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.
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.
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.
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.