Five years have passed since Gone Home was released, and people forget how much gaming has changed in that time. What was once derided as action-lacking “walking simulators” are now a prevalent storytelling technique. Another tool in the interactive narrative arsenal. Now, co-creator Johnnemann Nordhagen wants to do that again, with Where The Water Tastes Like Wine.
True to form, this isn’t your usual game. It’s not even your usual story-based game. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine takes the player on a tour of early 20th century America to exchange stories with people on the fringes of society. Campfire chats in which you give a little, you get a little. Contribute to the culture of folk tales, and you might just learn about the people and the time.
But truth can be elusive. That is, real truth. You’ll never have the same experience they did. You’ll never see things through their lens.
We sat down with Johnnemann Nordhagen to talk about this storytelling experiment.
“America is one big story and it’s these true stories as well as all the fables in it,” Nordhagen told us. “You’re seeking out the stories of these peoples’ lives to sort of add to the story of America. And to bring them to light.
“And the game of course is doing the same thing. We found these stories from American history, that aren’t necessarily things that we normally hear about. And the game tries to bring those to light for the players to encounter. So your mission is exactly the same as my mission was when I started doing the research for this game.”
The Auteur’s Odyssey
When you want to be a writer, one of the best pieces of advice you can receive is that it’s half about the craft, and half about having something to say. It applies to any kind of art or expression, really. It’s about influences. Getting outside of your bubble to experience interests as diverse as architecture and dance, and letting that inform your work.
For Johnnemann Nordhagen, one of the indie creators behind the wildly successful Gone Home, that meant getting out of his development setting of one year and nine months in Portland and getting out into the world.
“For years before that I had been collecting a folder of travel inspirations,” Nordhagen told us. “I’d see a picture of some place in the world, and I’d add it to my inspiration folder. I felt like with a plane, you just get to where you wanted to go, but you don’t get the journey. So I wanted to do it by land or sea.”
So began a six month trip that took Nordhagen through both Western and Eastern Europe, Morocco, Russia, Siberia, Nepal, India, Japan, and more.
He kept expenses lean. He travelled in the lowest class of carriage on Indian trains. He made use of camels in Morocco. One fishing village in Italy had such rough terrain it was only possible to get around on foot.
All while back at home, Gone Home was becoming the shining example of how to tell different kinds of stories with the first-person perspective. So much so that he had to pause the adventure to rush back to England for the BAFTA awards.
It was a trip for the sake of a trip, though it would end up crucially informing Nordhagen’s next storytelling experiment. On one of those long train rides, Nordhagen thought that the experience he was having right then was the experience he wanted players to have. Not so much the travel itself — but the people who come with it.
Rhythm and Blues
Nordhagen wanted to make a game about peoples’ stories. But he had to think about how such a game could work, and come up with a proper setting.
“When you’re travelling, you meet people,” Nordhagen told us. “Backpackers, and people who’re on the road for five years at a time. I met this couple who had sailed their way across the ocean by working in the galley of someone’s yacht. And you meet these people and they’re like ‘Oh, you should totally check out this thing, or this place, and it’s amazing.’ Or ‘Watch out, we got our pocket picked here in this city, so if you go here watch out for that.’
“I thought it’d be really cool to take those stories and try to make a game out of travelling and meeting travellers and swapping tales with them.”
Racking his brain for a setting that would tie everything together, he settled on American roots music.
“It dovetails quite nicely with the travel aspect. Blues songs are often about drifters and wanderers and people on the road. It’s a time in America when you could hop box cars, and there was this romantic notion of the hobo’s life. So it’s about meeting travellers during the Great Depression.”
As you travel South in the game, you’ll encounter more Blues music. Going Westward will find you more folksy songs. But the music isn’t just a good fit in a literal sense — it very much fits the idea of swapping stories.
“The title of the game is actually a folk song,” explains Nordhagen. “I thought about what that means. As well as the idea of folk culture, and how folk songs work. How it used to be, when someone performed them. Other people would hear that, and they’d take that song and learn it for themselves and spread it on for other people. You’d hear someone play it on a guitar, but you’ve got a fiddle — so you’d change it to match that, and you’d add an extra verse to the story, or whatever. I really like that idea of folk culture and transmitting these stories in that way.
“And so that kind of folk song ethos comes into the game a lot. You’ll wander and have these adventures, and it gives you these little stories. You tell people, and it gets passed around more. They tell other people and so on and so forth.”
The Untold Stories
By definition, the stories you come across while travelling the world are far from familiar. Similarly, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine will expose you to stories you don’t usually hear, from people you might not usually talk to.
There’s no lack of stories of downtrodden folk during the Great Depression. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine takes the player from the early 20th century mining strike, to the long walk of the Navajo when soldiers forced them from their home, to the plight of black sharecroppers in the South.
But to achieve this, Nordhagen had to acknowledge that some stories were better told by others.
“Because all of these stories take place so long ago, there’s nobody who actually lived through all of this stuff who we could contact to write this,” he said. “But I tried to find people who at least have some kind of connection, to speak authentically about these experiences. Then, writers turned that research into actual people, and gave them motivations and characters.”
There are 219 stories in total in Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, divided among 16 characters. Each character is handled by a different writer. Each one can be treated like a self-contained short story, though they all have common themes.
There are some experiences of Nordhagen’s that directly made it into the game, however.
“When I was in Istanbul, that’s when the protests were going on in Taksim Square, and I was curious and in support of the protesters,” he said. “And I got teargassed and hit with the water cannons by Turkish police. In the game you’ll get beat up by the police, and that was directly drawing from that.”
Does Water Ever Taste Like Wine?
As you might expect, this is a game more about the journey than the destination. But what is the destination? What does Nordhagen hope the player will experience?
“The game is about seeking the American dream and seeking something you really want, but is impossible to find.” he reveals. “The thread that binds all these characters together is they’re all looking for something.
“You as the player can recognise they’re never going to find it. Either in the case of the cowboy for whom the range has vanished and the west is no longer wild… That time has come and gone. In the case of the black character looking for equality, we can look at that and know, even today, America struggles with that.”
Nordhagen has included a thematically appropriate achievement called “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine,” which you can never obtain.
“We can see the tragic ends of these stories — that all these people are looking for something they’re never going to find. And hopefully that achievement gives the player a little bit of the same feeling.”