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Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Story time with Johnnemann Nordhagen

An interview from critic and fan favorite at IndieCade 2017

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine title

Several weeks ago, I went to IndieCade with the other writers in Top Shelf Gaming. The convention was amazing and there were several games that caught my eye, but none truly intrigued me as much as Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. In the game, you play as a vagrant making your way across the Great Depression-era United States with little more than a penny to your name. Along the way, you get to share and experience stories of daily life that have the potential to expand into larger-than-life legends with each retelling. The game itself is gorgeously designed, the stories are engaging, and the ultimate goal of telling and retelling stories is captivating and truly immerses you into the bleak lifestyle of the time period. Later, I had the opportunity to interview designer and programmer Johnnemann Nordhagen about the process of creating the game and the influences and meaning behind its numerous stories.

What is your background in the gaming industry?

I started in the industry as a QA tester at Sony, and later moved into the Research and Development department as a programmer. After working for several years there, through the launch of the PS3, I moved to the newly-opened 2K Marin studio to work on Bioshock for the PS3, Bioshock 2, and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, as various types of programmer. During the development of XCOM I left to co-found The Fullbright Company (now Fullbright) and was the programmer on Gone Home.

Picture of Johnnemann Nordhagen at conference
Johnnemann Nordhagen (pictured on left)

How did your experience making Gone Home affect the development of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine?

Basically it showed me I could do it! Being the sole programmer on a game gave me the ability to believe I could create one on my own, following my own ideas and vision.

Previously, you’ve said that Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is partially inspired by your own travels abroad. Could you elaborate on that?

After Gone Home shipped, I spent 6 months backpacking around, wandering and visiting all these places I had always wanted to go. I stayed pretty unscheduled, but tried to travel mostly by train, boat, or bus (and also foot, and camel, and scooter, and some other little adventures…). While I was on a train in the middle of Siberia, I was trying to think what sort of game I would make. Naturally I thought about traveling, and the experiences and stories that arise from having adventures and meeting other travelers. I combined that with my love of American roots music and came up with the idea for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.

A skeleton avatar crosses open-world America
Pictured: In-game travel, where your skeletal avatar goes across America

What sorts of stories did you encounter on your journey and did any make it into the game or are any of the game’s encounters loosely inspired by your experiences?

I had a lot of really amazing experiences on the journey, mostly good, some bad. I slept in the Sahara at night after a camel ride. I watched the sunrise from a mountain peak in the Himalayas. I got chased by feral dogs in a village on the Indian coast. I saw the minarets of Istanbul, felt the huge waves of the January North Atlantic, got my phone stolen by a Romanian prostitute, saw the 14,000 orange gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine, and met a billion wonderful people from all over the world.

None of those experiences made it into the game directly! The one that did actually happened to me on a road trip in the US. I was driving on the “loneliest road in America” through Nevada, and suddenly my car was surrounded by butterflies. I didn’t see where they had come from, they were just everywhere suddenly. I pulled over and sat out there in a cloud of butterflies until most of them had moved on. That story is in the game.

What was the process behind writing the various stories? Did you utilize any real-world materials to help inspire some of the tales?

So one of the big ideas and hopefully big draws behind the stories in the game is that I didn’t write any of them, or I wrote very few. Each of the major characters the player can meet is written by a different person, and we had a team of nine talented writers creating all the little adventures the player can have.  My contribution to the characters was mostly doing research – I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies to get an idea for the historical contexts that these characters inhabited, and then I passed that research on to the writers, so they would have it to draw from as they crafted their characters.

A traveler sits at a campfire to tell stories
Pictured: A storytelling encounter in-game

Were there any major film/literary works that influenced the way you showcased the setting and time period of the Great Depression?

Definitely! Grapes of Wrath and the other works of Steinbeck were huge. The HBO show Carnivale was a big influence, Days of Heaven, O Brother Where Art Thou, Matewan, and then for flavor more than literal setting, Dead Man, On the Road, Easy Rider, Huckleberry Finn, Sometimes a Great Notion, Blood Meridian, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I’m Not There. There’s also a poem by Allen Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra”, that heavily influenced the game.

A huge component of the game is watching as the stories you tell evolve into myths and legends. You’ve stated before that the game sort of portrays America as a myth. In your opinion, does the game portray that myth as more tragic or optimistic?

It definitely falls on the tragic side. I think there is a big disconnect, now but also throughout our history, between how the US perceives itself and how it actually is. We tell ourselves the story of America, “the greatest country in the world”, “Land of the Free”, “Land of Opportunity”, and so on and so forth, but we hardly ever live up to that myth. And while I think aspirational myths are great and necessary, we hardly ever examine the difference between where we tell ourselves we are and where we really are. There’s a great Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again“, that I think tackles this pretty well. But on the other hand, in the beginning of the game you’re told that by listening to and collecting the stories that we don’t usually tell, the true stories of these real people in America who get pushed to the wayside, you can help shift the story of America closer to truth, and perhaps even closer to its stated values. So I suppose in that sense it’s optimistic.

Similarly, does the game portray the American Dream as a completely false ideal, or does it still retain a sliver of hope that the dream is achievable?

The name of the game is “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine”, and that place does not exist, or if it exists at all it exists in small moments between people, sudden views of beautiful vistas, the little kindnesses and happy moments in any life.

Has the current political/economic climate influenced/changed the way you portray the myth of America within the game?

Not really! I was always wanting to tell this story about America, it’s just come into much sharper relief due to the real world. But honestly we’ve always had the same problems. “Let America Be America Again” was written in 1935.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine definitely places a large value on the importance of listening to other people’s stories. Do you think that we undervalue hearing personal stories in modern culture and do you think Where the Water Tastes Like Wine can help people gain an appreciation for listening to others?

I do! One of the things I’ve really enjoyed most out of games recently is the fact that more people are making personal games to tell personal stories. I think it’s wonderful that people are using this new medium to share their stories, and I hope it lets more people listen to them.


Check out Where the Water Tastes Like Wine when it debuts on Steam in early 2018 and follow Johnnemann on Twitter @johnnemann

Written by Mitchell Sturhann

Mitchell is a junior Screenwriting major at Chapman University who loves to read, write, or watch anything from either the screen or written page. He is lead editor for the school’s honors journal, Sapere Aude, and is one of the founding members and writers of Chapman Sketch Comedy.

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