Since its release back in February, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine has been a fascinating discussion point for developers, as game industry professionals of all backgrounds discuss everything from the games’ political content to its all-too-familiar struggles in the Steam marketplace.
With those conversations in the back of our mind, we reached out to Dim Bulb Games founder Johnnemann Nordhagen with the hope of getting some more insight on the struggles behind development, and the unique influences that drove Nordhagen’s creative process.
If you’d like to listen to our hitchhiking, far-roaming adventure up and down the American East Coast, you can watch the full video embedded up above, or if you’re hoping to ride the rails sometime today, you can just read these highlights down below.
Navigating political influences
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, while being about all kinds of folklore, has a specific setting with a specific set of background events in mind. The Bonus Army, miner’s strikes, and other events that drove the rise of populism in America are referenced, but as part of a narrative that circles back to specific characters not necessarily living only a political existence.
Games, for valid reasons, are frequently quick to shy away from discussion of real-world politics, but Nordhagen says the events of the era made that difficult to do (the game opens with Sting’s character calling America’s great big story a “lie,” and setting the player out to make a new one). To help keep his large team of writers focused, Nordhagen says his process involved researching specific events and character background elements, so that writers like Austin Walker and Gamasutra veteran Leigh Alexander could mix the colorful personalities they were spinning up with a sense that they’d survived something real, and that informed who they are.
Reviewers, Steam reviewers, and streamers are all getting different experiences
In his postmortem, Nordhagen briefly noted that game review scores didn’t meet his expectations because he hadn’t had time to properly evaluate the later parts of the game, and wasn’t aware of how grindy it can feel when playing on typical review deadlines.
But he’s also paid attention to the fact that Steam Reviews for the game (frequently where developers meet their harshest critics), have been “very positive.” It’s a testament to the different ways reviewers, players, and as Nordhagen notes, streamers, experience games, and it’s something that would impact some of his design choices if he had the ability to start over again.
For other developers, learning how to “make games for streamers” has been something we’ve seen discussed, but the experience streamers get, and tell their audiences about, is going to be slightly different then the ones those audiences will have when they get the game. It’s both a word of warning and slight optimism about how your game can perform even if it reviews poorly.
Even when your game is meant to be finished in one playthrough, the players want you to stick around
Like many other narrative games, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is generally meant to be played through only once, maybe twice. But Nordhagen has learned since launching the game that despite that, the games’ audience has been asking for features in a fashion similar to what you might see in a live or Early Access game. Whether it’s an in-game manual or other quality-of-life improvements, Nordhagen says he’s basically going to be working on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine for a while, even though it’s ostensibly “done.”
Though Nordhagen himself hemmed and hawed about saying he’d recommend any other indie dev take up the banner of doing a single-player narrative experience, it’s worth noting how even that audience is interested in having the developer stick around, not just picking up stakes and moving out west, chasing more fertile soil.
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