Stories are powerful things. They can be educators in morality or living correctly. They can provide warnings for behaviour patterns and hidden dangers. They can comfort us, scare us, love us and make us feel like the world is a mysterious and beautiful place. Stories are powerful things. So when a game called Where the Water Tastes Like Wine comes over from PC to Xbox One, all while promising a game about storytelling, I just had to open my ears and listen. So gather around the campfire – are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
The story goes something like this. You’re a drifter – a wanderer of the night – and you find yourself somewhere in America in the early 1930s. Or it could be anytime, in fact. You join a poker game with strange shadowy beings in the darkness. You have the best hand ever and the pot is split between you and an enigmatic figure with glowering eyes. You have no money left when the gentleman raises, but he wants something better than money; he wants a blood contract with you. He tasks you to travel the country and collect stories from every corner. You need to collect the sad ones, the ghostly ones, the adventurous ones, before bringing them back to him in order to see the contract fulfilled.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine puts you literally on a map of America as we watch your skeleton figure with a knapsack on its back slowly walk across the map looking for stories while visiting towns and cities. You can hitchhike on the famous autoroutes around America, and even ride a train legally by making payment. Unless you prefer to sneak onto the boxcars, that is. You have needs like hunger and money, which you fulfil by begging or looking for work in the cities. But what exactly do you do? Because that is the main question.
When overseeing things on the map, you will see icons next to the buildings, woods or even towns, and by clicking on the icon you will be treated to a story. The game then gives you the options of a “choose your own adventure” type dialogue tree which helps you determine the course the narrative takes in each story. You then place this story into your memory bank, so to speak, which takes us to the main purpose of the game… campfire stories.
Throughout Where the Water Tastes Like Wine you are left to look out for campfires dotted around the world, each of which holds a traveller of the world, just like you. Each of these has a story to tell, but it is you they are after, requesting you to explain several stories through the night. They might ask for a tale that will make them laugh, or a ghost story or something exciting. It’s then up to to you to work through your collection of gathered tales and explain the traveller the narrative. If they like it and find it appropriate they will tell you where they are heading next and this will open up the next chapter of their lives. Each traveller has three specific chapters you need to reveal, with your goal being to unlock them all, head back to the poker player and repay your debt. Simple eh?
This is a game and an experience which will require you to grab all the tales that you hear; all the tales. But I fear that won’t appeal to many, and there’s a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that some gamers won’t even get as far as the first few campsites in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It all depends on how you like your games served, I guess – if you’re up for narrative heavy exposition, this is for you. Gameplay-wise it’s all very simple, working as an experience that focuses on exploration and discovery. If you don’t like hearing narrative or reading a ton of text, then you’re not going to get much out of this experience. It has a very deliberate slow pace about it too, and whilst you can speed things up a little by whistling along with the soundtrack, it’s never going to be fast paced.
It has to be said though that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine comes with a brilliant hand-drawn style in its illustrations of the narratives; much like the pictures you might find in a golden oldie novel, or a well established RPG from yesteryear. Without a word of a lie, some of these images are stunning. The main experience played out on the map is interesting too, well done with a very simplified version of America still seeming huge in scale.
And then we get to the soundtrack, and that in itself is a mixture of original music that changes due to the part of the country you might find yourself in. When I was in the Chicago area it was more jazz-based, whilst over in Arizona there was a Mexican vibe to the tracks. It’s all superbly executed, but you certainly won’t want to get stuck on the same track for too long; you’ll be humming it for days to come. The voiceover work is of a very high standard too, even featuring the dulcet tones of the one and only Sting, who plays the Direwolf who puts you on your quest. Hearing the main narrator, voiced by Keythe Farley, deliver the main storyline is so comforting and rewarding; it becomes the heart and soul of the game. The other supporting roles are also voiced with such exquisite skill that big plaudits should go to the person who pulled this cast together.
In conclusion and there is a brilliant game to be hard here, one all about stories. It’s original, and I can guarantee you will have never played anything like this in your gaming life. But in turn that comes with some negatives and it’s certainly pointing to a niche market that isn’t helped by the slow, plodding gameplay. But if you’re a fan of that and wish to choose your own adventure then you can’t go wrong by visiting Where the Water Tastes Like Wine on Xbox One.