Stories are powerful things. We’re moved by them, draw strength from them. They help us understand the world and ourselves, allow us a chance to escape briefly and imagine a more idyllic world or inspire us to take action. Whether fact or fiction, they’re power is undeniable. The ways we connect with and cherish the stories we read, watch, play, or listen to are a testament to that. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine from Dim Bulb Games understands this.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is about stories. How they grow and change over time, how we relate to them, and connect with one another through them. It places you in the role of a traveler who, following a game of poker they lost, has been tasked with collecting stories. Stripped of flesh and granted (temporary) immortality, you wander the United States in search of stories until you’ve found enough to repay your debt.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes place on a map of the US. A large skeleton acting as your avatar, you move around the country, whether it be on-foot or hitchhiking by train or car, picking up stories as you visit towns and cities or pass through the more remote parts of the country. As you find points of interest, marked by the small, floating icons, you’re treated to a quick event that, depending on your actions, decides the kind of story you’ll receive from it.
While exploring New York City, for instance, you find yourself on a ship. Before you stand three people: on the right, a couple muttering about something; on the left, a lone man looking toward the city with determination. I chose to speak to the man on the left. He asked about whether I’d seen the demonstration earlier. I hadn’t. He clarified: a workers strike, one of many happening across the country. It was dispersed by the police, but he’s confident they’ll win in the end. That got me the story of “The Determined Socialist in New York.” Had I listened in on the couple, I would have gotten a different story.
The types of stories you find range from the fantastical to the mundane. From tales about some eldritch horror or spooky animal to stories about the hardships people faced during the Great Depression and the general struggles of everyday life. Stories of labor strikes and displaced families exist alongside fishmen who eat humans and vengeful spirits, the game balancing the real and the unreal, the political and the supernatural with incredible grace.
Over time these stories are retold and grow taller and grander as people embellish or put their own spin on them. A story about a queer couple living in a lighthouse becomes a tale about a lighthouse-lamp that only shines in the presence of true love, for instance, while one about a winged goat becomes the tale of the Jersey Devil. The process is slow, each one steadily changing the more it’s told and the further it spreads.
To illustrate how this works, early on, I happened upon an event where two brothers who, after 30 years apart, reunited in Boston by pure chance. It was a heartwarming scene; one of those events that feels unbelievable if you weren’t there to see it. As I made my way down east, the story had changed slightly: instead of 30 years, the two brothers had spent 50 years searching for one another. A slightly taller tale than the truth, but still mostly the same. Then, as I was deep in the midwest, it grown once more. Now it was a story of two souls that spent their entire lives searching for each other, and still do. Now, instead of a story about a hopeful chance encounter, it’s a tragic tale about two souls who were separated and are still trying to be reunited. A great story, but nothing like what actually happened.
Watching these stories evolve is fun and fascinating. The progression of each story feels natural, steadily twisting the facts into more wild and exciting tales until they no longer resemble the truth. These stories have to be shared with someone, however. Along your travels, you’ll meet 16 characters, each with their own story to tell. A miner on the run for trying to unionize, a blues singer down on her luck, a dust bowl refugee struggling to get by, a Navajo woman reflecting on and lamenting the loss of her tribe’s land: people who’ve endured incredible strife and adversity in their lives.
You find them sitting at campfires across the country. When you join one of them at the fire, you spend the night exchanging stories. They always request certain kinds of stories, though — stories that are hopeful, thrilling, funny, scary, or tragic. They’re all categorized by topic (freedom, travel, family, fortune, faith, death, etc.) via tarot cards, though figuring out which story counts as hopeful or thrilling is left to you to discern. It’s difficult to figure out at first — I had a few instances where what I thought would be a spooky story ended up being a tragic one. It’s a bit trial and error in the early hours, due to the limited number of stories you have, but they always tell a bit about themselves regardless of whether you fulfill their requests.
As you tell the kind of stories they want to hear, they start to trust you and begin to share more about themselves, their views on the world. Unsurprisingly, their outlook isn’t terribly bright. Folks like Bertha who, after moving west on the promise of opportunity following the devastation of the dust bowl, lost everything while being forced to work for scraps. Like Mason, a WWI veteran who’s come home to an estranged family and a country that’s cast him aside. Their stories are harsh and depressing, but deeply resonant. Their predicaments aren’t so different from those we face today. No matter how much time passes, we all still face the same struggles to make a decent life for ourselves.
It’s no surprise then that they request stories. When times are rough, a brief escape — whether it be through a hopeful tale of kindly metalworkers or a funny yarn about a woman who was forced underground by her herd of cows — is sometimes what we need most. Hard to find hope or humor in tough times, after all. Have to find comfort wherever we can, however fleeting it may be.
Few, if any, of these people’s stories end on a hopeful note — how could they, given the trials they’ve endured? — but sharing their tales grants them some semblance of peace. Their stories have ended, but yours goes on, and by carrying them with you, by sharing them with others, theirs too can live on and continue to be heard. And at the end of the day, that’s all we can hope for, isn’t it? For our stories to be heard. If nothing else, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine knows that in and of itself is valuable. A story never told isn’t a story at all, after all.