Most RPGs drop the player into a world where they punch things until they make the world a better place. Harry Papadimitriou found a game — Where the Water Tastes Like Wine — at E3 that has less to do slowly increasing numbers and more the stories we tell and how they shape us.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a very unique game oozing with originality. It takes place in the USA during the Great Depression, though in a fantasy version of the world full of supernatural happenings based on American folklore. The protagonist loses a hand of cards to the wrong person and is cursed to wander the land as a skeleton. When I asked why a skeleton was used as the protagonist, I was told that a skeleton strips away personal characteristics and is more broadly relatable to all players. To break the curse, players must meet sixteen special characters throughout the entire US, and tell them stories they want to hear. Each of these characters is very unique in both substance and style, and each is written by a different person. As they hear more and more stories, they begin to trust the player, revealing things about themselves and their own stories. But before stories can be told they must first be gathered. This is accomplished by wandering around the land encountering people and events, which can be retold as stories. In this sense, the story comes across as one long American road trip. Of course, you can't tell just any old story. Characters will request different types of stories (e.g. funny, scary, exciting), and although stories are organized in themes, it's up to the player to remember whether a story had the attributes being requested by the listener.
In addition to wandering around collecting stories, gameplay consists of surviving. Broadly, this means avoiding damage, which can be taken in a number of ways, including from being hungry, being attacked by animals, and from various decisions players make in events they encounter. In the demo, I met a woman holding her young son in her arms. The kid threatened me to give him money, while the mother didn't say anything in consenting silence. When I refused and tried to walk away, the mother threw her son at me, who proceeded to damage me. This may sound quite odd, and it is, but it fits well within the supernatural and extremely strange version of the US in which the game takes place. To buy food and recover damage players spend money which can be collected through random events encountered in cities.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine's presentation is spectacular. The art is dark, high-contrast, gritty, surreal, and oppressive, with a minimalist low-poly look during gameplay and a hand-drawn sketch look during stories and dialogue. The music complements this very well, with a moody and melancholy western feel, and much of it includes vocals. The combination of the visuals and music perfectly capture the bleak American folklore setting from which the game takes its inspiration. It wasn't clear from the very limited length demo whether the stories would hold up, but the few tidbits of story and dialogue I had a chance to experience left me with a deep sense of curiousity about the world.
After playing the demo, I'm very intrigued by Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. The game didn't seem to feature much in terms of gameplay mechanics, but as a collection of short and ever-changing stories about a mysterious and unnatural world it definitely piqued my interest. I also found the overall goal of discovering many short stories — rather than one big one — and understanding people and their strange, surreal world to be very appealing. Many games have explored worlds in the high-fantasy and science fiction settings, but not many games or even stories in general explore American folklore, and in that sense I felt a sense of novelty with the setting that I haven't felt in a long while. Players who are looking for a unique story-driven experience about exploration and understanding will find a lot to like in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.