(or, “should have been two dogs”)
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a bleak American folk tale of a narrative game about wandering the country and trading stories. If you’ve heard about the project, you know that one of the features that sets it apart is the sheer number of writers who lent their diverse talents and voices to compose a game about America that speaks of and to many threads and cultures and backgrounds. There were 24 writers in all, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Several people have already written excellent pieces on what writing for this game was like; Laura’s excellent postmortem especially covers the overall process of making the game. I didn’t write any of the major 16 characters you speak to, and I only wrote a proportionately small handful of stories, so this is only about my process in my own small corner. And no, I can’t tell you how we got Sting.
My Philosophy on Map Stories
When I came on to the project, Laura, Duncan and Nika had already written some of the map events which give players the tradeable stories, which we internally called vignettes. In striving for a variety of vignettes which felt texturally different from each other, I looked for certain types of interactive narrative styles that were less well-represented at that point. That gave rise to two features in many of my vignettes: ordinary non-fabulist encounters, and conversations with two or more people.
For the former, since I wrote a number of the game’s folk heroes and tall tales, I wanted to offer quieter glimpses into lives: the sort of stories that strike you because of a quiet moment or a lingering look, not because of a remarkable event. How might the particularities of people’s lives get twisted into legends that transcend them in the telling? Vignettes like the children playing in the dirt, or the couple parting in New York were my way of offering a version of that particular peculiarity of storytelling. In terms of my conversational vignettes, I wanted players to have the sense that they were participating in a conversation but not steering it, caught up in the rushing stream of someone else’s narrative. Most of my choice text options were reflective or conversational choices: what moment of a scene to focus in on, or how to answer a difficult question. Sometimes when you’re just passing through, that’s all you get.
American Folk Heroes
I wrote a number of America’s well-known myths for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry all bear my imprint. My intent with these stories was to peel back the mythology and draw a particular and specific moment out, to deliberately write against and on top of the stories American players might be familiar with, and at the same time vary the focal points so that they would not immediately read as being penned by the same hand. Pecos Bill–himself a dreamed creation of the 1920s–has both a broadly-drawn legendary tale and a quieter, more human moment later on the road. Paul Bunyan focuses on an iconic moment that would sow the seed for the legend, while John Chapman focuses on the humanity of the individual. Chapman in particular was a delight to write; I dove into the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, of whom Chapman was a devoted follower. I thought for a moment about having him hand the player a tract, as he frequently did, but felt that this peculiar and unique theology was better expressed in his feelings on his trees and his dog. (Swedenborg really did write that grafting was damaging to trees, as it was a form of violence. I read a significant amount of Swedenborg’s theology but could find nothing on the souls of animals, so I deferred to Bluth’s (1989).)
But John Henry was the figure I felt the greatest need to do justice to. When looking into the legend beyond what I remembered from childhood stories, I discovered a number of conflicting accounts about who the historical John Henry might have been, and interwoven in that, the often-neglected history of the American carceral state post-Reconstruction. Whether or not John Henry was buried on the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary anonymously, the labor of thousands of other mostly-black prisoners was leased for almost nothing to the C&O railroad. This aspect is so rarely mentioned in accounts of the West Virginia railroad construction, or of John Henry in particular. So my John Henry became the prisoner buried in a pauper’s grave outside the prison. I wanted a balance between the scant biographical details we knew about the historical figure who might well have been Henry, but at the same time wanted to create a space of community, a space for mourning and love and outrage. A space at the margins that is not factual but is still true. However the historical John Henry died, I thought I might be able to imagine a space around him not of the story of humanity vs. machine, but humanity vs. the inhumanity of the carceral state.
The story evolves from “the prisoner John Henry, who died working the railroad” to “the death of John Henry, the strongest railroad worker ever” and finally to “the legendary John Henry, who outdrilled a machine and died in the attempt”. Through this evolution, I tried to reflect the actual historical erasure of John Henry’s circumstances, and that of the thousands of other men forced to build the railroads.
Means, Howard. Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, and the American Story.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Steel Drivin’ Man: The Legend of John Henry.
Stories of the American Southwest
I made a bid for Los Angeles, with the request that I could take the artwork of the Los Angeles Coliseum (finished in 1923) and move my story several miles northeast to La Placita Olvera. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I knew a significant number of particular stories that aren’t as well-known by the rest of the population, but the one I wanted to tell most was the La Placita Olvera ‘riots’, as some books call them. More precisely, the La Placita raid was an operation conducted by an external deportation force in 1931 in the Olvera area of Los Angeles. At the time, La Placita was a meeting place for musicians, radicals, academics, and artists, many of whom lived in the nearby barrios. On the afternoon of February 26th, 1931, police cordoned off the area and kettled those present–many of whom were born on American soil and had never lived in Mexico. After demanding passports, many were forced into boxcars, without the opportunity to even inform their families. The song referred to in one of the branches is a reference to the many songs of the deportades–often called repatriades, despite the fact that many had far more connection to California than Mexico. At this moment of American history, I felt that the story had to be told.
This is not the only opportunity I had to share some of the stories I’d grown up with. The La Llorona vignette recalls a story I was told by minders and guardians when I was very young. La Llorona, the weeping woman in white, wandered the countryside–often near rivers, in some versions–looking for replacements for the children she drowned in a river. She’s said to abduct missing or wayward children–which sometimes morphed into misbehaving or crying children–and has been used as a talisman to frighten children into compliance. So when I saw a piece of art that we were having trouble fitting into the game’s narrative, I begged Johnnemann to let me turn it into a La Llorona story. The way Keythe snaps “Llorona!” in the vignette is exactly the cadence I’ve heard from mothers, grandmothers, babysitters and teachers, and I’m delighted that it’s found a way into the game.
Balderrama, Francisco E., and Raymond Rodriguez. Decade of Betrayal – Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s.
Renee Perez, Domino. There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture.
As Bruno mentioned, we had an unbelievable amount of creative freedom and control–Johnnemann trusted us to bring our own histories and obsessions to this project. The Italian syndicalists get a shoutout in New York because I’ve enjoyed studying 1920s expressionist art and philosophy. A white-painted wall in Los Angeles alludes to the coverup of David Siqueiros’s radical mural (now restored) because I love his work. I can’t think of a greater vote of confidence than this, and I’m grateful every day for it. As Bruno said, it’s a miracle any game ships at all, but this game feels like such a miracle. Having the opportunity to work on it with such incredible writers, many of whom have become friends, has been an honor. The experience of writing for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine has changed my life.
If there’s anything else you’d like to know about my experiences working on this game, my narrative philosophy, or about hiring me for writing or narrative design contract work, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I hope you find what you’re looking for.