Some people say you should never let anything get in the way of a good story. That’s a motto which carries across to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine quite nicely.
As a travelling wayfarer, you are tasked with wandering young American shores collecting stories from the unlikeliest of sources, then spreading them around and watching as they evolve into something completely different. For instance, a tame yarn about a seagull hovering around the same spot in a local town suddenly morphs into the creature being some kind of guardian angel and protector of the people, watching over their every move. Or an incredible genetic coincidence suddenly becomes this ridiculous family tree saga of hilarious proportions.
The foundation of the stories is based on a series of events your Wayfarer gets caught up in and the decisions you make during that time. It’s up to you to establish whether it’s a story about hope, sadness, misfortune or something else entirely. Once you have the core of the story, it can then be used in conversation with other wanderers over a campfire to gain their trust and learn more about them.
It is both your blessing and curse to be this master story-collector. After losing a poker game to Sting – still annoyed about that – you essentially forfeit your soul to take on this burden, destined to roam lands and cross borders with only a little knapsack over your shoulder for small comforts. As you walk, your heath will gradually decrease, you’ll tire, and eventually you’ll have to start spending money in order to replenish both. Allow even one of them to deplete and you die.
This can be done in any of the states by heading into a restaurant and grabbing yourself a bite to eat or a hot coffee. Money doesn’t grow on trees though, so you’ll need to work to earn some coins, like take part in a spot of busking with a travelling band, or holding a dog for its owner while stood outside waiting for them. Likewise, you can also help out other people in need if you come across someone worse off than you. All the while you’re collecting stories, learning more about the world and waiting to chew someone’s ear off with it the next chance you get.
There’s a lot of walking in WTWTLW, sometimes to the point of feeling aimless, but the game does make it a bit easier for you to get around providing you have the patience, resolve and money. For one thing, you can hold your arm out at any point to hitch hike with passing cars, hoping one of them will eventually stop for you. Alternatively, you can hop on a train and get to one of its primary destinations, though it will cost you.
Some of the games’ most satisfying moments come from the trail, though, especially when you cross borders and take in the progressive changes in music. The beautiful score from BAFTA Award Winning Ryan Ike is succinct and gorgeous, with a excellent mix of toe-tapping beats, soft ballads, and evocative lyrics that stick in your head long after you’re finished playing. In a game that’s mostly about reading text and walking around, Ike’s score gives WTWTLW genuine soul, complimenting the experience perfectly. The changes feel natural and the seamless execution genuinely brings the map to life.
Fortunately, narrative isn’t a problem either as the writing is absolutely first class. In addition to some respected and well known games journalists, there is plenty of other great talent involved, their words shining through in the characterisation of other wayfarers you meet along the way. WTWTLW is essentially a story about stories and the evolution of the folk tale, and the way that each short story is crafted to be this flexible and dynamic journey continues to be a source of amusement, fascination, and intrigue throughout the game.
All that said, I did feel as if the concept of WTWTLW perhaps sounds, and even feels, better than the execution. This definitely won’t be for everyone, even though it’s a wholly cathartic, and moving experience, really driven along by some fantastic voice acting. Yet it’s a game that feels best played in short blasts. It can drag and feel repetitive at times. Other times it can feel a bit aimless, drifting without direction. And it’s not helped when you feel as if conversations with characters go around in circles. They’ll say they’re in the mood for the same type of story over and over and it’s frustrating because you’ve got this massive collection to choose from. By picking, say, a sad story when they wanted to laugh, the wayfarer won’t open up to you, and you’ve lost a chance to connect with them on a deeper level. That can be frustrating as you might have just picked up a fantastic horror story you really like and are eager to see how it spreads, but are forced to keep it in the bank for another time. A story has the best chance of growing by the telling if it really resounds with the wayfarer who first hears it.
Graphically, it’s also a bit of a mixed bag. The still images used to illustrate a story as well as the state you’re in are stunning. The artists capture facial expressions perfectly, and the tone lovingly goes hand-in-hand with all other aspects. Coupled with the hand-drawn aesthetic of the travellers, the game really bares its soul to you and is at its most beautiful. The 3D travelling sequences inbetween, however, are a bit divisive.
The shadow effects of clouds passing by and the sun rising look dazzling, while showing off the natural day and night cycle present throughout. And when you’re crossing borders, the suitable change in conditions to coincide with the music is genuinely masterful and so brilliantly done. It shows the intelligence of the system that has been incorporated here and the flexibility of the engine powering it. Yet sometimes the sky and surrounding environments can appear pixelated and drab, and when you get up close to certain surfaces, the character is prone to some clipping issues, causing the scenery to break up a bit. Also, some icons above certain locations can be difficult to make out even when zoomed up close, with it sometimes being a case of pot-luck what kind of scenario you’re going to walk into.
It’s a game that spoke to me, though. Personally, I felt various connections through the sentiments, gestures and messages scattered throughout. It might have been the final sentence in a story, or a throwaway comment about an individual’s state of mind and the struggles they’ve been through. It’s as heart-wrenching as it is inspiring, and every time I picked it up to play, at some point I was captivated. Whether it was a story that surprised me, or uncovering a new state, learning something surprising about my characters and the wanderers he meets.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a special, sometimes magical experience. You won’t have played anything quite like it, and you probably won’t see the like of it again. It’s doesn’t have the perfect formula and you’ll sometimes find your attention wavering, maybe to the point of wondering how or where else these mechanics could fit. But for me, that’s what’s so important about what’s been crafted here. At times, WTWTLW feels – much like Gone Home did when it first released – that it could be opening up a bigger conversation on the future of game development. In a way, if you consider its overarching concept, perhaps that’s a truly fitting legacy.
Whichever way you look at it, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is often understated, occasionally flawed, but beautifully written, well sounding poetry. One of the bravest, most unique independent experiences out there.
+ Fantastic writing and characterisation
+ Gorgeous hand-drawn art
+ One of the best soundtracks in any game
+ Excellent cast and voice-acting
– 3D graphics can be a bit hit and miss
– Characters overly favour the same stories
– Can feel a bit repetitive in longer sessions
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
8 out of 10
Tested on PC