Notes on the Design and Production of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

Johnnemann Nordhagen
6 min readFeb 28, 2023
Concept art by Kellan Jett

Today marks five years since Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was first released, on PC (to be followed later by versions on Playstation, Xbox, and Switch). To mark the occasion I thought I might write a little piece on the process of designing the game and what, in my mind, underlies the success and the way it continues to resonate with players today.

Today my design process is more formalized — going through the production of WTWTLW definitely taught me the importance of having a map and a process, plus introducing me to things like “pitching to publishers and the press” — but when I started the game I still began with an early version of my go-to technique. I talked about this at Full Indie in Vancouver several years ago (I went to link this and found that all the Full Indie talks seem to have been pulled from YouTube! Oh no!) but I like to think about the themes that are important in the game, what I’m trying to say, and combine that with other ideas to get “lodestars” or a set of pointers that work together to give you a direction in which to head.

Basically, I started with a few ideas (too many, probably, in retrospect): I wanted to make a game about traveling. I wanted to make a game about music, specifically the American roots music that I love. I wanted to make a game about folk culture and the ways that we share things with each other. And I wanted to make a game about the dark, bleak direction that I saw the world headed in, the political problems in the US and the world (this was in 2014), my own depression, and the ways in which joy, wonder, and awe sometimes tore through the darkness to illuminate our lives.

Vignette art of the Jersey Devil

I noodled on these ideas for a while, but the combination of them pushed me into a pretty clear direction: a game about wandering the US during the 1930s: the most romantic era of rail travel, the time of greatest political upheaval, the last moments of folk music and stories before mass media steamrolled through, and a dark, bleak, sad time for many in the country.

What they didn’t give me, yet, was a set of mechanics or gameplay. I knew I didn’t want combat — it had no place in the game and seemed to me to usually be a design crutch included because most games have it — but I did want a wild and wonderful world that felt interesting to explore. I decided that the genre that fit that idea the best was something like a JRPG, with an overworld map studded with encounters, except instead of combat encounters I wanted them to be stories. But I wanted to keep the sense of wonder and magic from a JRPG, where you can stumble on a weird enemy made of shoes and eyes, or something out of The Odyssey, or a magical train, or a flying snake.

Fantastical train concept by Kellan Jett

I created characters and got writers to write them. I made a bleak, difficult, punishing economy that reflected both the way I was feeling and the idea of how difficult it would be to exist as a poor hobo in that time and place. Now you could wander a world (slowly, and at great cost) and meet people and talk to them, but it wasn’t great. I experimented with conversation mechanics — one idea which I liked was combining the improvisation common in the musical traditions I was drawing from with the idea of folk stories, so that the player would have to tell a story on the fly, making it up from elements of stories they had collected¹ — but it didn’t really end up working in practice. Eventually I returned to the lodestars and came up with the final idea — the stories you told would change and mutate, outside your control, and spread and become more powerful. Everything snapped into place, then — the economy of stories as conversational prompts, the idea of moving through chapters as progression with more fantastical stories as advanced powers, and the main player drive — to collect stories, yes, but actually to collect the important, true, real, powerful stories that our characters told, and to spread those. To act as a sort of witness of the forgotten and untold history of America and to bring those stories to light — putting the player in the same role as the game itself had taken on.

A weird magical world, but drawn from Americana. Scarecrow vignette by Lysandra Nelson

From a production standpoint, since this was an indie game with a runway limited by my bank account, things had to keep moving even while the core game was a mess. Art was created, stories were written, music was composed. We experimented with a few different ways of translating Kellan Jett’s concept illustrations into the 3D space. Shaders were made to capture the look and style. A UI was designed. So much code was written! The US was created and laid out, by hand.

Exploration for the 3d style by Kellan Jett

When I finally felt the pieces of the game snap together, more content was needed to fill those mechanical needs. Lots more stories! Conversations had to be edited and added to. Laura Michet is credited as editor and writer but she really just made all this stuff work, massaging the content and making new stuff to fill gaps, as well as basically managing the huge team of people making our cool stories.

This is when the game began to hit the reality of production costs and dreams. What was going to be a self-published game looked impossible to complete without more development funds, promotion, QA, and the dreams of bringing in voice acting and localization. We had conversations with publishers and finally found someone who shared our vision of what the game could be — Good Shepherd. They contributed a bunch of money and expertise and marketing, allowing us to complete the game AND add voice acting. And through a series of weird connections, they scored us a true celebrity voice actor — the singer Sting, in his first video game role, played Dire Wolf, the mysterious folkloric character who sends the player on their cursed journey. Besides him, though, we had a roster of voice talent that was a who’s-who of the game VO world, a group of incredibly skilled performers who fleshed out the beautiful writing of the game.

Dire Wolf, played by Sting. Art by Kellan Jett

I promised at the top that I’d talk about why the game resonated so well, won awards and generated fans who still, five years later, make fan art, write fan stories, and talk about the game. I don’t actually have the answer for that, but I think the process of starting from having something to say and making every decision by testing against that is key to making a game that, well, that says something interesting! This didn’t seem revelatory to me at the time, and still doesn’t, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not the way most people do it, especially in the realm of larger commercial games. It’s the only way I’d want to work, though.

¹ Every time I describe this it still sounds like such a cool idea. I want to pursue this somehow, someday! I wish I had found a way to make it work in this context but it wasn’t gelling at the time.



Johnnemann Nordhagen

Johnnemann has been making games for decades. He has worked on titles such as Bioshock, Gone Home, and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine