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 screen
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.