A good story is more about the journey than the destination, a quality shared by the wonderful adventure game, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
The game starts like this: after losing a game of cards to a very suspicious man-wolf, you are compelled to do his bidding in order to remove a hex he puts on you. But what does this villainous trickster want? To hear stories from every corner of the country. Then you’re off, traveling across Depression-era America, turning every stone and checking every corner to bear witness to the country’s denizens during their wildest, weirdest, brightest, darkest, strongest, and most vulnerable moments.
All of these stories are collected by you, and retold to some particularly interested parties in a clever way. The stories themselves almost act as a resource or a currency, to trade with these road warriors for stories of their own.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is such a compelling and interesting experience that I needed to know more. So I reached out via email to the game’s Staff Writer and Editor Laura Michet, who has touched every single word in the script, to ask about how scary that last phrase is and more.
And as a disclosure, Laura and I worked together in the past at her old gig as Editor-in-Chief at ZAM and AOVStats. She edited my words and helped me sound intelligent, so it’s no surprise she’d do the same for this game.
What’s your development history? Did it always coincide with your writing career?
I’ve been working in games since 2011. I’ve worked for both large companies and on indie projects, and my work has been in development roles as well as support stuff like business development and market research. I got into games to make games, though, so when I was doing bizdev and market research, I was still always making games on my own or in game jams. I got pretty addicted to game jams — there was a period of time where I was doing maybe eight to ten jams a year, haha. Those game jams introduced me to a lot of indie developers, and I got into commercial indie games development for the first time when I contributed to Frog Fractions 2. I wrote and helped design the SPAXRIS sections in that game.
I’ve been interested in writing since I was a small child, though. I wrote for and edited student publications like literary magazines, comedy magazines, and yearbooks from middle school through college. I did a double-major in history and creative writing and wrote a three hundred page novel for my college undergrad thesis. So writing has been something that I’ve always done. My first job in games was a quest-writing job, actually.
What was your role on the WTWTLW team?
I was the staff writer and the editor.
As a staff writer, I wrote a bunch of the map vignette stories, but I also wrote a lot of other events that serve the game mechanics, as well as a lot of supplementary writing that makes the rest of the game work properly. So I wrote almost all of the events where you level up a story to a higher-level story, and almost all of the events where you earn money in a city or get free resources from friendly people on the overworld map.
The most difficult writing I had to do was the interstitial dialogue for all the characters. When the character writing was first commissioned from the authors, the conversation mechanics at the campfires were very different. After the designers changed the conversation mechanics, the game now needed all this additional dialogue where the characters request specific stories and tell you whether they liked your story or not. I had to write almost all of that for every character, but I had to match the original author’s tone and style so that it would blend in with the rest of their dialogue. So that was the hardest work in the game, for me! I had to do a lot of research for some of them. To write Fidelina’s supplementary dialogue, for example, I had to read almost all of Bless Me, Ultima in one weekend, so I would understand the major literary work she was based on.
As an editor, I had to go and make corrections and changes to pretty much all the writing in the game. This meant mostly that I had to make the writing shorter! Most of the writers had to work without knowledge of the game UI or the character limits in the text boxes available to them. Once those were set, I had to go through and test every single piece of writing in the game to make sure it fit properly in its text box.
The other work I had to do as an editor was the kind of more-typical editor stuff that every editor does, no matter what medium they’re in: evaluating the work for cohesion and stylistic effect, making corrections, etc.
A who’s who of folks have writing credits, how’d you guys court so much well-known talent?
I was actually barely involved in this! Johnnemann Nordhagen, the game’s lead developer, recruited all of those well-known character writers himself.
Same goes for voice talent, as there are some big names lending their skills to bring some of these stories to life. But then there’s surprises like Sting. How did that come about?
I am not sure how the character voice actors happened, to be honest — I wasn’t involved in that process. Sting is also a kind of an enigma. One day I was editing the Dire Wolf dialogue and Johnnemann told me, “Stop, it’s already gone to the VO actor.” And I asked “Why?” and he said “Don’t tell anyone, but Sting is doing the wolf voice.” Someone involved in the game on like a publishing level knew Sting and set it all up, I think. Johnnemann himself says he’s not exactly sure how it all happened!
The unique mysticism of American storytelling is a very interesting topic that’s been explored in movies and books, but rarely in games. How did your team decide on this motif, and what sort of inspirations did you embrace during the process?
Johnnemann has a better answer for this than I do, but the basic deal is that he once went on a very long trip and had a lot of great experiences sharing stories with other travelers. He then decided to make a game about storytelling, but to set it in the lost history of the early 20th century, in the lives and stories of people who didn’t always get to put their perspectives in the history-books.
For inspiration, all of the characters are based on real historical events and social movements. Rocio is based on Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers. Franklin is based on the Pullman Porters and their unionization efforts, which made them the first black union in the United States. Mason is a World War One soldier who went on the Bonus Army, which was a giant protest in 1932 where WW1 veterans demanded the bonus money they’d been promised during the war, but never given. Every single character is based on a major social conflict — not necessarily on a specific one, but also some more general ones, like sharecropping, the birth of rock and roll through blues, and so on.
Some of the characters are also influenced by very specific books. Fidelina is inspired by Ultima from Bless Me, Ultima. Cassady is inspired by On The Road.
Making dialogue a mechanic in a narrative game is a technique as old as games, but you guys manage such a clever interpretation of “the dialogue tree.” How did you guys brainstorm this system?
I wasn’t part of this either, actually! I didn’t do any character writing. The first writing I did for the game, I did for the original vignette system, which was very different. Then I stepped back for about six months. When Johnnemann got back in touch with me for more work, the dialogue systems for both the vignettes and the campfire storytelling conversation modes had been completely redesigned into what you see today.
The music is another strong point of the game. It feels so perfectly aligned with this game’s mission statement that it’s almost didactic. How big of a focus was getting the soundtrack right for you guys?
Super important! The composer Ryan Ike did all the composition and hired all the artists who do the live performances in the soundtrack. This game is really special for having a soundtrack made up of live performances instead of synthesized sound. Ryan is a musical chameleon who can work in so many different genres and styles, it’s incredible. He has a really interesting twitter thread about that here. I actually worked on another game with Ryan, Frog Fractions 2 — aka Glittermitten Grove — and he was a complete chameleon on that one, too. He wrote, like, medieval chanting and Seinfeld-style sitcom music for that one.
What’s the reception been like in these early days after release? Are there takes on WTWTLW that have surprised you?
The reception has been really good, I think! It’s a very unusual game made for people who really like just a TON of reading, and the meditative overworld marching is also something aimed at a really specific kind of person. So I’ve been really pleased that so many people seem to be enjoying it and discovering American folklore and history through it! Watching streamers enjoy it with their fans has been really exciting, actually. I’ve been surprised that it’s been such a good game for streamers.
What’s harder: editing a game website or developing a game?
Honestly? Editing a game website. When you run a game website, you have to be a magical human being who is good at editing, budgets, hiring, dealing with executives, analyzing traffic numbers, managing engineers, dealing with executives… the list goes on. When I edited WTWTLW, I got to focus on the stuff I really enjoy, which is just editing and working with writers to make sure their work is as good as it can be. I really enjoyed it!
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is available now on PC and Mac. If you’ve been wandering aimlessly in the countryside in search for tall tales and need some guidance, come to the Official Where the Water Tastes Like Wine Wiki!