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Road to the IGF: Dim Bulb Games' Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes the player on a narrative adventure across America, creating a tapestry of folk stories, travelling tales, and personal moments.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 1, 2018

6 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine takes players on a narrative adventure across America, gathering tall tales and personal anecdotes as they travel around the country. Players will meet a variety of characters from all manner of backgrounds on this boxcar-hopping trip, hearing stories from them that explore the fantastical, the surreal, and the frightening.

Capturing so many different viewpoints and stories would have been a daunting challenge for Dim Bulb Games' Johnnemann Nordhagen, but by bringing together a collection of talented writers and meshing their styles with the world, they all worked to create the Excellence in Narrative-nominated story for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.

What's your background in making games?

This is a tough question, actually! Where The Water Tastes Like Wine (WTWTLW) is, by intention, a collaboration between many many different people. I'll list some of their backgrounds below.

Dim Bulb Games was founded by Johnnemann, who previously worked at Sony R&D and on the Bioshock series at 2K before going indie to co-found The Fullbright Company and make Gone Home.

Serenity Forge is the co-developer of the game, taking on much of the art. They have previously released several titles including The King's Bird.

Ryan Ike, our composer, has worked on many games, among them Gunpoint and another of this year's IGF nominees, West of Loathing.

And then our writers have a long list of games as well. Some highlights are:

Matthew S Burns also worked on Opus Magnum, The Writer Will Do Something, and fellow IGF nominee Shenzhen I/O.

Claris Cyarron is part of Silverstring Media, makers of Glitchhikers and many other boundary-pushing titles.

Cara Ellison wrote the twine game Sacrilege and contributed to Dishonored 2 and projects by Media Molecule and Square Enix Montreal.

Emily Short has published over 35 well-received interactive fiction games, and currently works with Spirit AI.

Leigh Alexander wrote the GDCA-nominated Reigns: Her Majesty.

Kevin Snow is working on Southern Monsters and recently released Mama Possum.

Bruno Dias created the space adventure Voyageur.

Cat Manning has written a number of interactive fiction titles, among them the Indiecade selection What Isn't Saved (Will Be Lost).

Olivia Wood has worked on Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies, and Fallen London

All of our other contributors are similarly talented, but an exhaustive list would be ridiculously long!

How did you come up with the concept?

After shipping Gone Home, I went traveling around the world for about 6 months. While wandering by train and boat everywhere I could, I met fellow travelers and would swap stories with them. On a train in the middle of Siberia, I decided I should try to make a game from the experience, but I decided to bring in the music I love - American roots music, blues and bluegrass and folk and jazz. The world described in those songs is perfect for a game about traveling and telling stories - hopping boxcars and swapping tales of meeting the devil at the crossroads.

I also decided that if I was going to make a game about America, I needed to represent the diversity of America and the multitude of stories present in this country. After some false starts I became convinced I wasn't the right person to do that, and that maybe no single person would be enough. So, I decided to build the game around the idea of having a different person write each character, and treating the narrative like a collection of standalone short stories, rather than a single monolithic narrative. I asked some of my favorite writers to contribute, and found more and more, and we built this bleak, tragic, fantastical America from the patchwork of stories.

What development tools were used to build your game?

We built the game in Unity, and wrote all the stories and text content in Ink, a tool from Inkle Studios that was used to make 80 Days.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

I started the game roughly in July of 2014, so it's been about 3 and a half years of development.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine weaves multiple stories together from different writers. How do you work so many stories/writers together so that their work meshes within the universe?

Yeah! This was an interesting challenge. Part of it involves just having everyone on the same page as far as the world and the themes go - I started with a stable of characters that I wanted to realize, and they all fit together in this world.  But then a large part of that was down to having a good editor. Laura Michet was the editor and staff writer for the game. She not only took all the characters and stories and made them mesh well while still respecting the author's voice, she wrote a lot of content to fill the gaps that inevitably come up during the iteration of a game's design.

How do their differing stories, tones, and styles work to create the unique narrative experience of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine?

The whole point of having so many different writers is that they each have their own voice and perspective. This makes each character's story unique and different and often surprising! And I think, in the end, it acts a lot like wandering around the US and talking to a bunch of different folks might. You get a wide variety of stories and viewpoints, but some common themes soon start to float to the surface.

The visual style of Where The Water Tastes Like Wine has its own story to tell. What thoughts go into weaving the game's visuals into the story?

We started developing the look of the game with the 2D character encounters. These were meant to evoke storybook illustrations, but also bring in early American woodblock prints with their strong black lines. After that, we took that aesthetic and attempted to apply it to a 3D, map-like overworld to create the United States across which the player wanders. 

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Yes! There are so many great games this year, it's wonderful. I have spent a lot of hours in West of Loathing, which is probably the funniest game I have ever played. I've also enjoyed Heat Signature, Tacoma, Night in the Woods, and the gorgeous Luna. And I only recently started A Mortician's Tale

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

I think making this a full-time career is a scary choice right now. There are ways to do it, but it's definitely a risk (as is being a full-time artist in any field, really!) On the other hand, we have so many tools available, and so many different people making and playing games - it's wonderful to see all the different experiences and voices that come out of that!

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