Once Upon a Time
Note: The following is a review of the entirety of The Wolf Among Us and has been attached to the release of the fifth episode only as a consequence of site functionality.
Conventional wisdom would state that when you’re creating a new game series or even a sequel, that you need to take a significant mechanical departure from what you did last time around. That the set of rules, tools, and goals that comprised your previous games can’t just be regurgitated or players are going to get bored. Nintendo can’t make multiple franchises based on the Mario mechanics, when EA bring out a new Battlefield they need to add at least some new features, and so on. But Telltale and other creators of highly story-driven games may have just stumbled upon some mechanical frameworks which can be repeatedly recycled to impart a variety of original and effective experiences across multiple games.
From a gameplay perspective, if you’ve played The Walking Dead, you’ve played The Wolf Among Us, and vice-versa. There are some subtle UI changes, but that aside it’s still the same basic adventure game mechanics, four option dialogue trees, and occasional quick-time events. What keeps that from becoming boring in narrative-centric titles like these is that the mechanics are generally not the basis or fundamental focus of the media, instead they’re simply a delivery method for the real meat of the experience: the story, and the opportunity to interact with and influence that story. Just as you can eat many different meals with the same knife and fork, so the dialogue mechanics and basic environmental interactions in something like The Walking Dead can be ported in their entirety into a different game and be used to convey a very different experience.
The specific experience we’re talking about here is a neo noir fantasy thriller based on Bill Willingham's “Fables” comics and concerns an underground community in mid-1980s New York known as “Fabletown”. The group is comprised of various fairy tale characters who were forced from their homes by a menacing entity known as “The Adversary” and have set up sticks in the vast, modern, urbanised world. While in some cases the “happily ever after” stories surrounding these characters are implied to be distortions of more complicated and gruesome affairs, their move has also meant that any rosy-cheeked innocence they genuinely did hold is at best a pleasant memory. Our protagonist in this mess is Bigby Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, and as he attempts to track down the perpetrator of a cold-hearted Fabletown murder, he co-operates and conflicts with such reworks of famous folklore figures as his more professional and well-mannered counterpart in law Snow White, his washed up bar-crawling nemesis The Woodsman, and frustrated, curmudgeonly mayor of Fabletown Ichabod Crane.
Bigby is one of my favourite video game protagonists of recent memory. With his creased shirts, five o’clock shadow, and appreciation of cheap cigarettes he’s an unmistakable incarnation of the hard-boiled noir detective, but played with variation and humanity. I felt much more encouraged to roleplay with Bigby than I have with any of the Telltale characters in the past. With Lee in The Walking Dead Season One it felt like you were playing a man with a deep interest in doing the right thing who only occasionally strayed from the path, with Clem in The Walking Dead Season Two it felt natural to be a bit more distrusting and irritable considering what she had been through, but she was still a kid and someone who we’d seen express a lot of love. Bigby, however, is more gruff and grisled, plus he has a reputation. While there was some ambiguity with Lee over whether he’d committed the horrible crime he had been convicted of, it’s an objective fact that Bigby has done wrong to other people before now and is capable of playing the monster. Mr. Wolf may ultimately be on the side of justice, but it often feels very natural to either portray him as a slightly tired man trying to turn his attitude around and show some compassion, or as a gumshoe who takes no guff and uses his fearsome nature to get the job done. Snow White is also an excellent compliment to Bigby. Your specific narrative choices will decide how much you flow with or against her, but on the whole she’s a warmth and order to Bigby’s annoyance and chaos.
One curious thing about the game is that despite being so critically acclaimed for its story, and rightfully so, it sits at the intersection of two of the most played-out and misused tropes in current media: The “modernised fairy tale” and the “grim and gritty reboot”. In fact there are plenty of films, books, shows, and games that already blend the two. When handled poorly the modernised fairy tale has often been used as a gimmick where seeing age-old myths pasted into an unusual new setting substitutes any substantial character building and storytelling. It can also just get tiresome seeing the same character archetypes dredged up over and over, and it’s frequently difficult to take concepts like “Beauty and the Beast live in an apartment block now” seriously. The perils of the “grim and gritty” are often even worse, with creators mistaking adding a dingy-looking world and dealing with serious themes at a surface level for having a mature and meaningfully dark story, and this style is often utilised in a way that robs its media of subtlety. In both cases, the problem is that while these elements can provide an interesting wrapper for the experience they present, in themselves they fail to inform that media in any deep or unique way. The large majority of the time The Wolf Among Us fights back hard against these potential mistakes though.
While it embraces its fairytale roots, it does carve out an individual personality for itself that goes beyond just placing mythical people in a filthy New York suburb. The game has a distinctive visual style, taking the same cel shading technique we saw in The Walking Dead as a basis, but with a greater use of shadow and occasional areas of bright, eye-catching colour. Meanwhile, the music sounds like something out of an 80s cyberpunk thriller, with this serious, oldschool synthetic feel creating a sense of unrest and drama. Occasionally you will also hear large, orchestral leans, and there’s one particularly memorable track which uses a harp to focus your mind back to the fairy tale subject matter, but it’s played in such a way that it has an investigative, inquisitive feel to it.
The Wolf Among Us doesn’t put all of its eggs in the “Grim and gritty” or the “Fables out of water” basket, and where these things do come into play they don’t feel self-serving or like they’re mistaken for an end in themselves, they’re used to build characters that are actually interesting and you can empathise with. Furthermore, the game expends clear effort using these tools to create compelling twists and turns as the plot pushes forwards, with the only exception being a point in one of the early chapters when it backpedals on a major story revelation in a way that feels like a serious cop-out. It also helps that The Wolf Among Us places the distance it does between the traditional legends of the fables and the events in the game. Those storybook tales are these characters’ pasts and are a big part of why they are where they are today, but this is not a retelling of those tales, and those tales don’t have to entirely define who these characters are or what choices they make going ahead. Nothing is set in stone and the characters feel like they live in a real world they can influence and can encounter real problems and solutions in. It was frequently observed that The Walking Dead, like a lot of good zombie fiction, wasn’t really about the zombies, it was about the human tale told within that zombie setting, and while I wouldn’t say The Wolf Among Us isn’t about fairy tales or dirty crime drama, at the most general level it does all come back to the same thing The Walking Dead did: People who are struggling and suffering, and what they do in those situations.
This is a world of folklore and your job is to unravel the clues and hunt down a killer, but throughout your exploration of that world and your conduct of that job you are asked what to do with a single father who sometimes creates danger for himself and others by not co-operating with the law, you face the difficult task of trying to help prostitutes who have been forced into silence about their work, you’re shown people left stranded in their problems by the same gunked up bureaucratic systems they are forced to live off of. Noticeably, like The Walking Dead, this game is dark, but “dark” is a wide descriptor and a lot of dissimilarities arise from the way one is about suffering and moral ambiguity after the collapse of modern society, and one is very much about suffering and moral ambiguity in a modern society. In The Walking Dead you had a tight-knit group that you were allied with and there was a mutual dependence between you and them so that you could all survive. Tension and despair were born out of the way that hordes of horrific monsters, opposing bands of travellers, or just the unforgiving hazards of the wild could pick off or at least severely hurt almost anyone at any time. In The Wolf Among Us characters are sometimes threatened with pain and death, you’re forced to answer questions when there are no right answers, and you struggle to do the right thing when inter-group politics come into play, but there are themes here that just never could have been explored with this level of depth in the aforementioned zombie drama.
Many of the problems the characters face in The Wolf Among Us are a consequence of urban poverty, what people do when faced with it, and what happens when those people are invisible to the rest of the world. Whereas The Walking Dead leaned a little more towards questions about dealing with people’s individual very personal issues, The Wolf Among Us leans a little more towards questions about how to deal with societal issues and the problems people face as the result of them. And the lack of that “We’re all in this together” bond between you and the other characters creates some interesting hurdles. You quite frankly live in a craphole, but you’re not at risk of being turfed out of your home, or pressured into sex work, or faced with many of the other discomforts that the other Fabletowners are forced to endure, and they know that. You’re the sheriff, you have more power than they do, and you’re not reliant on them. That means you can make the choice to be indifferent to them in the name of practising the law and make morally questionable decisions with less consequence to yourself, but that power also means it’s inherently less selfish when you do go out of your way to help people, because it’s not something you have to do.
Strict or empathetic however, Bigby is one for getting into scraps, or as they manifest in the gameplay, quick-time events. There are quite a few sections in the game involving these and they’re fun enough most of the time, in fact one near the end makes use of the game’s fantasy style to create a battle so monumentally cool you wouldn’t expect it out of a lot of action games, but they’re also the weakest aspect of the game. They’re spiced up by there often not being a lose state, just a narrative of how much Bigby did or didn’t get hit in a fight, they help break up the story, and you sometimes even get some choice on how you take down your opponent, but these chains of simple keyboard prompts aren’t entirely enough to prop up frequent combat scenarios. They’re more interesting for the spectacle you see than for the part you play in controlling it, and they’re simply not as structured and multi-faceted as that story.
Sometimes it is hard for me to take The Wolf Among Us seriously. You’re dealing with grim and sobering issues against a backdrop of former magic princes and talking animals. I find that concept inherently ridiculous, but perhaps that’s the best thing that I can say about it. That I find the premise of this game thoroughly silly and yet I still completely adore it. It amuses me, it interests me, it makes me sad, it makes me excited, it makes me feel touched. Having finished it I want to start right over and play all the way back through from the beginning to be Bigby, make those tough choices, and experience those characters all over again. For anyone who has a remote interest in story-driven games, I can’t recommend The Wolf Among Us enough.