I travelled to Charlotte, where I met a man who predicted his death moments before it happened. I stumbled into a storm-weathered lighthouse atop sharp Maine cliffs and enjoyed cake with its keepers. And against the rivers of Maryland, I encountered a winged goat that shrieked like a banshee. In Dim Bulb’s Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, I am the cursed loser of a poker game, challenged to travel a semi-fictional America and stitch together a tapestry of stories. My journey is a lonely one, navigating an acrylic expanse stretching for miles toward a gradient horizon, littered with people and bustling with tales.
It’s a narrative adventure in the purest sense; a cycle of collecting and telling stories. I might discover a story in Philadelphia, tell it to someone outside New York, and hear it retold days later in Austin. The people that you meet will ask for specific types of stories; violent ones, scary ones or sad ones, among others. The idea makes sense from a gameplay perspective, but the way the stories are written and told doesn’t seem to suit this kind of categorisation. More often than not, the game would disagree with what my idea of a funny or uplifting story was. Get those choices right, though, and you’ll be rewarded with fragmented parts of each character’s personal story. These fragments come together into some truly fantastic period stories.
At the start of my journey, I came across a pair of burglars ransacking a house. Not wanting to get involved myself, I continued onward. Just outside New York, I encountered a wandering boy with a wide-brimmed hat and a smile to match. He asked me if I had any exciting stories, and I told him of the two robbers. He didn’t much care for that one, but asked for a few more before continuing on his own journey. Further down the highway and a few days later, I heard that same tale; embellished and exaggerated beyond recognition. It had become a Bonnie and Clyde retelling of a tense shootout between criminals and police; leagues beyond the quiet non-encounter I’d had.
It’s an elegant, subtle and constantly surprising system, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine commodifies and over-focuses the stories it tells. Folklore and mythology are a backdrop to and product of society, often a reflection of things we don’t usually think about or see. But here, they’re front-and-centre, the currency and crop of a game that has little else to offer. When everything you do is contextualised by storytelling, they start to bleed together.
The setting, both physical and temporal, plays a large role in the shape and subject of the stories. Characters talk of race and war, labour and love. Some are world-weary, road-weary and people-weary. Despite the obvious supernatural elements, this is a game very much interested in real political and interpersonal turmoils. It is, after all, a game about people. Even the music is of the time, an upbeat blend of folk, country and bluegrass. It’s not often that games can pull off vocals in their soundtracks, but this is up there with The Flame in the Flood. It’s tonally perfect, if a little overbearing at times.
Contributing to the enormously diverse library of characters is an equally diverse cast of writers. Gita Jackson, Bruno Dias, Austin Walker and countless more wrote encounters for the game, and the result is a wonderfully disparate tone that really compliments its scope and style. All of it is tied together by some fantastic voice work from the likes of Sting and Keythe Farley. Not all of the characters are memorable, but just enough of them stick to make it worthwhile.
The world, for all its detail and personality, falls oddly short of the writing, becoming little more than a path between stories where it should be a more active part of the journey. Light health and money mechanics forced me to rest and shop at the occasional city, but otherwise it’s the open road all the way. Walking isn’t the only option, though; hitch-hiking, train rides and hopping said trains are all bonus options for quicker (though occasionally more dangerous) travel.
As a digital storybook, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is exemplary. It’s colourful, diverse and evolves in a noticeably dynamic way. But as an interactive experience, it falls short in both gameplay and technical capability. The controls are stiff and slow, and I spent an awfully long time wrestling with the paper-thin whistling mini game that provides a small speed boost. Menus feel unresponsive and sluggish, often taking multiple seconds just to transition from one scene to the next. The camera is abysmal, rapidly swaying between too close to my character and too low to the ground to really see what’s ahead of me. For a game with wanderlust at its heart, it seems intent on not letting me look around. It’s a mess of problems that are hard to stomach given the limited scope of the game.
It also runs pretty terribly—rarely hitting 60 and often dropping below 30, even when looking at a blank stretch of land or out at sea. It’s a pretty game, but on an artistic level rather than a technical one. There’s no reason a game of this calibre should run so poorly. The seams of the world are often visible as I move, and an abundance of aliasing issues make some of the interaction prompts indistinguishable from one another.
In the end, the enjoyment you get out of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine depends on how willing you are to tolerate weak gameplay for the sake of great writing. The characters and stories are engrossing, but everything at their periphery is not only distracting, but actively gets in the way. Upcoming patches will likely fix the technical issues, but there are larger gameplay problems at work here.