Interview: Johnnemann Nordhagen Tells Us Where The Water Tastes Like Wine

It might sounds like pretty heavy philosophical stuff but, at its ragged, windswept core, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s about the power of stories and how much of that power is owed to the truths contained within them.

We spoke to the lead developer behind the project, Dim Bulb Games’ Johnnemann Nordhagen, to learn more.

I'd like to start by asking you where that initial idea for the game came from.

Johnnemann: "Sure, absolutely. After [working on] Gone Home, I decided to take some time and do something I've always wanted to do, which is travel a bunch. So, I took about six months and strapped my backpack on my back and wandered around the world. Went all over Europe and Asia basically.”

“While I was on that trip I was trying to think a lot about what I might want to do next, what kind of game I might tackle and of course since I was traveling that was very much on my mind. I kind of really liked the feeling, especially when you're backpacking, you wander from place to place and you meet people, fellow travelers and you often see the same people in different places and you'll kind of get together in a hostel or some other place and swap tales and say, "oh this happened to me here", "or you should definitely check this thing out", or "watch out I got my pocket picked in this place, be careful if you go there". Stuff like that.”

“I thought that will be a really cool experience to make a game out of, and I was on this train in the middle of Siberia and there was not a lot to do when you're in the middle of Siberia on a train. I was thinking about this idea, thinking what that would look like. I decided that not only did I want to make a game about traveling but I also wanted to pull in another interest of mine, which is American Roots music, like blues, bluegrass, folk music, things like that. So, I started thinking about what would that look like? What would the combination of these two things be. Of course, my brain went to the hobo-era of America, when travel was a big deal and you could just kind of swing yourself up on a boxcar and go wherever you wanted. That sort of romantic freedom of the hobo lifestyle. I thought, that seems like that would be a pretty cool game idea. So I began toying with that and that's the genesis of Where the Water Tastes like Wine.”

Out of curiosity are there any stories from your own travels that made it into the game in some capacity?

Johnnemann: “There aren't any directly. There's one, not from that trip, but a different [one]. When I was on a road trip across the US I was driving my car on this desert road that's actually called 'the loneliest road in America'. There's just nothing there. It's just flat, desert all around.”

“Suddenly out of nowhere, my car was just surrounded by clouds of butterflies. This huge swarm of butterflies that came from somewhere and I don't know where, they were just everywhere. So I pulled over and I got out of my car and I just let these butterflies just swirl around me and experienced that. That story made it into the game, but there wasn't a whole lot from traveling around Europe and Asia that directly made it in.”

So, from that initial idea what was the biggest development from that initial idea to the final release. What do you think was the biggest change that really cemented what the game became?

Johnnemann: “Well, the first thing I started to do was I started to do a lot of research into the kind of people one might meet in this sort of historical America, and I already knew these days it wouldn't be good enough to make a game just about white male hobos traipsing across America, that just wasn't [an option]. Those stories have probably been told enough and it wasn't something I was interested in.”

“So I started looking into other types of characters and everything. When I sat down with that I quickly decided that I wasn't the right person to write all those characters, I had a black sharecropper from the South and I sat down and I was like ‘I can't write this character, I can't write about the Native American experience’. There's all these other people that I'm not the right person to tell those stories and so I began thinking about getting other writers to help me and very quickly that turned into the idea of just getting one person to write each character, because that was something I don't think any game has ever done before and it was an idea that really seemed fascinating to me.”

“To make this more about a collection of individual stories than about one big overarching story like most games are. I was trying to collect the many different stories that one might find in America in one sort of place and have that be the focus.”

What that process was like? Did they have much control over where those characters' stories were ultimately going?

Johnnemann: ”Yeah, so what I did was I came up with ideas for the kind of ideas that I might want to have and I would be varied in detail.”

“I knew that I wanted to have, for example, something about the miner wars of the early 20th century - this was a thing in the US where miners, coal miners, went on strike and the US government fought them and it was a big deal. I took that as a starting point, I did a lot of historical research into that and then I would collect all those notes that I had and all that research and send it to a writer and they would take the historical context and actually make a person out of it, because all I had was like, ‘oh yeah these are the dates in which this happened’ and so on and so forth.”

“There were other characters where all I had was basically an idea. I just said, "hey, let's do a sailor, let's do an alcoholic sailor. I don't know what his story is, I don't know anything about him, go for it." Or, this character should be a gambler, there's all these songs and things about gamblers wandering the US, that's kind of a whole genre of song so let's do one of those. But that was it, that was just the idea then so, the writers in that case had even more freedom and could take that and build it into whoever they wanted, and that was I think a good experience for the writers. I think I gave writers way more freedom than their used to having on projects, probably.”

Who is your favorite writer to work with?

Johnnemann: “Oh, I don't know that I should say anything like that, that sounds like a way to make enemies. They were all really fantastic, I mean they're all incredibly skilled people. I've followed Leigh Alexander's work for ages, from I don't know probably a decade back or something like that, so it was an amazing honor to work with her.”

“Same thing with Emily Short, she is one of the people who I would say her name and people's eyes would get big and they'd be like, "you're working with Emily Short!" She's got this cache that's pretty spectacular, but really honestly all of them were a pleasure to work with. They were all incredibly professional, they all wrote fantastic characters. It was a great time.”

What advice would you give to another indie developer who might attempt a similar sort of multi-authored project?

Johnnemann: “So when I started I was just like, okay all these writers are good at what they do, I'll just get them to do their stuff then I'll take it and look at it and fix it up if it needs to be anything like that, and I quickly realized I was way, way over my head.”

“I brought on an editor, which I should have had from the very beginning. But her name [was] Laura Mache, and she was not only an editor she's also the staff writer for the game so she did a lot of the extra kind of fill-in text, just any extra text that we needed to write.”

“Right from the beginning, have yourself a really good editor, they do amazing work. It's not always visible to the end user but editors are key to the whole process as I'm sure you know.”

Do you think this kind of anthology story-telling is something that you would want to revisit with another project?

Johnnemann: “That's a good question. I think that it was absolutely the right fit for this project because od the diversity of the stories that I was trying to tell. I think it's very hard to do and it only really works in [certain situations]. You really need to have a framing device that fits that approach to storytelling and I think that there are other ones out there other than a travel 'round the road meeting different people.”

“I can think of other cool ways to do that, but I don't think every story or every world needs to be an anthology. I would definitely like to try it again, I think I might do something more traditionally narrative in the future, or maybe two different writers on opposite sides of something or something like that.”

“I definitely would like to play around with the idea of having separate voices who don't necessarily, who represent different viewpoints but I think that this is a very unique situation in which this particular 16 different writers works out well.”

The way Where the Water Tastes Like Wine looks and sounds is also very important to the experience, can you talk to me about the tone you were trying to set here and how you sort settled on the final look.

Johnnemann: “That comes from these ideas of American folk culture, folk songs, folk stories and this world that is simultaneously very real - like it's about very real stuff like workers rights and peoples struggles to get by and survive day to day - but it also slips very easily into the fantastical. You can meet the devil at the crossroads or find ghosts in the woods, all that sort of stuff is just as real as the struggle to eat every day and make enough money and things like that.”

“I feel like the art style has to reflect that in a way. So we started from ideas of storybooks, the kind of illustrations you might see in that sort of thing. We also looked at period appropriate things like woodblock illustrations, where you do woodcarving and that very strong black ink lines that a lot of our illustrations have that comes from that sort of style, which was big at the time.”

“There's, I feel like simultaneously both a sparseness to the art especially the little stories that you encounter, the vignettes those are two color essentially or three color, black lines with a little bit of tinting and things like that. So they're very sparse but they're also detailed and evocative and I think that gets at this idea of both grounded reality with a touch of the fantastical.”

More specifically, where did the skeleton avatar you play as come from?

Johnnemann: “It was kind of, an interesting journey to get there but there were two things going on simultaneously. One was that originally in the game rather than being an even mix of fantasy and reality there was this idea that you would start out very grounded and very real and then over time you'd get to a point where everything got very weird.”

“Part of that was that characters would change their form, and one of the ideas we came up with was that someone would change into a skeleton, like a living skeleton and that was one thing. Then another thing I was thinking about was I was thinking, well I don't want to make a character creator for this game and I don't want it to be particularly about the player character anyway, make any player character would kind of give you too much investment in who you actually are, it's not about that. At the same time I do want anyone to be able to pick up the game and feel like they could be playing, that it could be them as a traveler no matter what you look like and who you are that could be a thing.”

“I just had this revelation at one point, hey if we make the player a skeleton then that can be a stand-in for anyone, like everyone's got a skeleton. You don't have any age or race or gender when you're a skeleton, it could be anyone, and this also feeds into this fantastical atmosphere that we're trying to create with the game, that's where all that came together and we made the player character a skeleton.”

Sting is in this game? How did that happen?

Johnnemann: “I'm not sure that I even still know, it's so bizarre. Basically it was just an opportunity that sort of fell into our laps, and it's all thanks to Good Shepherd whose the publisher of the game. Someone at Good Shepherd was at a party with Sting and just had the opportunity to introduce this game to him and this idea, and he I guess was just in love with it from the get-go and agreed to participate.”

“I mean, obviously it's just out of reach for an indie game to have Sting, right? But because of a variety of factors he was excited about being in this one. There we go, that's how it came together.”

What's the reaction been like?

Johnnemann: “There've been a lot of people who really, really love the game and that is something that always gratifying to see. There's people who are immediately on-board with that weird Americana, the storytelling aspect, things like that.”

“There have also been people who don't like the game as much, and that's something we expected from the beginning too. This is from the outset this was an experimental game. It was something had never been done before in a lot of different ways. This time period isn't something that's done in games. Again, the anthology thing is different. This particular style of narrative game is different.”

“It's not quite interactive fiction and it's not quite a visual novel. It's not really a walking simulator, it's got a bunch of different pieces of narrative things in it, but it's just weird and we knew that [it] would be fighting an uphill battle to get people to think about that.”

“I mean, even when you go onto Steam and I had to pick from a drop-down of what genre is your game. It's like, well I'm pretty sure it's not a racing game, it's definitely not a fighting game but other than that it doesn't really fit into any of your boxes.”

“That's also been difficult to just explain to people, people will say what is Where the Water Tastes Like Wine? And I can't start out by saying, ‘Well, it's an RPG, it's a platformer or it's an adventure game, it just doesn't fit easily into that box and that makes it very hard to maybe find the audience that will be excited about it. It's hard to reach those people because they don't exist yet, there isn't an audience for weird narrative games like this because this is the first one.”

Last question - I played through Where the Water Tastes Like Wine at the same time as I was reviewing Kingdom Come: Deliverance and it's really interesting to see the striking difference in the way that they approach the representation of history. Can you talk me through your thoughts on how we represent history and what historical realism means in games development?

Johnnemann: “Yes, so obviously Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is not concerned entirely with historical realism, right? I mean, the game opens with you losing a poker match to a wolf-headed Sting and that's not real.”

“But at the same time, there is a lot of historical realism in the game. As I said, all the characters are from history. They're all researched.They're drawn from various pieces of American history but the important part to me about the history that I chose to explore and to talk about was that it was not the normal history that you see.”

“I have very little idea of what that looks like outside the US, like what the rest of the world thinks about our history or knows about our history but I know in the US we don't learn about things like the pullman porters [and the] the striking mine workers.”

“We don't learn about all these different characters that you can meet in the game. They don't really show up in our classrooms, in our history books or even necessarily in our stories.”

“In the beginning, when the wolf is telling you about what your mission is, he says ‘America's one big story, it's mostly untrue’. We tell ourselves what America is and mostly it's all lies, but if we gather stories that are true and weave that into our big story we will make something better. We can tell ourselves the story of America that is more true. That's your mission as the player, to go find these true stories - these real people’s lives - and share them around so that more people know those stories. And that is also exactly what the game is trying to do, as well it's trying to take these stories, pull them out of history and show them to more people.”

“I think that's really important because history just really is a collection of stories. right? We're never going to get the truth. We can see there's the cliché that history's written by the victors but even more than that what happens to be recorded. Either through one person’s decision to omit certain things, or just accidents of who was able to observe and what was able to be recorded.”

“We're never going to get a complete picture of history but we can try to vary the stories we're telling and that we were told so that we get a more complete picture of what's out there and I think that's very important when you know that certain stories aren't being told to seek those out and lift them into vision more.”

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is available on Steam now.

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