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‘Where The Water Tastes Like Wine’ is a giant leap forward for video game storytelling

(Courtesy of Good Shepherd Entertainment)

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine
Developed by: Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge
Published by: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Available on: Windows PC (Steam), macOS

Nuanced narrative, one of the last frontiers in video games, is the welcome backdrop for “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine,” a new offering about the Great Depression from a small group of independent game makers. As you trod, hitchhike, or hop train cars from town to town in a country besieged by one of the world’s worst economic downturns, you encounter the hopeful and the downtrodden, the haunted and the shellshocked. If you enjoy tomes about the wonders of living on the road and meeting people who populate the fringes of society you’ll feel, as you indulge, that you’ve briefly stepped into the legendary shoes of Studs Terkel, John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou all rolled into one.

This unexpected gem, with some blemishes, features a group of generally unknown actors doing voice work with the notable exception of Sting, who at first blush plays the kind of devilish menace that blues singer Robert Johnson is said to have encountered at the Mississippi crossroads.

The artwork recalls the thick-lined woodcuts of Danish-German printmaker Emil Nolde and the plot begins with a meeting in a side-of-the-road shack with a card-playing dire wolf, voiced by the Sting. Via an overused trope, you lose your soul when you lose the card game, so you need to crisscross the country to escape the wolf’s clutches and retrieve your spirit. Speaking in Sting’s deep, measured tones, the wolf is not a Grendel-like horror. He talks philosophically, gentlemanly, about hope and love as well as sadness.

As the story unfolds and you move from city to city across America, the experience has the essence of maintaining dignity despite toil and pain as in John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” In an email exchange with Sting, the musician wrote, “Growing up Northern England, the malaise of the Great Depression was felt around the world. I revisited “The Grapes of Wrath” to place my mind-set in the era.”

Sting also said that “the wolf is a gatekeeper of the line between truth and falsehood,” and you take the truth and the lies as you traverse America’s highways with a bindle on your shoulder and a Huck Finn-style hat on your head. For a while I thought the character I played was a thin, tall living person, but upon closer examination, I found the dire wolf had reduced me to a lunking, lanky skeleton. While this ghostly aspect of your visage is strange, it foreshadows the tales you’ll hear going forward. Many are mysterious or involve ghosts or monsters. It’s odd in the sense that you sometimes feel ensconced in the tone of, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” creepy ghostliness from an earlier time in American literature, and not the fearful, cautious, philosophy-tinged hope that often marked the writing of the Great Depression.

Moving forward, you collect over 200 tales from those you meet, oral histories that run the gamut of emotions. A couple lives in quiet joy in a lighthouse. A man sitting on Miami Beach despairs about his jobless future. Occasionally, you come across a campfire where you can retell these tales to the people you meet — a preacher, a prostitute, a sailor and a dozen others. It’s up to you to procure the full stories about why they’re in their respective predicaments, some of which, like the preacher’s soliloquies, resonate more fully than others. But if these strangers request, say, a humorous story and you haven’t come across one to share from your journey, they clam up or become annoyed. You have another chance or two to mine their pasts but then they’ll move on, sometimes in a huff.

The great joy here is less about gaming and more about the human experience. There’s no one to shoot or punch, no planet to fly to and from, no puzzle solving needed to unlock a door. The only puzzles here are the puzzles of the minds you encounter. I couldn’t get enough of them. In one sitting I walked from Maine to Florida and then, in another, from Florida across the continent to San Francisco. Riding the rails, I was beaten and killed and reported back to the dire wolf. Most of the time, I just walked. It’s slow going, but you can pick up the pace by whistling, accomplished by pressing notes on-screen that correspond to controller buttons.

There are, however, things that take you out of the experience. While the varied soundtrack recalls some of Americana’s best songs, it is repetitive. Sometimes, when the desert moves in long, beige waves or the endless road stretches to the horizon, you just want to hear the winds whistling, the cicadas chattering or a woodpecker hammering at a tree trunk. But it’s the soundtrack or no sound, as if the makers don’t trust the magical near-silence of travel during which the best musing and revelations can occur. Pico Iyer wrote that “sitting still is a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.” The game makers would have been wise to take note of this idea.

There are those who feel that story isn’t welcome in a game, that the experience should just be a contest of reflexes. But previous games like “BioShock,” “The Walking Dead: Season One” and “What Remains of Edith Finch” explored narrative and empathy successfully. “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine” triumphs because its varied oral histories are filled with gray areas. Each meeting has intricacies and conundrums that cannot be solved with a quick click of a mouse. Because it proves that life’s stories are not so tidily wrapped up with a pretty bow, “Where The Water Tastes Like Wine” is a game that propels the form forward.

Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.

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