PAX West: Where The Water Tastes Like Wine Tells a Sorrowful American Folktale

By Mark Delaney, 12 days ago
Amid all the bright lights and loud noises of PAX West sat a quietly confident booth in the corner of the show devoted to games published by Good Shepherd Entertainment, a small publisher focused on helping unique independent games come to fruition. Stacks of hay and a faux campfire painted a scene unlike anything else in Seattle last weekend. The game was Where The Water Tastes Like Wine and the hopeful promise of such a name is meant to underscore the themes of this somber American folktale.

You could most closely put Wine in the adventure game category, although it's hard to liken it to anything else in the genre. I was told by a representative for the game that it does have some uplifting moments, but the overwhelming sense I got from the game is one of sadness, with tales of the fabled American Dream seeming to be just that: a story we tell ourselves. In my 30 minutes with the game, I embarked on a cross-country trek in search of more stories, each of them depicting different characters but most of them sharing an encompassing feeling of troubled pasts and bleak futures.

wine

The demo began in a bar where I bought into an ongoing poker game. One by one the table cleared around me until only the shadowy character across the table and I remained. The stakes grew higher and higher. Eventually, to call his bet, I had to go all in, betting my soul as I understood it although the game never outright said so. Cutting my palm and dripping the blood onto the prize pool, I was still confident as the narration and folksy 2D art revealed my promising cards in hand, a royal straight flush with an Ace high.

Through some unexplained magic, my cards were swapped with those of a tarot deck, and I was left down and out. The mysterious character lit a match and emerged from the shadows, revealing his supernatural appearance — a wolf with the cunning and wit to beat me at a game I had all but won. I was defeated and, to hold up my end of the bargain, he tasked me with collecting stories from the people across the new frontier of the United States. Stripped of my flesh, I began to embark on that quest in search of the only currency that then mattered: tales from other travellers.

The game's emphasis on these tales is where the heart of the gameplay, and the heart of the game as a whole, are found. Spanning a map of the entire US, I began in Maine, made my way down through New England and I was midway through Pennsylvania before my demo ended. There was plenty more I didn't see, especially as I left behind the small states of the northeast. Along the way I could explore as much as I liked in these 3D sections, switching back to 2D art and dialogue whenever I began a story moment with other travellers. 14 different main characters are strewn about the country and the end game is for players to hear their complete tales. They don't give up those tales so easily, however. They barter stories for stories.

Storytelling gameplay is presented in a 2D style with light touches like hair fluttering or fires flickering.Storytelling gameplay is presented in a 2D style with light touches like hair fluttering or fires flickering.

For players to learn those intimate details of their lives, they must give them something of equal value. That's why aside from these 14 characters, the map is also complete with countless smaller moments. I overheard a pair of thieves plotting a robbery and found a group of bandits who ditched their stolen violin and left it in my possession. There were two long lost siblings who found each other only to realize each of them was not the person the other thought he was.

Stories are categorized into different feelings and themes, spread out in a tarot card menu. Tales of love, laughter, terror, and others all became my form of payment. When I happened upon any of those main characters, they would request types of stories. If I had what they wanted, they would open up to me with tales of their own. After several trades, the sun would come up and our interactions concluded. If I was successful, they'd tell me where I could find them next and at any point I could visit them again, although it would be smartest to first accumulate more folktales from others.

As I travelled the country, some of my own firsthand accounts came back to me, changed, often made more fantastical in a national game of Telephone we were all playing. Stories took on new life, small details were blown up to be more remarkable. Folk music played over all my travels and the singular narrator contorted his voice to mimic the many different characters I met. It all felt like a real campfire tale just as intended, or I guess a series of many of them. It's an interesting proposition for gameplay to boil down to story collection. It's why I say calling it an adventure game both feels closest to what you'd call Wine and still it's maybe not quite fitting. The gameplay of matching mood for mood, gathering tales over the course of a century of America's manifest destiny is unlike any other game, but in the current independent gaming landscape such a daring premise has never been more welcome.

Exploration plays out on a 3D map of the US with states and major cities marked and plenty of sites to see.Exploration plays out on a 3D map of the US with states and major cities marked and plenty of sites to see.

It seems clear after playing the game that its title is meant to capture that often phony promise of the American Dream. Stories of immigrants, the destitute, or the outcasted made up a great deal of the small sampling of stories I saw in my playing time. Even in the surreal, seemingly supernatural version of early United States, the game seems to say that there probably isn't truly any place where the water tastes like wine. It's a false promise, a marketing slogan for dreamers who have come to the US to trade their rags for riches. Maybe Wine offers a happy ending, but in my time with it I found the happiness came from only those who decided to make due with what little they had. The people I met were often too busy living day to day to stop and acknowledge the concessions they'd made to the burgeoning nation that had reneged on its guarantee.

If that's too bleak for you, Wine may not paint with a palette you appreciate. I found it to be a refreshing experience and a reminder of why indie games matter so much. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine would never be produced by an EA or an Ubisoft or another major industry player. The game's production is led by Johnnemann Nordhagen, one of the founders of Fullbright, the team behind Gone Home. He was the sole programmer on that game and Wine is his follow-up with Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge. The game is being produced by a very small team and if their credits look even a bit longer than you'd expect it's because each of the 14 main characters you can meet are penned by a different writer.

The intimate stories like those within Wine only have homes because small teams or sometimes even singular creators now have outlets through which they can bring their ideas to life. That's to be cherished, I think. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is due on PC this year and there are plans to bring the game to consoles some time after that, although the studio isn't ready to put a window on that release. Because of that, it may be a while before you see it on TA again. If you'd like to read more on the game in the meantime, check out the official website.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.