You may have noticed that America is currently experiencing an identity crisis.
From the neo-Nazi attacks of Charlottesville to the anti-fascist protesters of Antifa — and a leader who believes there are “very fine people on both sides” — the battle for the American soul grows more volatile by the day.
Yet, unlike the last time the country went to war with itself, this American struggle doesn’t center around just one specific moral or political issue. Instead, the modern civil war we find ourselves in is fueled by one ageless question: What does it mean to be American? And who gets to decide?
Upcoming indie game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine tackles this existential crisis by allowing players to wander through a map of the United States as a literal bag of bones during the Great Depression. By collecting tales from people in every corner of the American expanse, a larger narrative starts to take shape around those very questions that couldn’t be more relevant to us today.
“Because America is just one big story,” lead designer Johnnemann Nordhagen told me after I played a demo of the game at Seattle’s PAX Prime video game convention recently. “It’s a story that we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are — and that big story is made up of these much smaller stories we tell ourselves as individuals. I think those are the most vital parts of our identity.”
“But,” he continues, “we’ve been telling ourselves a story about who we are that isn’t actually that close to the truth at all.”
“We’ve been telling ourselves a story about who we are that isn’t actually that close to the truth at all.”
A reckoning with the assumptions of manifest destiny at its core, the game aims to “interrogate the American dream, what it means, if it’s even attainable, who it’s accessible to, and who gets left out if it is.”
Nordhagen found that, to tell the true story of America, he’d need to go beyond the usual narratives fed to us in history class. So he sought out forgotten folktales from the people that the American narrative tried to erase.
He focused on characters like a Southern sharecropper and a woman on the Long Walk of the Navajo. “But I quickly realized, well, maybe I’m not the right person to tell these stories. They’re not really my stories to tell,” he said.
Instead, Nordhagen chose to enlist the help of various writers from all walks of life who had connections, in some way or another, to each cultural identity.
The end result is a game that can best be described as an interactive anthology of American folklore, with each main character bearing the different stylings of contributors like Gita Jackson (a staff writer at Kotaku), Cara Ellison (a freelance writer and developer), Austin Walker (editor-in-chief of Waypoint), and Leigh Alexander (media and tech critic) to name a few.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine answers the central existential question plaguing our modern times through the tradition of the American road trip.
Exploring the landscape and people who shaped America isn’t the only way Where the Water Tastes Like Wine captures the diversity that makes up the fabric of this country’s identity. Nordhagen also felt it important to pay homage to the soundscape of American history too.
So, “every character has their own kind of theme song, drawn from their area of the country, their time period, and their culture.”
As a fan of the blues, he chose a genre that continues to define the American narrative to this day.. True to form, the main theme that plays while traversing the map changes depending on the region: the Northeast brings more Appalachian blue grass feels, the South is all deep blues, and the West embeds a more folksy tone.
In the end, nearly every aspect — from its variety of writers, transformations in music, and even the player’s unique experience of the open world — rendered Nordhagen’s game in itself a folktale of sorts.
“All of it is very inline with what folk culture is, which is this transmission.” Both in music and oral storytelling, “songs and stories get changed depending on the mood of the time, or the person playing and telling them. Everyone puts their own spin on it.”
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine answers the central existential question plaguing our modern times through the tradition of the American road trip. Like an video game version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it allows players to experience every single mile of “this immense country” by giving them time to “think and realize the sheer emptiness that you face on the road.”
Somewhere along the line, players learn the truth of America since it first began. It is not a country sown with a single story, or even two stories at war with each story. It’s a place shaped by every individual who came here on the promise that they could write their own tales and forge their own path.
“It’s not an educational game,” Nordhagen said. “But I hope that by playing — by getting to know all these people you share a campfire with — that it inspires players to learn more about the stories of American history that we never talk about.”