Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is on the cusp of being one of my favorite indie games, actually strike that, one of my favorite games full stop. It is unique and excels in so many aspects that I feel it was on the edge of being a smash hit. Yet, there are some significant hiccups, and the reception has not been overwhelming. So what went wrong? What went right? And what is the result?
I am getting ahead of myself a bit. In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine you play a character that joins a card game. When it gets down to you and one sketchy character you have an unbeatable hand but no money. The character makes a deal, he’ll cover your bet but if you lose you have to do whatever he wants. Unsurprisingly a trick happens and you, in fact, lose when your hand is switched with a hand of tarot cards, what he wants from you doesn’t seem all that nefarious, however. He wants you to travel, gather stories, and grow them.
Cut to the game. You are in America around the end of WW1 and pushing through a few decades of history. During the depression, dustbowl, and all other manners of issues. You start on the east coast and have to walk to the west gathering stories and meeting characters along the way. As you walk over the map, you will find various markers (some in towns others just around) that allow you to pick up stories. Each story falls into a category represented by a tarot card. You do have some choices as the stories develop that will help shape what kind of story they end up being, which is cool. You will also find campfires that let you meet characters. They will react with varying degrees of trust/distrust and ask you for stories to grow your relationship with them. If you manage to tell them what they want to hear your progress with them will grow, and in return, they will tell you their own story.
You will also find ways to grow the stories that you pick up, the interesting thing about this is watching the stories develop, and even see them change into stories you recognize. You also have to watch some basic needs (health, tiredness, and money). You can hitchhike, sneak on trains, and even ride trains properly to travel. Each of these has pros and cons like loss of money and potentially even loss of life depending on if you are busted on the train. There isn’t massive punishment for losing your life, the game is about the stories themselves, and so all the other aspects are there to keep it entertaining but never get in the way of the stories themselves. You die you’ll start over and lose little to no progress. If you spend time at a campfire with a character and fail to tell them the right type of stories no sweat you will have unlimited chances to meet up with them again.
This allows gameplay to help keep you entertained but not take away from the point of the game or stress you out. There is a benefit to earning the trust of characters quickly and never dying, but there isn’t punishment for failure to do so.
The stories themselves are amazing. Despite being short, they typically pack a punch and are enjoyable. The characters are well written and developed. You don’t want to just hear their story for completion you want to know what’s happened to them. You can argue that some of them are a bit predictable, but they are all well told, so it doesn’t matter. The art style is wonderful and fits the game well. The music is good, although you will be hearing the same songs many times which can get old (also not helped by the fact that there are multiple versions of one song depending on your location on the map).
There is also a great deal of American history to be had. The characters you meet will all align with some part of the rather rich history of America during that time. WW1 soldiers who were not paid for their service, a kid who was kicked out of his home because his family couldn’t care for him, migrant workers that fought for their rights, people only separated by a few generations from slavery. There was a lot happening in America at this time, and there was fallout from even more. If you are a history buff at all, it is fascinating to see this mix of fiction and truth come together.
All of this is great, so what’s the problem? The problem lies in the gameplay itself. The map is enormous, America is not small after all, so it can be easy to miss things and end up wandering around. You are going to have to wander a lot anyway and the game will force you to backtrack several times for characters, so any added wandering on top of this is trying. Your character also walks insanely slow. There is a whistling mini-game to make your character walk faster, but it doesn’t improve speed all that much and is slightly awkward. To play on mouse and keyboard and do the mini-game at all times you need three hands. Beyond this there is little instruction. I wasn’t aware I had a map until much later in the game. The biggest issue is I didn’t know I could switch stories. You can only have three active stories in each category so if you go to a campfire ill prepared you’ll waste the entire night because you don’t have what the character wants to hear. (note the lack of instruction has apparently been addressed in a recent update).
By far the biggest offender is the camera. It is insanely slow to zoom in our out, wonky to move around to get a clear view of the map, and worst of all will randomly freak out and end up switching itself and the direction your character is moving in. This is incredibly frustrating and massively damages an otherwise solid experience.
Beyond that, features were also implied that didn’t end up in the game or simply don’t work. The map is not nearly as detailed as it looks in the trailers, the art is more static, and there is no weather to speak of. The final product does look a bit different than the trailers which is a letdown.
So you are stuck with one of the most amazing games ever as far as storytelling, but with a lot of flaws in gameplay. It’s hard to come to one conclusion based on this because I simultaneously loved certain aspects but loathed others. Gameplay matters, you do have to actually play the game. The fact that it gets rather dull to walk around and frustrating the fight the camera makes an impact, and not a good one. The longer I spent playing, the more the issues had lessened my enjoyment of the game, even the things I loved about it.
However, for me, it’s hard to say it’s not worth dealing with. Maybe it’s because I am a writer and have always loved stories, but I still really love this game. If the gameplay was polished and the camera completely reworked you would have a damn good game that would be hard for anyone to argue against. However, as the game stands right now, there are flaws that keep it from reaching its full potential.
At the end of the day I would still recommend it, and I think it’s disappointing that it seems to be stuck in limbo as far as reception. I cannot and will not get over the fantastic aspects of the game. They are held back by some considerable flaws, but nothing that can’t be overcome. I am curious to see if the game will have any more patches and what might be in store for the developers in the future. For the time being, if you are willing to deal with a few (sadly large) issues for good storytelling, buy this game. I am a broken record, but I cannot overstate how great the stories are.
Have you played Where the Water Tastes Like Wine? What did you think of the experience? Do you agree that the storytelling overshadows gameplay flaws?