be calibrated to provide a particular experience. Some designers choose to lower the difficulty in their game to the point where it feels like it doesn’t exist to help facilitate a particular experience. To try and increase the difficulty would break the experience of these games. And the same can be said of those games that exist on the other end of the spectrum; the experience of games designed to be difficult would break with the lowering of difficulty. Though most games tend to be designed with a middle ground in mind with difficulty being implemented with a variable difficulty system.

As the medium has grown, games that choose to calibrate difficulty to provide a particular experience are often niche games and are marketed towards a more focused audience. Walking simulators make the choice to reduce difficulty in order to provide a particular narrative experience. Rich narrative experiences can be provided in higher difficulty games but a player’s frustration with the difficulty can distract from the narrative experience the game is trying to provide. Though walking simulators have their own risk of boring the player. Video games are an interactive medium and requires a certain level of interactivity in order to keep the player engaged with the experience. This issue of engagement is present in higher difficult games but for different reasons. As mentioned, frustration can cause the player to break away from the experience the game is trying to convey. Replaying or feeling like you are getting nowhere due to the difficulty causes a player to disconnect from the experience and may cause the player to give up on the experience entirely; the engagement is no longer a positive experience.

Most games these days choose a middle ground role for difficulty. Games for a general mass audience design an experience that is not dependent on low or high difficulty. Instead players are allowed to adjust the difficulty of the game to optimize their own engagement with the experience the game is trying to provide. Not too easy to bore a player but not too hard to frustrate them.

But some games choose a particular difficulty in order to convey a particular experience. When it comes to games with lower difficulty people tend to simply dismiss them as real video games instead of calling for a difficult mode. As mentioned before this can bore many players who don’t feel like they are engaged enough with the game. These games make a choice to reduce difficulty in order to let other aspects of the experience shine. This does not mean they are any less of a game than other games. To increase the difficulty would to break their particular experience.

A more intense conversation arises around difficult games and their choice to not include easier modes of play. Sometimes developers are asked to include easier modes to make a game more accessible to a wider audience. These calls feel dismissive of the role difficulty plays in providing a particular experience. Just as raising the difficulty of lower difficulty games can break the experience lowering the difficulty of high difficulty games could break the desired experience.

In the past year or so I experienced two works considered difficult works. While difficulty doesn’t exist in the same way in the other mediums, there are aspects of how they are structured or conveyed to the audience making them hard to experience in a similar way the difficulty of a game may make it harder for a player to experience.

Twin Peaks: The Return chucked any expectations of what I thought it would be into a garbage disposal and pulverized what was left. The original run of Twin Peaks and the movie Fire Walk With Me had some strange elements but still told its narrative in a relatively straight forward fashion. Not so with The Return. It’s hard to convey exactly what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return. I can try to provide a summary or cliff notes but so many aspects are highly interpretative. It is a piece of television that has to be experienced in every aspect. But some people won’t and that’s alright. The pacing zig zags everywhere. Episodes go by where nothing seems to happen. Episode 8 tells most of its narrative through visuals (very interpretative visuals) and non-dialogue audio. Some people will just not have the patience or want to think too hard about the experience to enjoy it. It is not an experience for them. And those that do enjoy it, revel in it, are not better than those who can’t get into. It’s just a narrative experience some are up for and others are not.

House of Leaves is a horror novel with aspects making it difficult to enjoy its experience. It interweaves two narratives and by the end you aren’t exactly sure what is real or not. House of Leaves is difficult in how it decides to convey its experience. Often the prose is not formatted in a standard way on the page. Sections of the book read like dry academic texts, long lists of references, or a seemingly large amount of meaningless footnotes. Like Twin Peaks: The Return some will face difficulty in experiencing House of Leaves. And again that is alright.

I consider both works good in their respective mediums but would not provide a blanket recommendation for them. I understand people have different tastes including the conventionality of conveying the medium’s experience, which Twin Peaks: The Return and House of Leaves do not follow. This makes them difficult works to access and experience. But I would never go to their creators and say, “Make this easier for me to experience. I want Twin Peaks to tell a straight forward story about Cooper escaping from the Black Lodge. None of this silly Dougie stuff or episodes of psychedelic imagery. I want House of Leaves to be published without all of its crazy formatting and useless footnotes.”

I would never ask these things because that would take away from the unique experiences they offer. To do so would to make them less than they are. Most games design their experience with variable difficulty in mind. This allows the player to adjust the difficulty as they wish in order to keep them engaged enough in the interactive experience of the medium. But some games want to provide an experience that is dependent on a particular difficulty, either low or high difficulty. In the case of games with low difficultly they should not be dismissed as not “real” games. And in the case of games with higher difficulty we should not feel the need to demand easier modes. In both cases the unique experiences provided by the game are dependent on the particular difficulty chosen by the designers. To change that would to break the experience meant to be conveyed.

Some Updates

So with the Patreon fee fiasco stuff going on I closed my Creator page. I didn’t have any Patrons so I’m not leaving anyone hanging there. It’s hard to try and create a base and move towards a sustainable income through crowdfunding. And I did not have confidence in the scale of what I was doing and succeeding on Patreon, especially after the fee changes.

I still have a day job and as much as I want to have source of income that just lets me spend my time and energy on writing and other content creation that’s not how things are right now. I’ll try some other crowdfunding option after the New Year some time. Until then just enjoy the stuff I do.

 Anyways I had done three exclusive stories for Patreon when I had the Creator page up. Since I’ve shut down the Creator page I moved them to my Fiction page (Under New Management, Newly Weds, and Maternal Bonds) to be enjoyed by anyone.

That’s kind of it for now.

Games to Get Your Fright On (2017)

Like last year I decided to put together a list of horror games to recommend for people to play. There are not too many entries this year as my back log of games has built up nicely, which means I have not played as many horror games as I have wanted to. The games this year are also all adventure games. No action horror games for this year. Again these are just personal choices I have decided to recommend, not some sort objective list of horror games everyone should play. The games are listed in no particular order.

Fran Bow

Fran Bow is the most stylized game on this list. It is a more traditional point and click adventure game. You play as Fran, a ten year old girl, who is dealing with the mental fallout of seeing her parents murdered. Fran is determined to escape the asylum she is in and get back home. She is provided a drug that when consumed transforms the environment around her, usually for the worst. This transformation of the environment allows you to access areas/things you couldn’t access before and is what most of the puzzle design is structured around. The game offers up plenty of disturbing imagery and leaves off with a pretty ambiguous ending that will leave you questioning a lot of things.

Conarium

Conarium is the latest Lovecraftian game from Zoetrope Interactive. Heavily influenced by At the Mountains of Madness, you awake in an arctic base with a bit of amnesia. As you explore trying to figure out where everyone else has disappeared to, you discover more about the experiments taking place and your part in them. The imagery and atmosphere of this game is really what the game is about. It also prioritizes narrative experience over complex gameplay mechanics. It’s a first person adventure game with simpler puzzles. Lovecraft can be hard to do in games but I thought this game did a decent job. I did a review of Conarium earlier this year. Head over and check it out if you want to know a little bit more about the game (there are spoilers).

Layers of Fear

Layers of Fear came out last year and got a bit of coverage as one of the “scariest” titles out there. I don’t know about scariest but it does have a good amount of jump scares and the atmosphere of the game creates a good fearful tension as you play. You play as an aging artist returning home to finish his final piece. The game is a bit of a walking simulator with a few puzzles strewn about, some of them optional. Much of the game is walking around dreamlike or surreal environments of your home. What I really like about this game is some of the game design. The way the game plays with physical space while you play is fantastic is something I would like to see show up in other horror titles. There are multiple endings dependent on different paths you take or whether or not you look at certain things. There is a decent amount of exploration in this game if you don’t mind the walking simulator aspect.

Observer

Observer is a game done by the same people who did Layers of Fear. It is billed as a cyberpunk horror and it lives up to that description. It is more of a traditional first person adventure game and less of a walking simulator that Layers of Fear was. There is more interactivity and better puzzle design. I really really liked the puzzles in this game. Their design felt unique and utilized the atmosphere of the game really well. The premise is that you play as a detective that can enter people’s minds and access their memories. Most of the horror comes from the memoryscapes you experience. For the moment this game feels like a unique one out there and highly recommend it. This is another game I did a review on earlier this year (again spoilers).

Stories Untold

This game will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is very minimalist when it comes to gameplay. The only reason I am including it on the list is because of the first story you play. Untold Stories is an episodic game with four stories bound together by a narrative thread revealed in the final story. Each story has its own horror elements but it’s the first story, The House Abandon, which really blew me away. It’s hard to describe. You are someone who has come home and you start playing an old text adventure game and then everything starts bleeding together. The game narratives, reality, it all just bleeds together. It is a horror experience I have not experienced in any other game. Go play this game.

Exploring Depression and Suicide in The Cat Lady

The Cat Lady begins and ends with suicide. Video games have continued to mature as a storytelling medium over the years. We have seen an increasing number of titles sincerely grapple with the tougher aspects of the human experience. The Cat Lady, released in 2012, is a game with depression and suicide at the core of its narrative. The player takes part in a story whose characters struggle with their depressive demons, stepping into the shoes of a woman who is healing from her own depressive and suicidal experiences.

You play as Susan Ashworth. The game opens with you committing suicide. You appear in some sort of afterlife. Meeting an entity who refers to herself as the Queen of Maggots, she tells you she is sending you back to kill five people, who she refers to as Parasites. She is also sending you back as an immortal.

Susan and the Queen of Maggots

After your exchange with the Queen of Maggots you are sent back to the living world and you wake up in the hospital. Working to get out of the hospital you face off against the first Parasite, a deranged doctor that tortures people for artistic pleasure. Returning home you are greeted by a young woman, Mitzi, who wants to become your roommate. As you continue to play out the story, it is revealed Susan used to be married and had a daughter. Her daughter died and her husband drank himself to death. It is revealed that Mitzi is dying from cancer and is tracking down someone called The Eye of Adam. The Eye of Adam convinced Mitzi’s boyfriend to commit suicide. And Mitzi wants to confront him for her own closure. Susan agrees to help. In your quest to hunt down The Eye of Adam you confront the remaining Parasites until you are face to face with the last one, The Eye of Adam. The game can end a few different ways depending on your choices.

Doctor torturing someone

One of the interesting things about The Cat Lady is it establishes a legitimate afterlife and at least one supernatural entity. This creates an interesting discussion around the themes explored in the game, especially suicide. The afterlife space presented in the game is more of a limbo space belonging to the Queen of Maggots. It is never made entirely clear who the Queen of Maggots is. She is old and claims to go by many names. Her role and motives are left up to interpretation. We don’t know why she tasks Susan with hunting down the Parasites, though there are lines later in the game that might provide some hints.

Towards the end of the game the Queen of Maggots suggests she is a part of Susan. This implies she may be a personification of something that exists in everyone. Remember this bit because I’ll bring it back up when I discuss suicide in the game. This also explains the Queen of Maggots’ mission to kill the Parasites. The Parasites are humans who could be said to have no souls. They kill and torture with no empathy. They often draw people in with a false sense of security. The Queen of Maggots wants them dead because in a way they feed off of that part the Queen of Maggots represents.

The player is greeted with the full weight of Susan’s depression from the very beginning. As she experiences what she thinks are her final moments she laments that all she has are the stray cats she has cared for. But they will understand. They always have. When she finds herself in the realm of the Queen of Maggots she can only express weariness. She just wanted it to be over but the Queen of Maggots pushes her back to the land of the living. The Cat Lady is in part a journey of acceptance.

The game for the most part makes no attempts to provide a cure for Susan’s depression. It isn’t something that can cured. It can be treated. It can be coped with. A wheezing beast living in your mind. Somedays you can sit peacefully with it in an uneasy alliance and other days it runs rampant taking away the energy you were saving to deal with anything but it. The Queen of Maggots promises happiness at the beginning of the game. At first this seems like a promise for a cure. But it isn’t. Susan is in a better place by the end of the game but she isn’t cured. She herself says that she will always have the “invisible illness” with her but her opening up and friendship with Mitzi has allowed her to better cope with it.

After Susan wakes up in the hospital she has to go through a session in order to assess the risk to herself. Here the player is allowed to choose some of Susan’s history. The player is able to choose whether Susan grew up with both of her parents or neither. The player is able to choose what kind of parents they are. Later in the game Mitzi asks Susan what depression feels like. After Susan answers Mitzi describes what it feels like for her. Each describes their depression in a different way. There is an underlying message that regardless of circumstances depression can infest your mind and that each person’s experience with it is different.

Mitzi and Susan standing in an empty room

Your time at the hospital presents perspectives on how those who need help view treatment. Susan is pretty hostile towards drugs and therapy. The game doesn’t delve deep into society’s view of drug treatment for mental illness but Susan’s own attitude does reflect a stigma people have of drug treatments. Admitting you need drugs is an admission of defeat. You weren’t strong enough. There is also the unwanted side-effects that often come with drugs. The game at one point tries to portray the lethargy and skewed perceptions caused by drugs. And society doesn’t try hard to dispel these unhealthy antagonistic attitudes towards drugs. When you’re on the edge of a mental knife though those drugs can be a life saver. In the end Susan moves on without any drugs but this doesn’t mean this is the right choice for everyone.

Susan on drugs

Returning home introduces an interesting mechanic for one chapter in the game. You are given two meters. A red one that fills up when something upsets Susan and a green one that fills up when something makes Susan happy. Neither cancels the other out. If the green meter fills up Susan can sleep peacefully, if the red one fills up she suffers a breakdown. Things that cheer Susan up are things like having coffee or a burger cooked just right. Things that can upset her are things like being startled in the dark or seeing unpaid bills. This conveys the fact that what may seem small to other people can make or break the day of someone suffering from depression.

The day after Susan gets home Mitzi enters her life. At first Susan is distrustful. But over the course of the game they open up to each other and form a friendship. Mitzi tells her story to Susan and over time Susan reciprocates. Susan tells Mitzi about her daughter and husband. Mitzi may not be a professional but she’s the only person who Susan makes a connection with. When it comes to depression being able to open up and connect with someone is one of the most important things. Mitzi is able to help her in way no one else had due to that connection.

Mitzi and Susan in apartment

Regardless of which ending you get, in the final scene of the game Susan expresses how she has learned to cope with her depression through her friendship with Mitzi. Susan admits she will never be rid of her “invisible illness”. Depression isn’t something that can be cured. It can be managed or lessened through drugs, therapy, or other lifestyle choices. But the ghost of that melancholic beast will always hang over you waiting to get you when you least expect it. In two of the endings, where Mitzi dies, Susan is able to meet new people. She goes out with them every once and a while. She allows herself enough of life to not be completely boxed in and alone.

I can’t think of too many games that deal with suicide as directly as The Cat Lady. It isn’t a single plot point that just sets off the events of the game. It is a continual thread that appears again and again. Susan encounters a ghost that wants to commit suicide. Mitzi’s boyfriend committed suicide. Susan commits suicide at least one more time, and possibly another after that. The final antagonist of the game, The Eye of Adam, is a man who encourages and helps people commit suicide online. The climax of the game is a choice between letting your friend commit suicide for revenge or convincing her to move on and living the rest of her days with Susan.

Susan’s relationship with suicide mostly takes place in the first half of the game. The beginning of the game starts with her suicide. To her horror she finds herself in the realm of the Queen of Maggots, faced with the prospect of continuing to live. On replaying The Cat Lady I was caught off guard because the Queen of Maggots implies Susan will be punished for committing suicide. It was jarring in a game that seemed nonjudgmental of people who commit suicide. While the game explores the emotions around suicide it didn’t seem to blame those who attempt or succeed in suicide.

Later dialogue though can be interpreted to mean Susan would be punished because she thought she ought to be punished. The Queen of Maggots is a part Susan. A part that understands her self-loathing. At the beginning of the game Susan believes she is worthless. Suicide just signifies another failure. One she should be punished for. This isn’t an uncommon attitude. Many do feel a sense of guilt for even thinking about it. And again society doesn’t exactly help. Several religious traditions have declared suicide as wrong. A crime against the body. One which can earn you an eternal punishment. Even from a secular viewpoint suicide is often viewed as somehow wrong. It’s a struggle to change these attitudes. To convince others that trying to commit suicide isn’t a moral crime. There is real suffering taking place. And that individual sees suicide as their only option.

The Eye of Adam is a unique antagonist that is hard to read. As a character he is inspired by real people online who encourage and provide ways to commit suicide. There are real forums out there that resemble those described in the game. Places where a pro-suicide message can be expressed. The Eye of Adam is a crippled man who can only communicate with the world through his eye movements. He encourages others to commit suicide, including Mitzi’s boyfriend. He kills his father and tries to goad Mitzi, or Susan if the player lets Mitzi die in an earlier scene, into killing him. A final grand act. We don’t actually learn much about The Eye of Adam. How his physical disabilities have affected his mental health or nuanced explorations of his motives for encouraging and helping other commit suicide. The player gets to choose how things end. You can let Mitzi shoot The Eye of Adam which will kill her also because of the oxygen tanks in the room. You can also talk Mitzi out of it and deprive The Eye of Adam his final wish. If Susan confronts The Eye of Adam alone, due to Mitzi’s death earlier, she fulfills his wish and kills him.

Mitzi pointing gun at the Eye of Adam

The Cat Lady presents several contexts for suicide. Susan’s suicide at the beginning of the game is linked to her depression. An action she survives and comes to regret. Mitzi’s boyfriend commits suicide. He can’t bear to think about his life without Mitzi or deal with his own emotions around Mitzi’s cancer. Mitzi is willing to commit suicide for revenge. She is going to die of cancer anyway so why not die killing the person who convinced her love to kill himself? The Eye of Adam is willing to commit suicide as a grand last gesture.

The Cat Lady never endorses suicide but also never portrays those who are suicidal or commit suicide as inherently bad. While the game shows you the emotional reaction of those around you it never moves into blaming territory. It sincerely tries to portray what everyone goes through, those that try to commit suicide and those that care for them. Emotions can be complicated for those who survive their suicide attempt. Like many, Susan feels regret. She regrets making the attempt and in the end she’s glad she survived. At the beginning of the game the Queen of Maggots tells Susan death fixes nothing. In the world of The Cat Lady the afterlife is real. Suffering doesn’t end simply because you died. We don’t have that guarantee in the real world. Suicide may end the suffering of the individual who commits it but it does leave emotional damage behind. Coming to embrace life through her relationship with Mitzi helped Susan. This isn’t always easy. Embracing life is a bitch. And sadly some people are never going to be able to do it. While many are able to recover from their suicide attempts there are many who will go on to attempt again and again until they succeed. There are no clear or easy answers when it comes to suicide.

Man and woman in torture room

The Cat Lady is a horror game with fantastic and disturbing imagery. It has supernatural elements and its villains are some of the most demented individuals I have ever come across in a video game. Despite all of this the game is extremely well grounded. The fantastical elements help to enhance the exploration of themes such as suicide and depression, not distract from them. The Cat Lady is an example of game that can sincerely explore these issues without using them as a simple plot crutch. The game tries its best to express these experiences to the player. It is a game that presents depression and suicide without judging. A game that hopefully when finished has allowed the player to better understand these experiences.