Telltale Studios’ won over fans and critics with their take on The Walking Dead franchise. A showcase of the gaming medium capacity for enjoyable interactive storytelling, it allowed the player to influence how the story progressed. Though too early to tell the extent of similarities between The Walking Dead and Telltale’s new game, The Wolf Among Us, everything about episode one suggests that the approach is much the same.
Throughout players take an active role in how the narrative unfolds through their decisions – or lack of decisions. In The Walking Dead the choices made were given weight by player-character Lee’s responsibility to protect young Clementine. There’s no such emotional strain regarding moral dilemma’s in The Wolf Among Us, instead the weight of choices comes down to trying to solve a grisly mystery.
The Wolf Among Us is based on Bill Willingham’s ‘Fables’ comic-books. A prequel to the books, Telltale have worked closely with Willingham to ensure that everything is canonical, and everything meets with the creator’s approval. It’s a rich setting, one that’s ideally suited to an interactive adventure game.
Since being forced from their homelands, Fables have taken refuge in our world. They live in small pockets of New York, and many of them have fallen on hard times. Those that look human, or can afford a glamour to disguise their beastly appearance, live out their day-to-day lives in the city centre. Those that can’t afford to, or refuse to hide their true appearance, take refuge on the ‘farm’ outside of town.
Despite all the fairytale characters, there’s very little that’s sweet or whimsical about The Wolf Among Us. It’s a gritty noir story, filled with violence and dark moments. Players take the role of Sheriff Bigby Wolf as he tries to uncover the mysteries of a murder within the community. Bigby Wolf is the perfect player-character, it makes sense for him to be involved because that’s his job. His curiosity and confrontational manner fit the noir story and ensure that action is never far away.
The Wolf Among Us is incredibly well written, the characters are engaging, regardless of what choices you make the dialogue seems suited to the characters and the situations. It’s a game that oozes style. The setting is packed with captivating brushwork graphics that never break the comic-book aesthetics. The soundtrack plays it’s part too, a broody synthetic jazzy arrangement indictive of the game’s late 80s setting. Even though it’s definitely a departure from realism, every detail depicted is dark and gritty. Animation can be a bit stiff, and occasional freezes while the game logs decisions can be jarring, but those flaws can be easily overlooked when the overall presentation is so impressive.
Player interaction is divided between dialogue choices and quick-time-events. Players are thrown straight into the action as they investigate a domestic disturbance that ends up with Bigby trading blows with an old rival. Forgoing the need of a lengthy or dull introduction, the mechanics are introduced as the player uses them. Despite Bigby’s days of eating grandmothers and blowing down houses being behind him, few Fables trust that he is truly a reformed wolf. This makes investigating crime within the Fable community a difficult challenge. Fables fearful of Bigby rarely give up information willingly. Mr Toad, for instance, is a slippery character you come across early on. He’s guilty of breaking Fable Towns cardinal rule of not wearing a glamour, hence not appearing human. How much of a hard time you give him is up to you. He remembers what you tell him, and future scenes are influenced by how you interact with him. Not every action has immediate consequences, but they seem likely to impact events in future episodes.
Knowing that your choices influence proceedings adds weight to every decision. Saying the wrong thing or making a mess investigation has significant meaning as you know there’s going to be ramifications. Your responses are time-pressured, sometimes causing you to act rashly. Do you use information from a crime scene to reveal a character is lying, or do you just beat the truth out of him? When the timer is running down, you’re forced to act on instinct rather than judgement.
The catalyst for most of the games events is a morbid message left outside the Woodland Apartments, home to many Fables. A lesser-known Fable has been murdered, and someone wants to make sure it’s discovered. Snow White, the deputy mayor’s assistant, sees it as he duty to help Bigby unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder. She’s a great contrast to Bigby, calm and gentle, though strong in different ways to him. Bigby is much more straightforward, he investigates the only way he knows how, confronting each person and every problem head-on.
As Bigby, you interrogate suspects, you investigate crime scenes, you trade blows with other Fables. Many of the twists and turns cumulate in wild set pieces, an all-out brawl, or chasing a suspect through corridors and out of windows. Bigby can take an enormous amount of punishment, as can those that he chases, because Fables, as long as they’re remembered, are incredibly difficult to kill.
It’s a good thing Fables don’t go down easy. In this first episode there’s a lot more fighting than detective work, and most of it is pretty brutal. Sure, you’ll grab the occasional clue, you’ll be asked to share your deductions, but it’s not reasonable to have any just yet, for now it’s about strapping yourself in and preparing for the ride ahead. The real meat is likely to come in future episodes, The Wolf Among Us is spread out over five episodes, so the time when clues gathered by Bigby probably won’t pay off until later.
Veteran point-and-click players might lament the lack of puzzles, action enthusiasts may be frustrated that combat and chase scenes are just a succession of quick-time events. Regardless, most players will enjoy the first part of this adventure. Despite these drawbacks, the experience is an extremely positive one thanks largely to it’s stylish presentation, and that each episode is short enough that mechanics don’t grate. A second playthrough is almost a requirement, and it’s pleasing how differently things can play out, even if it’s not a complete departure from the first time. One experience I had was getting more information from a character barely spoke a sentence the first time I met him.
The Wolf Among Us is intriguing and stylish enough to be worthy of attention.