Wandering through the countryside, you hear whispers of devastation, unemployment, and dust storms that ravage people’s homes. Other moments bring you courage in your tired journey, as you listen to a worker’s hopeful song or watch hundreds of butterflies flutter overhead. Whether they’re tragic, surreal, or humorous, each of these occasions are just as captivating as the next as you watch them grow into fantastical tales told around a campfire.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is an adventure game about sharing stories. After striking a deal with the devil, you’re cursed to walk the lands of Depression-era America as a skeleton and collect the tales of its people. Both melancholy and thoughtful, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine paints a fascinating historical picture embellished by folklore, where the population is caught in dire times that cloud the American Dream.
You spend your time walking from state to state visiting small villages and big cities that bustle with life. You can hitchhike or take a train to make travel easier, but this is still a slow-paced experience. That isn’t a bad thing; the pacing is a perfect thematic fit, and it makes for a pensive experience that slowly provides twists and turns with every intriguing discovery. You visit rural areas often, finding interactive short stories in old mills, farms, and winding paths. Each takes only a minute or two to complete, telling you a strange tale about a camera that brings death to those it photographs or a simple story about a boy and the bond he shares with his dog.
Every short story you encounter is told with a beautiful illustration, and a gruff narrator helps build the scene. These stories present themselves as tiny text adventures, and as you continue to venture out, they become embellished as word spreads. It’s always amusing to see what form an original story takes next and how much further it is from the truth, as though you’re playing a game of broken telephone. For example, two men mistaking themselves for brothers later becomes ludicrously misunderstood as eight identical men from eight different mothers falsely believing that they’re siblings.
You also have agency in these tales, and a story’s direction can change its tone completely. Helping a man find his lost glasses but choosing to steal his wallet in the process, for example, can turn an optimistic story dismal.
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The tone of these narratives becomes important when you encounter other travelers and sit by a nighttime campfire with them. This is the crux of Where The Water Taste Like Wine’s gameplay. Your collected stories act as currency in a series of interactions that progressively unfold through different chapters. This is a compelling concept that requires both keen planning and insight. You equip specific stories beforehand, and then during conversation, you choose them from a selection of tarot cards that have themed categories like authority and family.
Every character wants something different, which brings a welcome variety. A young homeless boy abandoned by his family loves action-filled anecdotes, whereas a somber coal miner may prefer a lighter tale to remind him that hope still exists. My only gripe with these tales is that you can’t listen to the vignettes again once they’re completed, and with over 200 to collect, I sometimes forgot a story’s message or tone.
These fireside interactions, however, make up my favorite moments. The goal is to get characters to open up so that you can collect their stories too. They begin to trust you if you tell them the tales they wish to hear. In their ending chapters, characters’ illustrations evolve into something symbolic, such as a priest struggling with his faith seen trapped in an angel’s headlock. Others, like an African-American Pullman porter facing an identity crisis, is obscured behind crooked branches that hold white masks. I curiously awaited these transformations, eagerly wondering how these gorgeous artworks would portray a person’s plight in a creative way.
Though much of Where The Water Taste Like Wine’s focus is storytelling, it also has some light survival mechanics. If you’re not careful, you can meet an untimely death by overexerting yourself or letting your health get too low. Certain stories may physically injure you, and hopping a train without paying can leave you beaten by a cop. Accessing train stations in big cities requires cash, which you can acquire from odd jobs or sometimes by luck. Managing these needs and funds is a small but engaging addition, immersing you into the world and adding bigger stakes to decision-making.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a surprisingly beefy adventure game, offering over 20 hours of content and a treasure trove of stories that never cease to entertain. I laughed, reminisced about my own life, and enjoyed meeting the colorful cast of characters who opened up to me as time went on. Whether I was reminding travelers of their worth or offering an ear so they could share their sorrows, I felt as though I brought them peace in an almost spiritual fashion. Like a Grim Reaper collecting souls, I instead collected the essence of short stories, to help others struggling with demons find their way. It makes for not just a captivating experience, but an empowering one I won’t soon forget.