When I was a small child I was in the Cub Scouts, the group you join before graduating to the Boy Scouts (which I never actually did even after even getting all my badges) and one of my favorite things to do was to sit around the campfire in the woods and listen to the adults tell ghost stories. Some of them were silly, designed for kids like us, but every now and then when our main leaders were away, some of the parents would tell us stories they probably weren’t supposed to about murderers, serial killers, and the things that go bump in the night. Maybe I was a twisted little kid because those were always my favorite.
Now that I think about it, that love for horror has stayed with me as I adore horror movies and survival horror games -- but what made those campfires so special wasn’t really the stories at all. It was the company. In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, an interactive narrative adventure from Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge, and Good Shepherd, it’s these types of story experiences that form the foundation of the entire journey. But along the way, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine tries so hard to be a “game” that it forgets what it actually does well.
The Living Page
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is immediately engaging with its stark, watercolor influenced canvases. Each of its scenes are beautifully hand-drawn with a dark, consistent art style. As you advance through the game you get to experience a multitude (hundreds) of different tales, all from various different points of view, that shed light on the struggles and advancements of society in Depression era America.
There’s a strong folklore flare to everything as you travel from city to city hitchhiking, catching trains, and traveling as a wandering vagabond. When you’re experiencing one of the game’s beautifully illustrated stories, there is very little animation in favor of static illustrations that feel like they could have been ripped directly from the pages of a graphic novel.
Between those moments though, when you’re actually tasked with exploring the game world and “playing” the game, is when Where the Water Tastes Like Wine starts to come apart at the seams a bit.
Read Me A Story
If Where the Water Tastes Like Wine had simply been a visual novel or interactive story with a branching narrative as I went from location to location, playing entirely inside the game’s menus, it’d had been a much better and more streamlined experience. Instead, between each of the vignettes, the developers boot you out to a janky 3D overworld with a dramatically different art style and sluggish controls.
At first I thought my game was glitching and didn’t load all of the textures, but no, it’s just supposed to look like that. This design decision is baffling to me because the actual stories themselves, with their exquisite voice overs, excellent writing, and interesting characters, are hampered by an obtuse, clunky, and uninteresting overworld that’s nothing more than padding to extend an already overly long journey. I craved more of the finely written content and less of the aimless wandering, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was determined on force-feeding me both.
Gamifying The Narrative
Never before have I played a game with such a strong vision for what it wanted to be (a collection of deeply personal tales of struggle and strife) that was simultaneously hampered by the fact that it tried too hard to be a video game.
And it’s a real shame because when you get past all of that and sit down with the amazing stories hiding beneath the layers of obscurity, you’d be hard-pressed to find better writing across the entire games industry. The voice acting is AAA-tier in quality with some fantastic music to back it up.
Honestly it’s just so frustrating that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t a visual novel or purely interactive narrative. It’d have been a better game to do less overall and instead double down on what it does well.