Wot I Think: Where The Water Tastes Like Wine


In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, stories are currency. You walk the backroads and fields of the United States during the Great Depression, occasionally freighthopping or hitching a ride from one town to the next. Along the way, you meet many people and witness many events, most of them insignificant in the grand scheme of history and the land, but all contributing to a complex tapestry of a certain time and place.

Everything that you witness and every conversation you have becomes a tale in your repertoire, and in retelling these tales you learn about the characters you share them with, around campfires that are dotted around the map. It’s at the campfires that stories become currency, and also where the game’s combination of folktale and interactive systems becomes muddled.

I’ll remember some of these stories forever. The creepy ones, mainly, and the tiny tragedies. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine flits between genres like a whip-poor-will, one moment reminding me of forced migrations and hard journeys through the dustbowl, the next of runaway slaves and departing souls. There’s so much to admire and enjoy in this tale of tales that I’m sad and slightly surprised that I haven’t slapped a Recommended badge on it. The reason I haven’t is quite simple though; exploring these states is exhausting, and I too often lost the meaning of the stories during the long treks from one place to the next.


A game about storytelling might seem like a complex thing to describe, in terms of its inner workings, but Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is quite simple. Icons on the map tell you where stories are located, you walk, very slowly, to those icons. You hear and read the story, the narration beautifully delivered in just the right kind of gravely bone-tired voiceover.

At that point, the story is in your possession. An inventory item, basically, to be traded for new stories. Sometimes you’ll hear a retelling of a story you already know, embellishing it or changing the tone completely. This is important because when the time comes to share the stories, your listeners will have specific requirements: tell me something sad, they might say, or perhaps they want to laugh in the face of adversity.

The stories are tiny things. Tweet-sized almost. Often, their meaning or emotional impact is hard to pin down until you’ve heard them retold and reshaped, at which point the phrase that describes them hints at their content and the likely response to them more clearly. A story about a ghost or terrifying urban legend might become a romance or a farce, a scarecrow takes on more sinister qualities. And the stories cover a whole range of humanity and its various conditions, including the multitude of ways people harm one another because of love, prejudice, desperation, anger, grief, greed and poverty.


It’s often a bleak game, but empathy and respect for people is the common thread in the writing. Often, choices in the encounters that make up some stories relate to an anger or sense of injustice on the part of the player character. You can be a passive observer if you choose, but you can also strike out or lend your voice to the suffering during certain events.

Those are my favourite interactions in the game, when encounters play out like tiny text adventures. It’s during the rest of the interactions that my patience started to wear thinner than road-weary boot soles.

The map, where I spent most of my time, quickly became a dreary place. It’s large and the character moves across it slowly. A trek from one state to the next, or to a story token on the horizon, probably takes thirty seconds at most, but it’s half a minute of nothing. And that means much of the time I spent playing was made up of these scattered half-minutes of nothing. The aesthetic that acts as a backdrop to all that nothing is superb, the map a patchwork of fields, mountains, cities and rivers, and the songs that play as you explore, changing with the territories, are uniformly superb. They evoke a past that probably only exists in the blues and folk music, history shot through with imagination and artistry.


But as the backdrop to these lonely hikes, the music felt disconnected. I wanted to stop and listen to it but for all of its apparent tranquility, the game had filled me with a need to move forward at all times. I wanted to unlock more stories, to chase down my friends as they laid down their bindles around the country. It was no longer a game about wandering, it was a game about hunting stories so that I could exchange them for more stories.

And that’s where I started to lose interest. It all goes back to the first line of the review – “stories are currency”. It’s a conceit at the heart of the conversations and exchanges that are the key to the wider story that contains all of the others, but it became an abstraction for me. A swapping of tokens to progress through content rather than a patient and involved sampling of the tales people tell.


The real shame of it is that I realised I’d prefer to take the mechanics to their simplest form and simply interact with menus to find my rewards rather than wandering across a big map. Whenever Where The Water Tastes Like Wine isn’t words, it feels like its turning away from its strengths and trying to find meaning in mechanics that feel disassociated from the actual tales.

At times, that made me think the game was doing a disservice to the stories it contains, but for the most part I’ve managed to find small pleasures in the passing of time. I just wish I’d felt like I had any connection to the places I visited, other than through the stories I heard. As it is, the words, the music and the map all feel like separate things sitting alongside one another, but never touching. That’s most evident in a button that allows you to whistle along with the music. Whistling in time makes you walk faster. It’s a pleasant idea that barely ever worked for me and just served to remind me that I wished there were an actual ‘run’ button.


What frustrates me is that I want everyone to play the game, but find it hard to recommend that they do. It’s a beautiful and wonderful depiction of a country haunted by its own past and occasionally in awe of its own possibilities, and even though the journey itself felt like a chore to me, the moments when all the individual threads resembled a great tapestry of life and death made me grateful that it exists. Perhaps there is no ideal structure to contain all of these stories, and the meandering shaggy dog nature of the telling and retelling is essential to the tone, but I repeatedly found myself falling into those routines of map-checking and icon-hunting.

Eventually, even though the stories in those icons have more meaning and value to me than a new gun or collectible trinket, I started to treat them as trinkets – the means to unlock the next chapter of one of the more significant stories. I wasn’t playing for the sake of the words anymore, I was playing to gather and exchange currency. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine became a game about shuffling around a mostly-empty map, hoovering up icons in order to advance the plot.


The sense of discovery became a sense of duty to see every story through to its ending. Those stories are either fragments, in the case of those gathered in the road, or told in fragmented form in the case of the fireside conversations. There’s a great deal to cherish in both varieties, but the journey to discover them drove me to distraction so often that the impact of even my favourite moments was diminished. There’s every chance you’ll have more patience for those half-minutes of nothing, or that the rules of the game won’t distract you from the delicacy of the stories, but for me it ended up being more water than wine.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is out today, and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam and itch.io for $19.99. Disclosure: former RPS columnists Cara Ellison, Leigh Alexander, and Emily Short were part of the vast writing team for the game.


  1. ephesus64 says:

    I’m hearing that it isn’t as focused in the way it delivers its atmosphere as Kentucky Route Zero, is that right? That would probably be my “I want more like this” point of reference even though it sounds like it’s a different sort of game. Does it end up feeling like a Ken Burns documentary because of the pacing? Because that wouldn’t be so bad.

    And movement speed isn’t part of the story like Dear Esther or KRZ, where a run button would damage the presentation?

  2. Jac says:

    Shame that the map parts detract from what sounds like an otherwise excellent experience. Are the stories in any way shaped by the locales around them? Would perhaps make the traveling more meaningful.

    Without having played it seems like an issue that could be solved in a future update that lets you have the option to just select stuff from the map (I.e fast travel / glorified menu as suggested in the write-up).

  3. cpt_freakout says:

    I was pretty much convinced I’d buy this game before the reviews even hit, but now I have adjusted my expectations accordingly thanks to this WIT. The thing about turning something other than money into currency is that it might sound poetic, but in practice it is what makes gamification tic, like all the work that people put into PUBG just to sell cosmetic items, or all the work people put into MMOs just to show off those shiny new pants… which is to say, everything else stops mattering, in a way. Too bad, but I’ll give it a shot anyway!

  4. JRHaggs says:

    “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine flits between genres like a whip-poor-will…”

    This is a bizarre simile. Is there anything specific to a whip-poor-will that suggests flitting about? Or is it a clever reference to the game itself that is incomprehensible to someone who’s not played the game?

    “A little bird” would be better, because little birds sure as shit flit about, but it doesn’t suggest anything regarding the behavior of a specific species of little bird.

    Yeah. I don’t know why I care either.

    • Sarfrin says:

      It seems like a phrase I’ve heard before, but perhaps I’m thinking of ‘will o the wisp’.

    • 2Ben says:

      If you read the Cultural References on wikipedia for whip-poor-will it could match the game atmosphere:

      Due to its song, the eastern whip-poor-will is the topic of numerous legends. A New England legend says the whip-poor-will can sense a soul departing, and can capture it as it flees. This is used as a plot device in H. P. Lovecraft’s story The Dunwich Horror. Lovecraft based this idea on information of local legends given to him by Edith Miniter of North Wilbraham, Massachusetts when he visited her in 1928. This is likely related to an earlier Native American and general American folk belief that the singing of the birds is a death omen.[9] This is also referred by Whip-poor-will, a short story by James Thurber, in which the constant nighttime singing of a whip-poor-will results in maddening insomnia of the protagonist Mr Kinstrey who eventually loses his mind and kills everyone in his house, including himself. The bird also features, however, in The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, a poem by the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the outcast speaker asks: “Could the whip-poor-will or the cat of the glen/Look into my eyes and be bold?”[10]

      It is also frequently used as an auditory symbol of rural America, as in Washington Irving’s story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, or as a plot device. For example, William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning”, makes several mentions of whip-poor-wills, e.g.: “and then he found that he had been asleep because he knew it was almost dawn, the night almost over. He could tell that from the whip-poor-wills. They were everywhere now among the dark trees below him, constant and inflectioned and ceaseless, so that, as the instant for giving over to the day birds drew nearer and nearer, there was no interval at all between them.”[11]

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      Kiwilolo says:

      You are definitely overthinking this.

  5. Merus says:

    I ratcheted my expectations of this game down when I first saw the map – I think nearly all of us were excited by that first teaser trailer – and so it’s comforting, in a way, that the map ended up dragging the game down as much as it seemed like it would. Visually, it’s improved a bit, but the last thing I wanted from a game where you play a hobo, swapping stories, was a big JRPG map of America.

    Give me the game where I actually have to be a hobo, scraping together enough money to eat, and the goal is swapping stories. I want to sneak on freight trains and meet strange strangers. Don’t make me go out to riverside camps because that’s where the goal is, I want to be there because that was I don’t have to pay for accommodation and it’s more interesting out there anyway.

  6. RabbitIslandHermit says:

    I’m guessing Adam had the same problem as I did with whistling. You’re supposed to use wasd to walk while holding ctrl and using the arrow keys to hit the notes. My strong inclination was to tap wasd or ctrl, which doesn’t work. I’m sure this was explicitly explained but as is my wont I sort of skimmed the basic tutorial stuff.

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    alison says:

    This review is baffling to me. Everything Adam is complaining about sounds fantastic. I mean, enjoying the walking is the whole point of a walking sim, right? And what could be more of a walking sim than a hobo sim? If the walking is superb, this game sounds exactly up my alley. The stories are just gravy. I mean, KRZ’s story is completely impenetrable and its map is about as low fi as you can possibly get, but that’s okay because driving around in the dark listening to radio static is exactly like what roadtripping or Greyhounding around America is like. Has anyone specifically played this as a walking sim? What’s it like if you don’t care about getting anywhere?

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      It sounds like the walking is not superb… The appeal of walking sims tends to be the environment, soaking up the atmosphere of a place, going where you want at your own pace. It sounds like here the appeal is the stories you get when you stop, rather than the journey to those destinations, like there isn’t much to see on the road itself. If said road is a sparse world map with little to do or see except hold down forward and whistle I can see how that would grow tiresome. Would love to be wrong though, as the storytelling part sounds really neat.

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        Ninja Dodo says:

        I reckon I’ll play it to see which it is.

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          alison says:

          Me too 😊 Just looking at the trailers the walking bits seem more appealing to me than the story bits, but trailers are very short and might be hiding the tedium.

          My slow-travel-as-a-walking-sim yardstick is Cryo Interactive’s Dune, which had amazing music and beautiful sunsets as you flew from sietch to sietch. That spirit has been captured in modern(ish) games like Euro Truck Sim, and I’m totally down with that kind of Zen-like travel experience. 80 Days, on the other hand, was more of a CYOA/procedural story book to me, like a Carmen Sandiego game. I played that once or twice and then felt I’d had enough. But ETS2 or purist walking sims like Proteus keep pulling me back. I was hoping this game would capture more of that feeling of just drifting, aimless and happy.

  8. Babymech says:

    How are all the ready bits in 4K? I don’t want a repeat of Sunless Sea…

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