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Where the Water Tastes Like Wine - the Wolf holding tarot cards Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge/Good Shepherd Entertainment

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Where the Water Tastes Like Wine celebrates storytelling but loses the plot

Stories are worth more than money on this adventure

Life is a collection of stories: factual and fictional, our own and each other’s. We gather up thousands of these throughout our time, constantly accumulating memories and secondhand tales.

What’s just as important as stories themselves is telling them. An experience worth committing to memory is one part of the process; sharing it cements it and its value, and gives it the power to evolve over time. We may tend to think of our memories as fixed and finite, but as soon as we deem a story worth repeating, we set it free to be changed.

Telling stories is an inextricable part of our lives, and that’s at the heart of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, the debut project from developer Dim Bulb Games and a group of writers well-known throughout the gaming industry. (Names include Waypoint’s Austin Walker, narrative designer Cara Ellison and critic Leigh Alexander.) It’s a game in which your travels across the American expanse are driven by what you encounter along the way, as much as they are by your need to recount those experiences for the fellow storytellers you meet.

The rub is that, while building up a bank of memories is a pleasure, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine gets bogged down by an impulse to make this game less of a gorgeous, interactive storybook and more of ... well, a game. Its greatest success is in capturing the wonderful, unpredictable nature of unraveling the moments that comprise our lives. Where the game fails isn’t in its individual stories, but in what becomes of them: pieces in obtuse, transactional conversations, where experiences are reduced to progression tools.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine - an encounter with a mysterious creature in a wheelbarrow Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge/Good Shepherd Entertainment

Playing as an anonymous traveler, you hitchhike across America to find the place where the water ... y’know. A bizarre run-in with a talking wolf spurs your journey on, as his vague recollection of this foretold place demands to be further defined. From there, you crisscross the country from East Coast to West Coast and back again; in a sense, the direction you take matters, but there is little guidance on which direction that may be. The most important thing is to stop by as many houses, train stations and other highlighted spots on the map as you can, investigating each one to ensure that you leave with some kernel of a memory — all narrated by the wolf himself, as voiced by Sting. Listen: I dig the guy, but I could only take so much dramatic, slow-paced reading of the on-screen text. It becomes overbearing as you accumulate more and more miles on your journey; I don’t think I missed anything by shutting it off.

Coupled with a folksy, Oregon Trail-like feel, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s freewheeling journey evokes a time when the only way to see more of the world was to go out there. Walking (or taking a train, or catching a ride with a driver on the highway) from home to any place in the States is slow-paced, but it doesn’t drag. There are so many colorful characters to stumble upon and interact with — through action and dialogue choices — that you’ll want to be patient with the expansive landscape.

I still think fondly of the girl with a basket full of kittens, for example, and the boy who stowed away on his dad’s trip, despite being commanded to stay home; I mourned for the mysterious woman with the yellow ribbon who, as I discovered long after I first encountered her, had died. And these are the tamest of the many eerie things hidden in America’s nooks. Encountering new people can also expand these stories, either because the tales have migrated throughout the nation and evolved in the telling, or because you’ve acquired new details to fill them out. It’s a smart nod to how storytellers always adapt, not repeat, experiences in their own renditions — changing the life of the story, just as it changes your own life.

It helps that there’s a storybook quality to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine on a visual level. The fantastic art attached to each encounter and major location you visit across the country looks as if it were crafted for a classic adventure novel. A washed-out color palette gives the journey a depressed undertone, but it never strays far from whimsy. The 3D overworld is comparatively less to behold; it’s far less detailed. Thankfully, the beautiful illustrations awaiting you with every character and place you come across only further encourage you to seek them out.

Better yet, taking your time to gather these experiences has quantitative value: Your money and stamina are replenished by which dialogue choices you make within a story and, subsequently, by which version of the tale you end up with. You can then take those funds to travel farther away or further refill your energy to trudge forward. But stories also are turned into objects in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s most crucial parts: its chapter-based sit-downs with fellow world-weary travelers. These people want you to share your experiences so that they’ll feel comfortable sharing a tiny piece of one of their own. In the process, they reduce your meaningful memories to trading cards, not stories to be retold over and over.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine - one of the fellow travelers, Rose Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge/Good Shepherd Entertainment

The game highlights an array of somber folks on the world map, and each interaction with them opens with a chapter title and author. If the other people you encounter are the stars of their own short stories, these highlighted characters are living in a novel. Although they encourage you to follow them on their own travels so you can hear each chapter of their long-winded tales, it’s hard to feel compelled to do so. Their stories are much less affecting than the ones you personally encounter, so teasing them out comes off as a counterintuitive endeavor.

This is also the part of the game where the thematic material of each story you collect comes into play. Every story fits into a tarot card-style category, like “the future” or “death” or “love.” If you’re just playing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine for the pleasure of its stories, then you won’t notice or care about how your choices dictate which category your story falls into. But when you end up talking to the people the game forces you to have longer conversations with, you may run into trouble if your collection of experiences doesn’t match up with the stories these travelers want to hear.

An older woman may ask to hear something about “the spirit,” a vague identifier that could describe any number of experiences you’ve had. It’s up to you to figure out which one will satisfy her request — essentially turning these memories into impersonal puzzle solutions. You must choose the stories you share from a wheel, with just three of your experiences slotted into a corresponding thematic category. This gives you a limited selection of what you can offer to this story-starved woman. And sharing them is frustrating, in that it eliminates the storytelling that made them worth remembering in the first place; every story you choose to give to her is only named, not actually retold in-game. If you fail to meet her needs once, you’re fine, but you’re only given a handful of chances to win her over. If you don’t, you won’t get the bit of her story that should ostensibly help you find that wine-flavored watering hole.

There is some fun in pleasing a character with the right combination of stories, and each one has a distinct personality that’s driven home by the game’s quality voice acting. (It helps that unlike with Sting’s narrator, you don’t have to listen to these people nearly as often.) But when the rest of the game celebrates experiential learning, it feels like a jarring shift to simplify and strip down the act of sharing those experiences with others. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine encourages continued play through turning stories into collectibles. In doing so, the tales’ individual qualities are immediately lost. It’s disappointing to see these collectibles boiled down to just that: artifacts meant to unlock further progress, each one now barely distinguishable from the other.

Balancing the interactive fiction-style play that carries the bulk of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine with more traditional elements — namely an obscure, puzzle-like system with what feels like a lackluster return — is a difficult task. It’s not one that Dim Bulb Games has quite succeeded with. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t a visual novel, and considering how open-ended its journey is, throwing in some structured progression isn’t a bad idea. But the game’s best pleasures are derived from its best stories, and turning them into one-line memories robs them — and the art of storytelling — of what makes them special.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was reviewed on Mac using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Dim Bulb Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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