At the beginning of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, an anthropomorphic wolf voiced by Sting tells you to travel around the depression-era United States collecting stories and telling some of your own. With a premise like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine would live and die by the quality of its writing, but that’s not the case. Instead, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine fails because it gamifies the concept while losing focus on the storytelling.
Your main goal is to get sixteen complete stories from travellers you meet at campfires dotted around the mainland United States. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine recruited some solid writing talent for the campfire stories, including Austin Walker of Waypoint and Gita Jackson of Kotaku. There’s certainly no issue with the quality of writing in these campfire sections. The stories are all deeply personal and often as sad as you might expect for an era known as the depression.
I wanted to hear every individual’s story, but the process of extracting those stories was often a chore. You can’t listen to the story just by asking nicely. You have to tell the other party stories that fit their current mood and in order to do that you must gather short stories from random encounters across the US.
Initially, the short stories you collect on your travels are interesting enough to keep you engaged. I stumbled across two women arrested for selling stolen goods and two lovers living happily together in a lighthouse. These short stories often start off simple until they get passed down from place to place and warped in the retelling. The story about the women who got arrested morphs into a tale of an exciting police chase and the story about the lovers becomes a crazy myth of a lighthouse that only shines its light when it’s occupied by two lovers.
If all of the short stories were like this I would be enthusiastically recommending Where the Water Tastes Like Wine but—as you can probably tell—I’m not. There are over 200 stories in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine; clearly far too many to maintain any degree of quality. While some of the stories become more fascinating and outlandish with each retelling, far too many of them are changed in the least interesting of ways. For example, you stumble across two long-lost brothers who happen to reunite in a random street after thirty years. After a couple of retellings, the story simply becomes about brothers reuniting after fifty years. For far too many of the stories, you aren’t told what the changes are. You’re simply given information such as “that’s not how I remember it, but it’s certainly more exciting.” You’d think a game focused on stories would know the basic theory of “show don’t tell.”
Collecting the short stories is a chore because of the terrible world map that your skeleton protagonist travels (slowly) across. Art is in the eye of the beholder and all that, but I’d love to know what beholder thinks this map is anything other than hideous. It looks like something that was thrown together over a weekend and somehow, despite the complete lack of textures and slow movement speed, it suffers from regular frame rate drops.
A major part of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is the experience of travelling across the country, so it’s understandable that you can’t just fast travel everywhere, however every option at your disposal is tedious. Walking is incredibly slow, even when you speed it up with a whistling mini-game that awkwardly makes you take your hand off the mouse to use the arrow keys. You can speed things up slightly by hitchhiking and hoping a car will take you were you want to go (it won’t) or taking a train that may or may not be going to a city you want to visit (it won’t).
Even once you have the required stories, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine can be overly frustrating because it won’t let you focus on the stories themselves and instead tries to make everything into a game. Before sitting down at the campfire, you need to select which stories will be in your “inventory.” There’s a maximum of three per vague category and twelve categories in total. You won’t know what type of stories each person wants to hear, although some of them do seem to favor certain types. You can’t look at the stories again after you’ve collected them, so I hope you can remember the finer points of over 200 stories or it’s going to become a guessing game.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine contains charming stories, wonderful illustrations and voice-acting that fits the game’s slow-paced and relaxing nature. And this is where the budget ran out. I have to assume that after paying Sting, the writers, and the illustrators, there was no money left to design the overworld and flesh out the short stories. This leaves Where the Water Tastes Like Wine being half of a great game that requires you to wade through the weaker parts to get to the good content. It’s an eight to ten hour game when it would have been better as a four to five hour one.