Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an odd little slice of American folklore from indie developers Dim Bulb Games. It’s a game built reverently around the power of storytelling and its endearing qualities as well as its transient relationship with the truth. As an actual game it doesn’t always hit the mark, but as a sort of animated novella it successfully paints its bleak post-war portrait with a deft hand.
The Aussie Millions looks a little different this year
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes place in post-World War I America. After losing a game of poker to a scary looking character known as the Dire Wolf, you find yourself in his service and are tasked to traipse the length and breadth of the country seeking out stories in order to please him. If the premise sounds strange, it’s because it is, and much of your first couple of hours will likely be spent scratching your head as you try to figure out what’s truly required of you and why you’re doing what you’re doing. The directions you have are intentionally vague and esoteric, and really what the game wants you to do is discover it without it having to tell you what it’s all about.
Stripped of skin and flesh, you are essentially the Dire Wolf’s wandering bard, collecting stories from every nook and cranny of the US, with the aim to then retell these stories to special characters you find at campfires to get them to reveal more about their own personal tales. Mostly the stories come in the form of brief but cleverly written snippets, giving passing glimpses of the horror, mystery, wonder and woe that pervade the land. Most of these stories you are able to actively participate in, changing their outcome and general vibe when you retell the story later on down the track. The more stories you collect, the better able you are to give the all-important campfire characters the specific sort of tale they seek such that they’ll open up to you and unload their tasty truth bombs.
After the initial confusion as to what to do subsides, the gameplay and how you interact with the world ends up being fairly simple. Basically you drag your skeletal form and hobo bundle across the land looking for icons that usually represent a new story to listen to. Sometimes you might hear a story you’ve already heard, but with certain embellishments that make it a more tantalising tale to regale your campfire friends with. There is also a barebones survival element to the proceedings that sees you having to manage hunger, money and sleep, but all things considered it feels unnecessary. Ultimately death has little to no consequence so there’s no need to fear of kicking the bucket while you’re on the road because you haven’t eaten or slept for days.
While I genuinely loved hearing the multitude of stories both minor and major, I can’t say I enjoyed physically traversing the land to get to these stories. Your default walking speed is painfully slow, however you can whistle a tune to walk faster as long as you can match some simple on screen prompts. Even with all the whistling (which in itself quickly goes from being a novelty to an annoyance), the walking speed is still just not fast enough, not to mention the fact that on my humble rig the whistling tended to make the framerate inexplicably drop into the single digits. In the beginning the areas are packed with stories and campfires, but as you near the end of your journey things and become a little sparser, and the slow traversal across what is essentially a fairly barren landscape becomes a tedious chore. This is unfortunately exacerbated by
Skeletor quit his job as a megalomaniacal villain to pursue the life of a travelling bard
If we all sang about genitalia in perfect three-part harmony the world would be a better place
the game’s soundscape, which, despite the fact that it features some excellent and original country ditties (reminiscent of timeless classic Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?), is repetitive in the extreme. Over the ten hours I spent with the game I feel like I heard the same song and its subtle variations hundreds of times, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t start to grate on my nerves.
Some would argue (the Dire Wolf himself especially) that it’s more about the journey than the end goal, but if you’re expecting some sort of revelation at the end of Satan’s rainbow then you might find yourself disappointed
I sold my soul to the devil to be able to play Wonderwall
Tragedy does not spare the young
The strength of the writing does alleviate the more tedious aspects of the game’s design, but this strength unfortunately does not translate to the game’s ending, which feels weak and unsatisfying. Some would argue (the Dire Wolf himself especially) that it’s more about the journey than the end goal, but if you’re expecting some sort of revelation at the end of Satan’s rainbow then you might find yourself disappointed. The game is also guilty of becoming a little easy towards the end, as you’ll have all the bangers you need to consistently wow your campfire audiences without much effort, which negates the need to experiment with telling new stories or even collecting more.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an interesting experiment in indie gaming that succeeds by the strength of its writing even when it falls short in the execution of some of its gameplay. The authentic early 20th century American folklore is laden with charm, and if you can look past the game’s shortcomings you’ll discover a rich setting with many a wild tale to tell.
Reviewed on PC | Review code supplied by publisher