Given our hobby's slavish pursuit of the validation and prestige afforded to cinema, it's entirely common (and expected) for a video game to want to tell a story. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine goes beyond these limited aspirations, instead offering a story about stories, where narrative is your weapon and your currency. That amounts to traipsing your skeletal avatar around an enormous map of Depression-era America stumbling across bizarre or archetypal situations and retaining them as “stories” to swap with the unusual strangers you'll meet along the way.
It's a strong concept, evocative and original. The game's opening – in which you encounter a bizarre talking wolf creature – is eerie and unsettling in a way that immediately captures the imagination. The narration (from Sting, of all people) is strong in its delivery and helps to cast a gravitas over the whole project. Unfortunately, it almost instantly squanders this goodwill by pitching you headfirst into a laggy, lacking experience as you painstakingly travel across the United States.
This travelling makes up the lion's share of your time with Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which isn't ideal because it's agonisingly slow-paced. We recognise that this is at least partly intentional, but good lord, it can take forever to get anywhere. You wander on foot across the vast expanse of the USA at a pace so painfully slow that a snail would tell you to get a move on. Your speed can be increased ever so slightly by holding the L button and tapping the indicated face buttons to whistle, but this only ups your pace from “mollusc” to “mollusc who needs the toilet”. Additionally, the whistling mini-game drowns out the rather excellent music – and, astonishingly – it isn't even in time! It would have been a bit of a no-brainer to have the player whistling along to the tunes that score your adventure, and we're astounded that it wasn't the direction taken.
The graphics during these extensive travelling segments are nothing to write home about, which makes it all the more surprising that they run so poorly. It's a large map, which may account for some of the lag, but it's so unsophisticated that it almost looks like an alpha version. In fact, the game's presentation throughout leaves a fair bit to be desired. The art is great, but it's static. The menus are weirdly choppy and unpolished. Even when you first boot the game up, it makes a strange impression – you get a title screen which clicks straight through into a (fairly long) loading bar. No music, no sound. It's a minor thing, but it contributes to the unfinished feel of the game at large. It comes across as rushed, yet the depth (and quantity) of the writing show that up as unlikely to be the case.
Investigating the locales and individuals you happen across is a blessed relief from this sludgy gameplay, though in almost all instances they feel unsatisfying in their brevity. You'll encounter many people, places and things, but very few of them are memorable and those that do stick in the mind are often all-too-brief; nothing more than a few paragraphs of portentous text spinning yarns that are simply wisps of an idea, enough to make you ask if that was really it. The incomplete feel of the visuals here seeps into the narrative and its delivery. Of course, this piecemeal, drip-feed storytelling is kind of the point, but we question if it's a point worth making.
The gathering of the individual stories is initially somewhat compulsive, with over 200 to “collect”. That said, the impulse to boil them down to mere collectables is an inevitable consequence of the gameplay – they're ultimately just trading cards, really, coming into focus when you meet the stronger characters and start exchanging your tales with them. These segments are promising at first, but are quickly revealed to be hollow, inorganic guessing games. You'll be asked, for example, to provide a “funny story”, but it's a total shot in the dark which exactly of your “funny stories” will fit the bill. This feels like it should capture the camaraderie of interacting with a stranger, especially one enduring the same Great Depression conditions as yourself. But, in presenting your interaction in such a staid, clinical way, it resolutely fails to do that.
In a clever, thoughtful touch, your stories can develop as you pass them around and they enter folklore. One that's extremely bare-bones in the early game can turn up again later, with its details embellished and even significantly altered. It's a cute piece of flavour that sadly does little to assuage the general monotony that we found defines this game. It just takes so long to get anywhere or do anything. You can hitchhike, or catch a train, but this barely matters when the story or character you need could be literally anywhere.
There's a pervasive sense of disappointment to When the Water Tastes Like Wine. For all its invention and forward-thinking, there's a profound feeling that the mark has been missed. In truth, it does very little to justify itself as a video game in the first place, given that most of the player's time is spent moving painfully slowly across a monotonous, samey map of America with no clearly defined goal. It's a failed experiment through and through, but all the more painful because it could have been so much more. There is space in gaming for narrative output like this, but they need to be carefully tailored to be games first and experiences second. You don't even want to know what this water tastes like.