Everything is stories. We talk in stories, we learn from stories, we distill our experiences into stories. Our history is the culmination of a million different stories all thrust together, bound in books by people who sifted through those multitudes of stories. And from those histories we gather lessons and ideas; dreams of what might be.
But what if some of those stories weren’t exactly true? What if some of them were, in fact, beautiful lies?
That’s the idea behind Johnnemann Nordhagen’s Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Nordhagen helped co-found The Fullbright Company and programmed Gone Home, however he left the company in 2014 to try new and wonderful things after the success of Gone Home. He went on to found Dim Bulb Games, a studio where he felt he could pursue a collaborative dream. That dream has finally manifested in the form of a trek across a Depression-era United States that mixes the countryside mysticism of tall tales with the stark realities of living.
I had an opportunity to talk with Nordhagen about the creation and stories of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Dim Bulb Games’ first title has brought together writers from across the game industry to tell stories; stories that might shed more light on the history of the United States; stories that might just help lift the veil of what Nordhagen refers to as “the shining lie.”
So, can you tell me how the idea for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine came about? It seems really collaborative with all the writers you have, [gesturing toward a piece of paper covered in the names of contributors] I saw that list right there.
Johnnemann Nordhagen: Yeah, so I got the idea for the game--I was travelling around a lot after finishing my last game, Gone Home. I traveled the world and I was encountering a lot of other travelers. Every time you do that, you swap stories with them. You say, 'Oh, you should definitely go here,' or, 'I got my pocket picked here; watch out!' Thought it would be cool to make a game about that. I also really like American roots; music, blues, bluegrass, jazz, things like that. And so, I wanted to pull it to America, set it during the Great Depression with all these songs. You're in this world of down-on-their-luck gamblers, and people are selling their souls to the devil at the crossroads. It's kind of like a folkloric world, right? But I also wanted to bring in a little bit of American history and the lives of people who have maybe been forgotten by modern history. You've got sharecroppers in the South, or Pullman porters, Navajo women during the Long Walk of the Navajo. I'm obviously not the right person to write all of those stories. So I went out looking for other writers to help me tell these tales and fill out this roster.
This game spans the entirety of the United States from the East Coast to West Coast?
JN: That's right. You can walk anywhere in the U.S., except for Hawaii and Alaska, of course. But yeah, you can walk anywhere you want. You can also hop trains, or hitch hike to get around faster. Each of the different regions of the game has its own set of stories, its own set of characters, its own music and also its own color palettes. They're all very distinct little regions.
How did you manage to get an entire country into your game? That's a pretty big scope!
JN: Yeah, well, it is a pretty big scope! It's obviously scaled down, it's not the real size of the U.S. I've done a lot of work to map it out and lay it out. I also tried to put characters that came from different areas of the country so I could tell stories about all these different places.
Is there a goal to the game, or is it open exploration; choose a destination, go?
JN: Right, it's an open world game, so you've go to choose your own direction. There is a framing story to the game, which is that, in the beginning of the game, you lose a hand of poker to the wrong person. Because of that, you're cursed to wander the U.S. carrying stories around, spreading them. You're kind of the Johnny Appleseed of folktales, basically. And part of your job is to also collect the true stories of these people's live and add those to the Big Story of America.
Did you write the overall arching narrative, or did you have one of your--
JN: No, I came up with the overall story. Yeah, yeah. I did a lot of writing that fills the gaps in the story. And then the little adventures, we call vignettes, those are written by other people. Then each of the characters, of course, are written by someone else.
You built an entire game based on telling stories to each other. I feel like that's a really outside of the box way of going about game design. How did you come up with the gameplay around that concept?
JN: It took a little while and some bouncing around to get there, but…. I really like the idea of telling the stories is the way we share culture and idea among people. That's always been something that I've tried to get in there. Over time when I was working with the game, just various pieces fell in to place where it became the natural way to do it. I want it to be about folktales and the way they change and grow, how [people] spread them around, and how that works.
I also, when I first started making the game, I thought it would be really interesting to try to avoid combat mechanics. I was wondering, ‘how would you do a game if you can't do that?’ The last game I worked on was Gone Home and that was a first person shooter without any shooting in it, right? And so when I started coming up with ideas for this game, I was thinking like well, what's another kind of genre of game that I could look at, taking the combat out of it? I actually thought about JRPGs and what you would do if you remove fighting from JRPGs. This has moved so far away from JRPGs it's not really there anymore, but you can see a little bit of where I was going with the overworld map and the interactions with the characters, the kinds of encounters you have. I guess all of those areas is where that came from.
How exactly does the storytelling mechanic work?
JN: So what happens is that you have these little adventures, these vignettes. They're like little text adventures where you have two choices, and you can feel your way through this adventure that happens to you. You get a story at the end of that. Then you have the story of whatever happened to you during that time. Because you're choosing from two different branches, you can sometimes choose what kind of story it is. ‘Is this a love story? Is this a tragedy? Is this about family? Is this about being trapped?’ And then you gather these stories into an inventory.
You take them and you [encounter characters throughout the world], and when you tell these characters a story- You tell them a story about a family, for example, they'll tell you something about their family in return. They'll also ask for different moods of stories. So they might ask for a scary story, and if you tell them a scary story about family, whatever that would be, you'll not only hear what they have to say, but you'll also gain their trust and move forward in their story. So the next time you meet them, you might get the next chapter. When you get to the final chapter of their story, they'll also reveal their true self to you and you'll see an actual visual transformation take place and they'll be a really exciting piece of art you get to look at.
And there’s another aspect of the storytelling mechanic, as well. As you tell these stories, they sometimes get told around behind your back and they'll grow and tell in the way that folktales do and "level up" as they do that--and come back to you the same story, but bigger, better, weirder.
Part of my attraction to this game is just that there's nothing else like it? There aren't a whole lot of games that completely throw out combat mechanics and are about something other than violence. And maybe some of the stories involve violence to some degree, but that's not the focus of the game.
JN: I think one of the interesting thing about the stories in the games there aren't a lot that are directly violent, but there is a lot of systemic violence that you see. We're trying to talk about the more of marginalized people in the United States. So you hear from a lot of people--sharecroppers whose union was busted by cops, by Southerners with guns. You hear about the Long Walk of the Navajo where the U.S. military uprooted an entire people and forced them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert where many of them died. So no, there's not combat in the game, but yeah, you are always immersed in this sort of systemic oppression and violence. It's lurking in the background, always.
Often stories that delve into the past have a message about the present. Have the current social or political climates had any effects on this game? Does it have a message for modern times?
JN: Aah, it's actually really weird, I didn't actually set out with that in mind, but reality has gotten closer and closer to this game, to be relevant to this game, as time goes on. It's very strange. I started this in 2014 and now it's like, wow, 'What the heck happened?'
I think there's a lot that happened [during the Depression-era] of American history and a lot that happened to these characters that's very relevant to what's going on today. There're definitely political messages in this game put there both by me in designing the game and also by the individual writers as they're writing their characters that I think are very relevant to what's going on today.
I'm really glad that I feel like I have something relevant to say about our current life, the way it is right now, with my art. At the same time, I wish things weren't the way they are. I wish I didn't feel like we were entering an era similar to the Great Depression.
You mentioned traveling around, sharing stories—Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seems like a really good fit for that theme, but why the Depression-era? Was it the blues-y aspect of the time? The ridin' the rails culture of it?
JN: It was all of that. I really like this sort of music, the blues, bluegrass. I love the world contained in the stories, as well as the music itself. Those songs are all about this era and this magical way of existing. It's also the heyday of travelling in America in a lot of ways. You know, more than two million people were displaced, or homeless, wandering the streets during the Great Depression. So that hobo era is a really powerful time [to draw upon].
You decided what kinds of characters would be in the game, and then the writers wrote the stories around those characters. So how did you decide which characters you wanted to include?
JN: I think there were a lot of interesting stories from around this period. Stories neglected in American history that you don't often hear about, especially in video games. [For example, in doing background research for the game] I did not know the extent of the Mine Wars when the U.S. military was dropping bombs from planes on West Virginian miners. That’s a big deal! And you don't really hear about that at all, so I wanted to capture more of those stories. These characters represent events that you don't hear about as often.
Maybe the rougher bits of history that get glossed over in textbooks?
JN: Exactly, yeah, yeah. That's what this is supposed to be, exposing the truth of the American dream in some ways. There's a character at the beginning who tells you America is built on stories and all those stories add up to a ‘big, shining lie.’ That's the phrase he uses, a shining lie. And he asks you to go out and find these true story and add them to the Big Story and talks about a tarnished truth being better than a shining lie. That’s part of the idea for the game.
I know you had a lot of contributions from other writers, but for the parts that you worked on, did you look back at media like Sullivan's Travels, media from or about the time?
JN: Yeah, actually. The way the characters worked is that I did all the research for those characters. I found a bunch about these different people, gathered a bunch of factual information. Then, I would go to these writers and say ‘Hey, can you write a Pullman porter for me? Here's what a Pullman porter is. Here's all my research; here's some cool facts.’ And they took that and they made these into these real, three-dimensional people with wants and needs, and hopes and dreams, and families. All the good parts of writing, right? I did a ton of research. Both for the individual characters, and, of course, the era in general.
For the research, if there are people--maybe this is getting a little too niche--who are interested in this time period, what were some really good resources you found?
JN: Yeah! There's a great book about the dust book called The Worst Hard Time that is really, really a great read. There's also...I watched the Ken Burns Dust Bowl documentary. I watched, there's a fantastic John Sails movie called Matewan. It's like fictionalized history, but it's about the kind of Mine Wars of West Virginia, the turn of the century--that's really great. There's a book called Sister of the Road, it's supposed to be an autobiography of a woman hobo travelling during the era. There's also a number of books I read about the Great Depression that I'm blanking on names of. I drew a lot from fiction, too. Things like Huck Finn, On the Road, I pulled from all sorts of different places for the characters. They have their own stack of books that I worked from.
You basically just took all that information, threw it at writers, and they gave you back gold?
JN: Yes. It's amazing, amazing stuff. I'm super lucky to work with all these talented people, and they gave me back just amazing, amazing writing. This game is most spectacular on three fronts, I would say. It's my game, so take this with a grain of salt. The art is really amazing, the music really, really wonderful, and most of all, the writing is our strongest pull. I think that anyone could pick this up and enjoy the writing for its own sake.
Did you handle the art style? It's very distinctive.
JN: Thanks! No, I didn't. I'm not an artist at all. I'm kind of the programmer and creative director. I have a team, a company that's called Serenity Forge. They're doing the art for me and helping me with the design.
How did you wind up linking with them?
JN: Actually at IndieCade last year, we were at a party together and we were talking. I had just lost my art team for various reasons and needed a new one! So they were willing to do this co-development thing with me, and it’s worked out really well. I'm super happy to be working with them.
The music is also really good. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine draws heavily from blues, bluegrass, folk. That's all original music that's been composed for the game. Each character has their own piece of music in addition to the overworld song that changes character as you go from region to region. There's like an Appalachian-bluegrass in the Northeast and it becomes a folk song in the Midwest, a little bit more blues-y in the South.
How did you go about composing that music? To clarify: It's not based on older, pre-existing songs?
JN: It's all original, but it is very much in that vein. I'm not the composer. My composer is Ryan Ike. He worked on Frog Factions 2, actually. […] He's fantastic, he's amazing. Everyone who has played the game has said the music is really good, so I'm very happy.
Did he also play the music?
JN: He performed some of it, but mostly we got live performers to do a lot of the stuff. People that sing and play banjo and guitar and violin. […] He's really, really good at this.
So he just took the idea and ran with it?
JN: Yeah, yeah. He was super, super excited to do this because this is unlike most game music. It's very different.
Where did you get the title for the game? It seems kinda like that old song about the Big Rock Candy Mountain?
JN: I'm really glad you asked that question, actually. It's a line from American folk culture. It pops up in a bunch of different folk songs, it shows up in stories. It's a folk saying, ‘the place where the water tastes like wine.’ It's always a place that's somewhere nearby, but inaccessible. It's maybe the next county over, there's a place where the water tastes like wine. And all of the stories in the game feed into this theme of people looking for something. They’re looking for… for their promised land, their Big Rock Candy Mountain, their place where the water tastes like wine. And of course, the sad truth at the heart of that is that there is nowhere where the water tastes like wine. The whole game is about the failure of the American dream to live up to what it has promised us.
[…] One thing I wanted to add, the whole game will be voice acted eventually. It's not in the demo now, but we're adding voice acting for all the characters.
Have you run into any problems with the voice acting strike? Has that made casting any harder?
JN: One of the things I--I don't know how much I can say about this--this game, a lot of the characters in this game are union members. There's a coal worker in the United Mine Workers; there's a farm worker from the United Farm Workers; we've got the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Sharecroppers’ Union and a bunch of other characters in there. I am personally a big fan of unions, and union labor, and I would really, really like to support SAG-AFTRA and get union actors to act this game. I don't want to make any promises, but that's what I'm trying to do.
How has public reaction been to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine so far?
JN: It's been really nice to have people check it out and play it [at events]. This is not the type of game I expect to resonate with everyone, right? This is very much a niche game. But, the people who have come by and have heard about it, and been interested in it have been really interested and really enthusiastic. I've gotten a lot of rave reactions from people.
And it will be on PC, and then eventually PS4 and Xbox One, right?
JN: Later this year or early next year. We're gonna try to figure out if we can avoid the horrible rush window of all the big stuff popping in the fall and Christmas season. We're also talking about a tablet version for iPad.
Any plans to bring Where the Water Tastes Like Wine over to the Nintendo Switch at some point?
JN: I would really love that, but I have not talked to Nintendo at all. I have development agreements with Sony and Microsoft so I'm going to say those have worn me out. I'd love to bring it to Switch, but I don't have any news on that front. So, Nintendo, call me!
A big thank you to Johnnemann Nordhagen for taking the time to answer questions! Look for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine to become available in early 2018 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.