The noise of flies fills your ears as you step down from the highway in search of shade. The body of a great white bull lies sprawled in the dirt among bits of rope and broken board, his hide blazing in the sunlight. You approach, covering your mouth, and recoil. The bull’s chest – it’s not maggoty flesh but beaten metal, held together by rivets the width of your thumb. Through tears in the beast’s flank you see swarms of tiny brass pistons, shooting back and forth in a blur. The bull raises his head abruptly to regard you. Then he clambers to his feet, creaking like a furnace, and ambles back onto the road. The buzzing rises to a peak. When the air clears, the animal is gone.
That isn’t quite my story, but nor is it entirely a story from this game. It’s an embellishing of something I witnessed while trudging around Dim Bulb’s haunted, patchwork vision of the United States during the Great Depression, a tribute to a game made up of stories that are always changing, picking up material like snowballs as they travel from mouth to mouth. Created by Gone Home programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen in partnership with a scattered throng of writers, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine sees you wandering a rich yet desolate continent, collecting tall tales and sharing them so that they can prosper and mutate.
The game’s key thrill is of hearing a yarn you know well come back to you in a new, outlandish guise. The tragic spectacle of a cowboy lost in a tornado might eventually become the legend of a rider who could tame the wind, recounted by some Texan boozehound who swears that he saw it all firsthand. An anecdote about sharing a cigarette with a bootlegger might beget a sensational newspaper report of a gunfight. The tale of a mysterious dead bull might take on a supernatural aspect in the testimony of a child you run into a few states over.
The task of collecting and spreading these stories becomes yours when your character, a nameless vagrant, loses a poker game to a man with the head of a wolf, voiced with whiskery glamour by the one and only Sting. Demanding service as payment for your debt, the wolfman strips the flesh from your bones and turns you loose upon the continent as a walking skeleton, immortal (you’ll respawn at the nearest town if you die) though still somewhat subject to the effects of hunger and fatigue.
In particular, the wolfman asks you to track down the stories of those “lost in the folds of the big story”, lives ground up in the wheels of the American Dream. These take the form of fellow drifters you’ll encounter at campfires, each written by a different writer, whose trust you slowly earn by passing on stories of your own. It creates a strange dynamic whereby entertaining lies are a currency traded for morsels of painful insight, increasing in value the less truthful they become.
There are over 200 of these smaller stories to witness and retell, each manifest as an icon floating above the game’s 3D world map, where boulder clouds stretch lazy shadows across square, desiccated cropfields. Most are brief text vignettes with a degree of choice about the outcome: fight or flee, accept help or reject it, eavesdrop or walk away. Choose carefully and you can change the direction of the story, if not its basic structure. The need to keep yourself in good health is sometimes a factor, but for the most part, these decisions come down to which choice you find most gripping. Would you rather hear a blood-curdling chiller or an amusing case of mistaken identity, a sordid account of smalltown corruption or something a touch more hopeful?
Whatever that choice, you’ll tramp away with another nugget for your collection, and even the most humble encounter may flower into something grand over time – indeed, if you spread the story around, that’s all but guaranteed. The game’s literary inspirations run a wide and exhilarating gamut, from tragedy to comedy and classical realism to outright fantasy. There are grimy Steinbeckian portrayals of prejudice and want, thumbnail sketches of clashes at picket lines, farmyard accidents and backwoods eccentrics. There are stories that walk the line between the symbolic and the tangible in echo of Cormac McCarthy, using bare detail to tamp down descriptions of burning crowns and talking cats. There are even stories that borrow characters or motifs from other time periods – a Volkswagen minibus that seems a little too sophisticated for the era, its occupants shrouded in smoke.
On top of these incidental tales there are the 16 major life stories you’ll hear at campfires, gleaned by matching the little tales you’ve collected to the theme requested by your audience. Keep them happy and you’ll gradually open a wolf’s eye at the top of the screen, representative of their trust. After you share each tale the other party will also comment on its relevance to their own predicament, which creates an additional layer of calculation – you might have been asked for an example of real-life heroism, but you might be more interested in hearing what the other person has to say about family or bondage.
Open the eye fully before the night draws to an end, and you’ll unlock the next chapter in that character’s tale, though before you can hear it you’ll need to find them again, somewhere down the road. In the meantime, the stories you’ve shared go out into the world and essentially level themselves up, popping up at random alongside new stories with blanks filled in, details added, implications transformed into certainties. Once recovered, these wilder tales open the wolf’s eye faster. You might nonetheless prefer the original version, but there’s no going back: these stories are yours to sow and harvest, but they are in no way yours to keep.
The campfire exchanges represent Where The Water Tastes Like Mine at its most challenging, though this is never a difficult game – fail to woo a fellow wanderer, and you can always try again when you next bump into them. Stories are divided into tarot suites, and you can have three active stories in your hand per suite, selected via the inventory screen. Once you’ve told a story the associated suite is locked off for the rest of the chat, so a bit of strategy is required: there’s no sense prematurely killing off a suite that contains a juicy yarn, but you might be forced to by the listener’s choice of topic.
It’s also important to rotate stories into your hand between conversations, because you can’t tell the same story to the same person twice, and you need to circulate as many as possible in order to power up your deck. Some stories are easy to label, while others are pleasingly ambiguous. You may find yourself wavering, for example, over whether a spooky encounter with a comic finale is spookier than it is funny. Less pleasingly, each story’s changing summary text sometimes disagrees with its original (and broadly unchanging) emotional import. You’ll share what you think is now a gruesome horror story, only for your companion to complain that you’re joking around.
Thrown into flickering relief by the campfire and voiced by some of the talent behind Mass Effect and The Walking Dead, the drifters you’ll encounter are emblems for downtrodden or forgotten communities and causes – windows upon less exalted sections of US history, from the brutal dispossession of native Americans to the treatment of returning WW1 veterans. I was especially fascinated to learn about the so-called “Pullman porters”, black men hired to work as servants aboard sleeper trains for paltry wages, nicknamed “George” after their employer much as slaves in the South were once named for their owners. The script can be too idiomatic for its own good, as though it were written to be quoted, but there are some poignant and incisive revelations, and the game’s large stable of writers creates a powerful range of styles.
If the personalities are worth spending time with, the experience of walking the map gets a little dreary. I’m in love with the game’s sky – a scraped and mottled expanse of blue and purple, like a water-damaged Rothko canvas – and the slowness of your progress through the hazy landscape makes each story you uncover feel like more of an event. Still, I did find myself tuning out after a while, and the uneven framerate makes me wonder whether another mode of exploration would have suited Dim Bulb’s purposes better.
Some of the travelling mechanics are also a bit buggy. You can stretch out a thumb to hitchhike, but cars wouldn’t let me board them once stopped (only sensible, perhaps, given that you are a walking skeleton, but this never bothers any of the people you meet on foot). In theory, you can also hit control key to whistle along with the soundtrack and accelerate your pace, but this never seemed to actually work for me. The soundtrack is, at least, a pleasure to whistle along with, a medley of bluegrass, jazz and Mexican folk music that changes from state to state. Certain verses and structures carry over between tracks, reflecting how the stories you carry flow together into one grand and meandering narrative – indeed, the music is as much the soul of the game as its script.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine’s vivid recreation of a blighted and turbulent nation has much to offer students of America today. In particular, its celebration of how stories – true or false – mutate and self-propagate is an eerie echo of the current US-led media climate, in which disproven conspiracy theories enjoy evergreen appeal on Twitter and Facebook algorithms transform patent falsifications into frontpage news. There is a much longer analysis to write about how this game maps the contours of the present and its networks of exchange, while revisiting the sins and glories of a country’s past. For the moment, it stands as a remarkable collection of reclaimed truths and sparkling falsehoods, and a compelling rejection of the rigid distinction between “gameplay” and “story”. It’s a reminder that telling or retelling a story is itself a playful and participatory act, whether you do so over a campfire or in a game.