Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
After a solid January, big-budget games mostly slowed to a crawl—the floodgates are reopening next week—but a steady trickle of exciting independent releases easily took their place. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is one that launched back at the end of February and sort of fell by the wayside. It’s an odd, experimental game that I found myself surprisingly drawn into at launch and thinking about, but not necessarily playing, ever since. It’s a little too obtuse, finicky, and complicated for its own good, but its themes and mystique hit at something so rare and resonant that I can’t help admiring it.
The game begins with you sitting in a saloon playing cards with a dapper, menacing wolfman voiced by Sting. He tricks you into a debt that can only be repaid in stories, turns you into a skeleton, and sends you tramping across the game’s woodcutting-inspired Depression-era United States. And tramp you do, by foot and by rail, encountering all kinds of surreal sights and people trying to get by during one of the country’s most fragile periods. Outside of gaming’s obsession with the 1950s, Americana is just not something that gets explored much in this medium, but it cuts well beyond Where The Water Tastes Like Wine’s setting and into its heart, which is telling stories and watching them grow into fantastical untruths as they’re passed around from city to city.
It’s all appropriately divided regionally, too. In New York, you might absorb the stories of bridge builders and men leaving their wives to find work. In the South, you’re more likely to find Black men and women grappling Jim Crow and farmers outrunning dust storms. But beyond those very real, raw stories is the weird America, the one of impossible tall tales and spooky folklore. Wine nods to some of the most iconic American figures—the headless horseman, Johnny Appleseed, the Jersey Devil—but it’d rather you see its own strange tales mutate into new American myths. The men you know as bridge builders in New York might be exaggerated into anthropomorphic birds by the time a kid in Baltimore tells you about them. And a laughable misunderstanding about a hobo squatting in a spooky Pennsylvania cave becomes just another ghost story to an old-timer in Jackson.
There is a more contrived, game-like use for all these stories you’re collecting and growing. You’ll sit down to camp with some chatty people on your travels, and they’ll want to hear certain kinds of tales from you—scary ones, funny ones, hopeful ones. By telling them the ones they want to hear, they’ll open up and tell you more of their personal stories. This is how you actually progress through the game, finding and making friends with these really interesting characters.
The system for trading stories is one of the game’s biggest issues, though. You have to intuit what category each little story fragment falls into, and since it’s not always clear, there’s a bit of tedious trial-and-error. Once you do start memorizing which story fulfills which request, it starts feeling rote and mechanical. It works on a thematic level—as if you’re telling these stories over and over and getting a better grip on your delivery and showmanship as you go—but it’s not particularly enjoyable in its own right, and it’s only made worse by a clunky management system for changing out your limited repertoire. It’s a shame this major element feels so flawed because the rest of the game is just so darn unique and interesting, especially as a meditation on America’s lifelong love affair with untruth and deep human attraction to the sensational. Those issues might be keeping me from playing too much of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, but they definitely haven’t stopped me from thinking about it.