The game is clearly a work of fiction. But it’s one that is deeply concerned with what is true, down to explicitly identifying 16 stories among its 250 as true. These 16 are distinguished from the rest both mechanically and narratively, but they face a certain irony: the game wants these stories to be true both within and outside of the context of the game, but it displays the real-life author of each of these 16 every time you encounter the person telling it. So, the stories pull between being fictional and being true. In doing so, they tell a powerful message of how America has always fallen short of its promises, and yet how, perhaps, that isn’t such a dismal statement after all.
So, sit a while by the fire with me as I tell you how WTWTLW uses its other 234 stories to set up a pattern that informs how we should interpret the main 16, and how that all relates to the history of the United States.
Before I delve too far into the meat of the Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, it’s worth explaining how it actually plays.
After a particularly high-stakes poker match, you, the player, surrendered your soul to a talking, suit-wearing wolf. This Dire Wolf (who is voiced by Sting) gave you a debt: to find and carry stories.
The goal of WTWTLW is to pay off this debt. The gameplay can be divided broadly into two phases: Wandering and Campfires.
During the Wandering phase, you are a skeleton roving a map of the continental U.S. (don’t worry, most people don’t realize you’re a skeleton). You can travel on foot, hitchhike, or catch a train.
Along the way, you need to manage health, rest, and money, all while finding various marked vignettes. These are very short stories about things that happen to you. Some are mundane (the gay couple in a lighthouse on Cape Cod who give you shelter from a storm), and some are surreal (the fish who was filleting a man).
These stories are classified according to 16 themes represented by tarot cards, a framework for which the game offers no justification other than that the Dire Wolf really likes tarot. They range from tragic, to hopeful, to thrilling, to scary, to funny.
More importantly, as you progress through the game, these vignettes will grow. Tell them at a campfire, and you can run into them again later—however, you’ll find that they’ve been altered, usually to become more extravagant and unbelievable. These expanded versions replace the original story in your inventory and become more powerful at the campfires.