Disclosure notice: I am friendly with a number of the writers and developers on the game.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine – Dim Bulb’s early 2018 debut, is finally on the Switch. Since it’s a game about travel and storytelling, this is pretty much the perfect platform for it. We’ll use the fun WTWTLW acronym now, and if you hadn’t heard of it or played its original PC incarnation, it’s a narrative adventure about collecting and trading stories in a pseudo-depression era America, so it’s perfect to curl up with at night, like a good book.
I enjoyed the game on its initial release, likening it in some ways to an epic, America-spanning road trip I took just after I finished grad school. And while some of that is coming up again, I’m also finding the whole experience a great deal more cozy and comfortable than my first time around. Some of that is the platform — I’m playing it curled up on the futon in my childhood home at Thanksgiving, surrounded by my snuggling dogs — but some is also just timing. After a couple of rough years personally and culturally, I think perhaps we’re all in a better place to receive a game about wandering the land, collecting stories.
That’s most of what you do here, in fact. In the game, you are cursed (by a wolfman voiced by Sting, no less), to travel the land and seek out stories. You wander America, walking slowly, bumping into folks and hearing their tales. You look for work, you hitchhike and take trains, but mostly, you soak in it. Sad stories about family, tall tales, ghastly ghost stories, recollections of personal woe and joy, and plenty of tales about working class America (with some nice labor movement politics mixed in), you name it, you’ll hear it (or see it) in this game. Every now and then you encounter a named character that you swap stories with – they’ll request, say, a ghost story. If you have something they like, you’ll gain some favor with them and they’ll tell you more about their life.
This is the main goal of WTWTLW, so you learn to treat these encounters almost like boss battles in a more traditional game, only in the nicest and most thematically appropriate way. At first, it’s a little hard to parse the simple story tags (framed as tarot cards), but it becomes easier as you go and collect more tales for your friends to share in. And you can swap in any of the hundreds of yarns – but you only have three “slots” per tarot category.
The final wrinkle lives in the fact that stories evolve – they grow in the retelling – and the tales get taller and taller. A vaguely creepy encounter with a rider in the northeast grows until it turns right into the legend of Ichabod Crane, the headless horseman. A chance encounter with a lady criminal evolves into the tale of Gwen Michet, the most famous bootlegger of all time.
I’ve found myself constantly stealing away to play a bit more, something I never did with the PC version. It’s partially the portability, but it’s also the homeyness and substance of the writing. The whole vibe is rough-hewn and likable, from the sketchy art to the music, to the style of the writing and voice acting. There’s an earthiness and a warmth to the whole thing. Whether the tale in question is a ghost story about a pale rider in the desert or a gentle romance about two lighthouse keepers in a tiny coastal Maine town, the people and places come alive with colorful language and vivid metaphors.
In fact, I’m enjoying it so much that I’m tempted to 100% the game, finding every single tale in every nook and cranny in all of the impressively vast map of America. I’m almost there now, just chasing down the last chapters for my named characters. Maybe I’ll best the wolfman this time around, or perhaps that isn’t the point. No matter what, I’ve found the journey all the sweeter on this second trip.