No matter how many records exist, or how much research a historian performs, the past is essentially unknowable. We can remember dates and names and the deeds of prominent people, we can excavate what’s left of ancient settlements, we can read all the primary and secondary sources that have survived from whatever time period we’re studying, and we’ll still never know what it’s really like to have lived back then. History is built on facts, but its inherent mystery leaves room for all manner of fiction to creep in as it’s told and retold over the centuries.
This is especially true when it comes to the history of everyday life. Until the last few decades history was almost solely focused on the big picture—on the “great men” whose political and military actions have left an outsized impression upon the world. The way regular people lived, the daily routines of women and children and men who weren’t in power, were dismissed by historians as trivial and insignificant. That stuff might be mundane, but it’s crucial to understanding who we are and where we came from. The lack of attention from historians had let it slip from fact to barely remembered dream over time, from real life to folklore.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine explores that unsteady territory between history and legend. It’s a game built on stories and how people tell them, how they can start out rooted in a body’s real experience and then grow more elaborate and fanciful over time. Set in a nebulous pocket of time that exists in several past decades all at once (from the ‘20s through the ‘60s), Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a unique example of a modern videogame plumbing the past not for action, not for the works of great men and women, but for the everyday stories that don’t make the history books, and for the distortions, exaggerations and hearsay that turn them into folklore.
As Johnnemann Nordhagen, the game’s designer, says, “One of the things that really interest me about the concept of folk culture in general, like folk music, folklore and all that sort of stuff, is this idea that it is incredibly malleable—that it’s sort of a shared cultural thing.”
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine highlights that impermanence by having its stories retold in various ways. As you travel across America, encountering strangers, learning their tales, and sharing them with others, you’ll occasionally hear a story you already know retold with new details. Sometimes these changes enhance the mood of the story as you know it, and other times it thoroughly changes the context. It’s like a long, elaborate game of telephone, but spread out throughout a country and its entire culture.
“I’m sure anyone in a modern era has a hard time imagining before corporate entertainment was a thing,” Nordhagen says, “and just the way things were different in the past where our entertainment would come from other people telling stories and that the best versions—the most entertaining ones—would be added to and embellished and that no one person necessarily owned that.”
That malleability of folk culture recalls two books about folk music and its influence on the development of rock and country. In 1977’s Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nick Tosches describes the influence old folk songs and early country and blues had on artists like Bob Dylan as a kind of cultural osmosis, as echoes that reverberated throughout America and could effectively be inhaled and brought back to life by anybody with sympathetic vibrations. The fact that songs that are so old that they have no clear writer and no clear ownership can be so deeply rooted in the culture that we continue to retell and reshape them resembles how stories are shared and changed throughout Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
In his 1997 book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, critic Greil Marcus writes about what he calls “the old, weird America,” the early era of recorded music that first captured these almost mythical, pre-modern folk songs for posterity. Listening to scratchy old 78s, crumbling wax cylinders and early 20th century field recordings today is the closest you can get to hearing actual ghosts; these roughhewn performances of dark old folk songs, so often concerned with death and despair, and by performers that lack the professional slickness that quickly came to define commercial music, are a window into a past that seems older than it actually is. If those early 20th century recordings felt eerie and eldritch to the folk musicians of the 1960s, they might sound downright demonic to today’s listeners. (Invisible Republic was later republished as The Old, Weird America.)
“That phrase really does capture exactly what the game is about, right?” Nordhagen says. “‘The Old, Weird America.’ The time when you could really believe that there were weird creatures, there were Jersey devils and ghosts and sasquatches lurking in the trees and if you wander off into it that’d be the end. Or you’d be off on a great adventure, who knows? That time in American history when folk stories were possible, when people could believe the things in folk stories, and also where the culture was such that people could tell these stories to each other and change them.”
In keeping with the storytelling themes, Nordhagen invited a number of game designers, critics and journalists to write the various characters that populate Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. (This includes several former Paste contributors and a former Paste assistant editor.) As Nordhagen describes it, it was a solution to a problem, but a solution that also happened to reinforce the game’s focus on shared storytelling.
“It’s really impossible to tell an honest and true story about America without acknowledging the history and the problems of this country,” Nordhagen notes. “You can’t tell a story about America without talking about the black experience in America and without talking about the Latino/Latina experience in America, right? I began thinking about ‘well, can I tell that kind of story?’
“The character I started thinking about first was Shaw, a southern sharecropper, and pretty much immediately I sketched out some ideas for what his stories would look like. I sat down to write it and I was like, you know what, I can’t, I’m not the right person to write this black southern sharecropper. Maybe if I did enough research I could maybe not embarrass myself but also it’s not my story to tell. So I began thinking, ‘what I can do is get someone else to write that character.’ I thought about that and realized if I just hire a writer for this game, maybe they can tell Shaw’s story but it’s very unlikely I’ll have someone who feels comfortable telling that story, and the story of a Hispanic migrant worker, and the story of a poor non-binary kid. That person doesn’t exist. There’s no one person who can tell these stories so why don’t I make that into a strength? Instead of trying to find one writer to write all these, why don’t I get a different writer who can write each one? I’ve never heard of a game that did that before. Wouldn’t that be cool? Wouldn’t that be sort of like, it could be an anthology almost, a collection of short stories?”
These guests were tasked with writing the dialogue for the various characters you’ll encounter at bonfires throughout the game’s map or while riding the rails from one town to the next. The best written of these scenes create indelible characters whose lives resemble the characters in classic folk songs and tales. They break through their stock character trappings with tragedies that feel personal yet universal, exploring aspects of the American experience that might be regrettable, that might be depressing, that might be empowering, but that are almost always a poignant reminder of what the unwieldy concept of “America” can mean to different people in different situations and different eras.
Those characters and their tribulations are borne out of what lies at the heart of this game. Before American culture became monolithic, before the radio and TV and the internet broadcast the same media to the nation, before franchise stores and shopping malls and Amazon killed local stores and made retail a “one size fits all” proposition, this was truly a country of distinct regions, with distinct citizens and values, and distinct stories that they would tell about themselves and their world. It was an older, weirder America, one where mystery and superstition held more power than today, and where stories about the unusual things that can happen to regular people could pass into legend with an endless array of variations. These stories were shaped by the values of not just the teller, but of an entire region, just one of the subcultures that together made up America.
“It’s sad to think about, we know some of these folk stories now but we know one version of them because they’ve been set down in a particular way, and that’s the version there is,” Nordhagen says. “But prior to then there existed infinite versions, right? That’s kind of the point [of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.]”
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.