Writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Last year, I wrote for Dim Bulb games’ Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, which came out this Wednesday (February 28th). It’s a narrative game built as an anthology, in which you travel the continental United States, carrying stories across the land. It’s massive; there are over 200 “vignettes” (small stories you collect as you cross the land), of which I wrote about 30, and sixteen major characters you can sit down with and swap stories at the campfire.
So this is about my relatively small involvement with this huge game. Two caveats: I didn’t have a high-level view of the process at all, and I was really focused on making my own narrow work as good as it could be.
Also, this post contains mild spoilers for some of the vignettes I wrote.
Oh, the horror!
If I had a significant contribution to the overall mood and tone of the game, it was a heavy infusion of Gothic horror, most of which ended up in the game’s northeast region.
A big part of my formative reading was horror — Lovecraft, Poe, King, Gaiman. I’ll admit that I’ve never gotten around to reading Hawthorne, though a big part of the fun of operating in that kind of strong literary tradition is that the currents run so heavily through it that you’ll sometimes capture the feel of authors you’ve never really read.
Being able to make that contribution was a result of the game’s unique process. Vignette writers would be assigned artwork to write for; some art would have specific subjects (a city, a specific folk tale or historical event), but others were general scenes of life during the Great Depression.
This meant I was able to imprint a mood and subject on many of those scenes. This of course meant that giving me a piece of art was the surest way to end up with it being creepy. The first piece I did for the game was an illustration of a farmhouse; it ended up being about a cellar haunted by angry ghosts. The second was an image of a lineman working on a telegraph pole; it ended up being about the man’s impending death, and the psychompomp whippoorwill waiting for him to fall.
I also had a lot of fun playing with the self-parodic edges of that tradition. There’s the shoggoth in a box, an outright joke; and there’s The Shining and Children of the Corn riffs that are definitely right up against the edge of goofiness.
Structure, structure, structure
I am, allegedly, a formally-trained writer; I took screenwriting in college. And screenwriting is all about structure. The basic premise of traditional screenwriting techniques is that a film must hit the right beats at the right times and have the right sort of arc, otherwise it all collapses in on itself. Good structure doesn’t guarantee a good movie, but it’s a prerequisite.
Part of what’s exciting about interactive narrative is that we’re still figuring out the structures, and we keep finding new challenges to those structures. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a sort of anthology of stories, and individual vignettes are very short. There’s a limited number of vignettes that connect to each other, but they’re largely self-contained stories, and ideally no longer than 400 words each.
This tiny size is demanding in various ways. You have to involve the player character somehow, itself a challenge in this game — WTWTLW features a wandering cypher as a viewpoint character. In most vignettes, this has happened halfway through the first paragraph. Vignettes usually end just after barely reaching a conclusion, or even a suggestion of a conclusion; there’s no room for tying up loose ends at all. There’s a very delicate balance of scene-setting against depth and flavor.
It’s a lot like flash fiction, and Keythe Farley’s brilliant narration does a lot of work. WTWTLW is narrated more like an audiobook than anything. Keythe consistently emphasizes the right words, hits the right intonation, inbues the small characters with unique voices and accents. His line readings are a huge part of the game’s feel, and they work to slow the player down and make those moments linger and land properly. WTWTLW is a visual novel in some senses, but it’s actively fighting against the visual novel impulse of clicking through everything as fast as you can read.
Vignettes were written in Ink, Inkle’s narrative scripting language, but with significant limitations. WTWTLW’s interface didn’t allow for more than two options at a time; a choice (or a non-choice with only one option) was needed to separate paragraphs as distinct screens that the player clicked through. The small scale of most vignettes, and the needs of having each paragraph be immutable so Keythe’s voiceover worked, meant most structural complications you can do in Ink were right out.
This doesn’t mean there wasn’t room to do interesting things, and I learned a lot working under these constraints. WTWTLW has some of my favorite small flourishes of choice and structure that I’ve done in interactive fiction.
One vignette had an odd illustration, a POV shot of someone pointing an accusing hand at a fortune-teller, over a shattered crystal ball. Ordinarily, the player character isn’t visible at all in vignette illustrations; writing to that odd situation resulted in one of the cleverest scenes I wrote for the game, one which asked Keythe to do his best Sting impression (Which he did admirably). It also includes one of my favorite choice lines in the game: “Be a dick | Be a good sport.”
Because of the literary tone and form of those stories, they can play with time and point of view in ways video games traditionally don’t. One vignette uses choice text to signal that someone else’s words are pouring out of the player character’s mouth. One vignette’s ending is framed as the player character’s recounting of events to someone else. One vignette tries to dilate time. One vignette corrects itself to clarify what you’re looking at: He rides a white horse–no, a pale horse; no, actually, a horse the sickly green color of an ashen corpse.
I honestly could have kept writing those vignettes until there were 400 of them, or 1000. Games like WTWTLW are “content monsters,” you can keep adding to them forever and never be done; time and money constraints are what eventually scopes them. I have no inside knowledge on any plans to that effect, but I dearly hope this game does well and we get to go back and add even more to what is already a huge game — or that we get to make more games like it in the future.
Even though this was a long development cycle, different parts of it were siloed from each other (mostly by time constraints) enough that there wasn’t as much cross-pollination as I’d wish. In an ideal world, we’d have had time to let things percolate and blend together more; to let Ryan Ike’s amazing soundtrack influence the vignettes (I wish there was a vignette for the White Rider), to let the vignettes fold back into the portrayal of the main characters. But that’s wishing for a process that was enormous and long-lasting to be even more enormous and more long-lasting, and I think reading this paragraph might cause some of Johnnemann’s hair to turn white.
It’s a miracle any game ships at all, but this game is a miracle and an enormous gift. I hope time shows it’s a harbinger of things to come in how we do things in the industry, of the kinds of experiences we’re willing to make and the kinds of voices we’re willing to seek out. Working on it was a pleasure and an honor.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is available on Itch.io. Full disclosure: I worked on the game as a contractor and have no direct financial stake in sales.
If you’d like to talk to me about writing for your game or interactive narrative project, check out my CV and contact page.