By Harold Goldberg
It’s the rare game with a penchant for literary works, conceits and pretensions. “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine,” released today on Steam for PC, takes place as a road trip by foot, by car and on the rails during the Great Depression. It has a group of generally unknown actors doing voice work, with the exception of Grammy-winner Sting, who plays the kind of devilish menace that Robert Johnson is said to have encountered at the crossroads. A number of journalists, men and women, have added narrative and story for an experience that won the IndieCade 2017 Developer’s Choice Award.
While this isn’t a review (I’ll have one elsewhere), these are my initial impressions.
While the title alludes to utopias like Heaven, there’s a haunting quality to “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine” that reminds me of the more deeply affecting passages and sentences of Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” During one early conversation, you meet a starving woman near a campfire. She spins a tale of woe and bravery in powerful sentences, like the opening in Ward’s book: “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think I know that it’s something I could look at straight.” The literary pretensions don’t always work, that’s for sure. But when they do, you’re transported. You feel something like the range of emotions Studs Terkel must have felt as he spoke to people around the country for his seminal work, “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.”
You’re never quite sure who’s a ghost here and who’s not. As the mystery unravels and you move from town to town during the Great Depression, the experience has the essence of toil and pain like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” In fact, in an exclusive email exchange with Sting, the singer said, “I revisited “The Grapes of Wrath” to place my mindset in the era of The Great Depression.”
There is something zen about it, too, when you stop and look around the woodcut-inspired landscape, a quiet that reminds me of Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness.” The birds chirp. The desert moves in beige waves, going on forever. It really is like “Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”
“Where The Water Tastes Like Wine” has the potential of moving narrative forward in interactive experiences like games – because it employs novel-ish conceits. After all, this game is rooted in traditional fiction. While experiences like Telltale’s The Walking Dead game series explored narrative and empathy, this is far more like a novel. It has its gray areas. Each of what seems to be 100 meetings with citizens has intricacies and conundrums that cannot be solved with a click of a mouse.
In this digital world, there’s always a debate about whether an interactive experience should be concerned with narrative at all – and that games should not aspire to any level of popular art whatsoever. “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine” proves there’s a necessary place for complex storytelling in the digital world.
Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine features the writing of three New York Videogame Critics Circle members, among others. Those writers are Jordan Minor, Gita Jackson and Austin Walker.