A movie critic doing videogame reviews might seem odd, but with TellTale Games (creators of The Walking Dead adventure series), adapting the universe of Fables by Bill Willingham, there are few properties that benefit from this perspective as fittingly.
The Wolf Among Us is set in a world where fairy tale characters have fled their homelands after they are attacked by a being known only as “The Adversary” – taking refuge in the suburbs of New York and hiding their true form with a spell called glamour. In this hard-boiled district the beings from numerous fables are forced to adapt to the alien habitat – taking on a variety of jobs and tasks to maintain their current way of life within the boundaries of their hidden district. The task of policing the area falls to Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf), who between his role as sheriff and peacekeeper, and his long-standing rivalry with the Woodsman – returns home one day to find the decapitated head of a fable purposely left on his doorstep.
Fairy tale creatures rarely die, and for one of them to be murdered is almost unheard of – this is a big deal.
The events of episode one see Bigby – accompanied by Snow (White) – follow a string of clues to decipher who the poor girl was, and upon learning her identity they must inform her husband and work out who the murderer may be. In a very real sense The Wolf Among Us betters its predecessor as the Walking dead unequivocally opted for character study in its storytelling, but this series manages to develop strong characters while weaving an intricate plot. The use of numerous fairy tales as points of origin and the episodic, film noir-inspired murder mystery narrative mean that any conclusions or theories players may form will be cleverly sidestepped with the introduction of a new character.
Commenting on what happens is a bit of a grab bag when it comes to the work of TellTale Games as one decision leads onto a path of cause and effect that is completely different for every gamer and every decision made. Picking a dialogue course corresponding to the ‘Square’, ‘Triangle’, ‘Circle’ and ‘X’ buttons changes a character’s opinion of the player, altering later scenes, and maybe even taking the game in a new direction. As a new addition to this mix players are presented with the choice of which crime scene to investigate first, and choosing one over another can lead to events as extreme as the death of a character. The first time this happens players may feel that they are to blame, and the itch to go back and make ‘the right choice’ can be almost unbearable – representing a level of guilt that is remarkable for a game.
As ever, this is a Telltale trait that gives The Wolf Among Us a level of replayability that few games can achieve, and these 50/50 situations can take players by surprise – and add a new dimension to the already complex decision-making process. Knowing that the choices made can lead towards much more extreme events adds an uncertainty to proceedings, and players are forced to take more care when dealing with situations that are not black and white, but cover the entire spectrum.
The Wolf Among Us is even more visually striking than its predecessor (The Walking Dead Series 1), as TellTale Games have opted for a very clear comic-book style with definite black lines and some inspired use of cel-shading – all of which has resulted in a cleaner looking game. There are some ever-present bleak corners, but by and large this is a lovingly created vision of New York populated by the cesspits and neon nightlife often found in neo-noir, and the setting is very different from the world of suffering, death, violence and destruction found in The Walking Dead. The game is a marvel of art direction – which is a more impressive achievement in an era where most games can at least look good.
Gameplay-wise things have changed slightly. Although the point-and-click mechanic is still very prominent, the left stick now moves Bigby and the right one navigates the targeting reticule. Navigation and exploration have also been streamlined – when you find an item or person a large circle will appear beside it (them), displaying items that correspond to a particular button colours on the controller. Although it takes a little while to understand completely, it’s the sort of creative decision that makes some of the tense moments more immediate and engaging. That’s the idea anyway, but the jump from traditional point-and-click to more contemporary stick-led navigation has caused some problems to appear. Moving around one room is perfectly fine, transitioning from one room to the next is awkward as the context for each direction changes upon entering a new area, and this overly fussy mechanic negates the impact of the drama in a few sequences.
In Episode 2 – Smoke and Mirrors – the story really gets down the bare bones of the murder mystery as Bigby interrogates and blunders his way through Fabletown, coming face to face with the core of the district’s rotten bureaucracy, and exposing the seedy underbelly that was hinted at in certain scenes in the previous installment. The crown prince of all this is Georgie Porgie, who has been brilliantly been re-imagined as a foul-mouthed, rake-thin London geezer – and some of the best dialogue of any TellTale game can be witnessed during Bigby’s altercation with him.
Instead of introducing new gameplay mechanics, Episode 2 demands some strategic thinking – it’s not just a matter of playing the nice guy or the bad guy and then being presented with a neat series of revelations. In both the aforementioned scene with Georgie and the interrogation sequence at the beginning of the episode, players can adopt the carrot and the stick method (which has its own consequences), or take a more traditional bad or good approach – with each strategy giving you its own picture.
Both episodes are brilliant examples of storytelling at its very best in video games, and as they last around 90 minutes each they are like playing a feature-length episode of a taut police procedural – with a level of choice and consequence that has become the calling-card of TellTale. Shot composition and mood are as good as any cinematic alternative, and the dialogue is as unsettling as it is intricate. In short, this is a fantastic piece of work from a studio that is getting better with each release, and as raw as it can be, episodic noir (be it TV, games or movies), has found a new champion.