Long after Deadmau5 finished his closing set at The Game Awards, one new trailer stayed with me. It was understated and soothing, featuring a hand-painted desert landscape, a rolling train and a hint of fantasy, all backed by a melancholic American folk song. It was a teaser for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine from Dim Bulb Games. I noticed the trailer because of its visuals, but I remembered it because of the song.
“[Music is] a form of art that has amazing appeal and power, and its impact is huge,” Dim Bulb founder Johnnemann Nordhagen tells me. “Look at any group of music fans and watch how passionate they are. … In the context of a game, especially a game like this, music helps set the tone for the world and the experience, bringing players to a particular time and place and mood.”
The music behind Where the Water Tastes Like Wine mirrors the game itself. Players embark on a journey across dusty American landscapes, meeting strangers, hearing stories and telling their own tales. It’s a throwback to the classic “American road” story, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but with interactive twists.
This hits at the heart of American folk music, which started with travelers sharing stories and adding their own lyrics or musicality to a song, until it became the story of a place, an era or a people. Some may recognize the lyrics, “where the water tastes like wine,” from a Woodstock-era song by Canned Heat, but the roots of that line travel far deeper than 1969.
“The title comes from a song, but really it comes from a whole tradition of songs,” Nordhagen says. “The earliest known version of the song was recorded in 1924, and doesn’t include the ‘where the water tastes like wine’ lyric. Other musicians added that later, as they took the song and changed it or molded it into new forms. And that’s one of the major themes of the game — this history of folk culture, of sharing ideas and adding your own take. It’s hard to understand, in our current copyright regime, what sharing music and stories used to look like.”
The game’s composer, Ryan Ike, understands American folk music just fine. He was hesitant to dive into the genre at first, since it was new for him, but the more he learned about folk, the more comfortable he became.
“I think the reason I’m not super intimidated is because this style of music has always been about including people,” Ike says. “When blues and roots stuff started, it was a response to what was mainstream at the time. When people felt musically displaced or alone, these were the styles of music they turned to. Anyone could pick up an instrument and join in, and if you didn’t have one, humming or clapping was totally cool, too. That’s what I love about it; I feel like it’s very personal, but also very welcoming, unlike a lot of other genres that are a bit more exclusive.”
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game about the American Dream, the centuries-old mythos that if you work hard in the United States, you can live well and fulfill your life’s passions. However, Nordhagen says, that dream is drenched in violence and packed with caveats. Alongside Kerouac and Steinbeck, Nordhagen notes Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 as inspirations for the game.
“There were lots and lots of folks throughout American history who didn’t have access to that dream, or whose dreams were simply to rise out of the oppression that America created,” he says. “And we’re bad at acknowledging that our dreams impact others — that the entire formation of the United States as a country was built on wiping out the previous inhabitants of this land. Manifest Destiny was all about pushing that domination further, and for centuries the whole country was supported on the back of slave labor, and still exists on a foundation of oppression.”
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine emerges from a broad pool of inspiration, stretching from post-Revolutionary America to the 1970s Las Vegas strip. Folk music is the bow tying these disparate eras together.
The soundtrack helps tell the game’s story, pulling in lyrics about historical events, as in murder ballads or protest songs. And, folk music doesn’t stray far from folklore — in the trailer shown just before The Game Awards, a lonely man sitting in front of a campfire transforms into a giant bird. These mystical, magical aspects are also entrenched in the game and its music.
To get the sound right in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Ike pressed Nordhagen for every detail about the game that he could. Then, he studied the American folk genre itself, from African-American spirituals of the 1800s, to modern groups like The Wild Reeds. He also listened closely to other game composers who delved into folk, including Bastion’s Darren Korb and BioShock Infinite’s Garry Schyman.
“Folk music changes throughout time on a really personal level,” Ike says. “One performer tries something new, another one hears that and iterates on it. A third person might take that idea and put it in a new context and so on. I want the soundtrack for this game to do the same thing.”