Loneliness, The Open Road, And 'Where the Water Tastes Like Wine'
'Where the Water Tastes Like Wine' is a very pretty, often lonesome trek across a land of myths and tall tales.
Disclaimer: I know a number of people who worked on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, including Laura Michet, who was my manager at Zam, and a number of other friends and colleagues. Waypoint's EIC, Austin Walker, did contract work on the game in 2016. Austin has recused himself from the editing process on this piece as well.
Basically, you should take everything I'm about to write with a grain of salt!
In 2009, I went on a cross-country road trip across America, and it was one of the best things I did in my entire twenties. It was with a guy I was dating at the time, and some close friends. We didn’t last very long as a couple, but that didn’t matter—I still have those memories.
I briefly stepped into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I got to see Chicago, where we checked out the Field Museum and the Willis tower, and ate pizza and made out in a rainstorm. We trekked around Grand Teton and camped in Yellowstone National Park. We stayed in Deadwood, South Dakota, where the hotel clerk had never seen a Rhode Island driver’s license before. We hiked around the badlands and took bad dinosaur pose pictures. We told scary stories late at night driving through Wyoming, and we totally hit a raccoon (I’m still sad about that, and it scared the shit out of me.) We hiked and went on runs and explored tiny towns in the desert with populations under 1000. As an east coast kid, I had never seen most of non-coastal America at this point, so it was all quite exotic to me. I loved that trip.
We ate at a Burger King in Wisconsin along with a bottle of wine and some fine cheese we picked up, dining with paper BK crowns on our heads—young and dopey, we had the time of our lives.
I've been thinking about that trip a lot this past week, as I played Where the Water Tastes Like Wine—an interactive fiction-adjacent game out this week by Dim Bulb Studios. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of my transamerican trek: It's a game about collecting stories and getting to know the people you meet on the road. But it is also far lonelier than the experience I shared with those long-ago friends, in those faraway towns.
Stories—the telling of stories, searching for stories, categorizing stories—are the fabric of WTWTLW. Most of the game involves wandering around a giant map, searching for good stories from salt of the earth types (from all walks of life), and re-telling them to the people you find.
Stories are the fabric of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine.
If that sounds abstract, it kind of is: you are a lone traveler—a low-poly, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton—that walks around, or hops trains, encountering events on the board. Maybe you find a creepy mill, or an old lighthouse, or a figure camped by the road. You interact with these features, if you want to, and that brings you into a 2D vignette with story text and some choices to make.
Sometimes you encounter big cities, and you have a few choices here. You can look for work as a day laborer. Or talk to folks on the streets. Sometimes you can even afford a proper train ticket to another hub, and go see folks out there.
Character events are a bit meatier, and allow you to use that collection of stories like a deck of cards. When you encounter a special character, they’ll tell you a little something about their life. Then they’ll want to hear a yarn of your own: maybe they want a thrilling story, or a spooky one. You choose from your own selection, hoping to match their mood. If its a fit, you get them to open up and tell you a little more. But if you misfire, their own tale will be a mystery until a later date, if you encounter them and try again.
I love the idea of a game that is basically a story collect-athon. Instead of baubles or loot or ammo, though, the stories are what you’re here for, not a means to an end. And they shift and change in the retelling. You may first encounter a weird lady on the street in the northeast, but the tale will travel on its own until its exaggerated—she was dead the whole time! A ghost lady! Stories will “level up” on their own in this way, and that’s always fun to see.
There’s a romantic air to the whole thing. The aesthetic is rough-hewn and rustic. The lone wanderer leads a life of adventure, as no two days—or stories—are the same. America itself is so vast, so full of excitement—and sorrow, and love, and loss, and freaky, scary things—that it defies the categorization you do with more self-contained narrative units.
But it’s very lonely on this road.
I think that’s very much part of the point, but I couldn’t shake the weight of it. This is a disjointed experience because traveling alone is fundamentally incongruous: You meet people and hear their stories, yes. You form something like relationships with the major characters, and get them to open up a bit, sure.
But then you’re once again on your own, in the solitude where you spend most of your time.
The game is aware of this, to be sure. In one exchange with Cass, a young tramp who travels with their dogs, they exclaim that the land itself is a kind of companion. “Maybe things are so depressed ‘cause folks lost sight of that” they muse.
But Cass, importantly, has their dogs to keep them company. They aren’t truly alone in this world. For me, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine felt different. Sometimes being alone in its worlds was freeing, but other times, most of the time, I felt almost crushed by it.
Maybe some of that is just my psychology: I like to think I’m a pretty capable individual, but I scoff somewhat at the “rugged loner” archetype. Everyone gets sick. Everyone has needs. We’re all social animals that need, on some level, other people around. It feels weird and empty not to have that. To travel alone at these distances, for this long.
I don’t see any of the folks I went on that trip with any more. I don’t really talk to any of them, and some of them, I really only knew because of the trip. I knew those folks for two weeks of my life, we created a lot of stories and memories in our brief together, and we’ve gone our separate paths. But I’ll always share it with those people. Knowing that—whether they're in my life or not—somehow, keeps the memories sweet.
Memories turn into stories, becoming, I suppose, the stories we tell ourselves everyday, the things that make us, us. In WTWTLW, you meet characters and you tell them stories, get to know theirs. And yeah, people are collections of stories. Many of them complex, or not entirely true, or complicated to the point of being impossible to understand. We have dim understandings of other people, and our pliable narratives and unreliable memories are the best we have at explaining our worlds and minds to one another.
To share our experiences and be less alone.