I must admit I hadn’t heard of – let alone read – Bill Willingham’s Fables. Comic books aren’t really my thing, but I can certainly enjoy a bit of juxtaposed whimsy. I’m a sucker for twisted tales, and I did at least buy Watchmen after enjoying the film… although I never got round to reading it. Disney is far too sickly for my taste, and I’ll devour a Miyazaki marathon before I step foot anywhere near The Lion King or Cinderella. Juxtaposition is the key, and these cynical takes on the idyllic world of fairy tales serve as both an intelligent satirical discourse on the nature of social politics, and a massive ‘fuck you’ to anyone overly excited by princesses, justice, superheroes, and the idea that everything’s fine and we should all just shut up and smile.
The Wolf Among Us is exactly that: everything is not fine, because that notion is inherently shallow, and there’s a layer of depth you might be uncomfortable with seeing. The Woodsman is beating on a prostitute princess, and Snow White’s apple is the least of her worries. Bliss.
Telltale Games’ Walking Dead was seen as something adult. It had depth of character, pretty good writing, and every episode fired out twists, hooks, and the ability for the player to manipulate the experience. It was a good game, but not being a fan of The Walking Dead, and being entirely tired by zombies in games I didn’t enjoy it perhaps as much as you did. I understood it, but I didn’t grow as attached to Clementine as much as Telltale had intended me to. Many people however are asking the question “how can Telltale follow that?” It’s a fair question, and I almost certainly expected The Wolf Among Us to be mediocre. It isn’t mediocre, it is incredible.
Your role in this twisted tale is Bigby Wolf. Immediately, Telltale have done something quite ingenious. A game caked in player choice, and moral grey areas, you play as the decidedly ‘Big Bad Wolf’. However, the Big Bad Wolf is neither big, nor bad. He’s a complex, Film Noir anti-hero with a penchant for shitty apartments and cheap booze. He’s not immune to love, and the hairy loner is entirely the sort of character you’d find in a 1930′s crime novel. Someone decided The Big Bad Wolf is a big bad guy, but you get to decide otherwise. Bigby is well voiced, and well scripted. He lives, hilariously ironically, with one of three pigs. Where the other two are, I don’t know.
The way Telltale trickle in the rest of the cast results in moments of eye-opening ‘oh yeaaaah’, with slight changes in their design, and even names. Snow White is known simply as ‘Snow’, and an appearance from Tweedledee and Tweedledum as two gangsters called ‘Twee’ and ‘Dee’ is another interesting ‘real-life modernization’ of these classic characters. Spotting fairy tale characters throughout the relatively short 2.5-3 hour first installment is only one of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed The Wolf Among Us.
There are more adventure game elements in the vein of Sherlock Holmes games from Frogwares, since, being a detective, you can inspect crime scenes and collect and combine evidence. However, this mechanic isn’t anything major and there’s not a whole lot of use out of it, at least not in chapter one. Still, it beats The Walking Dead‘s insistence that you click on everything, for no reason other than to move the story along. Every set piece has a narrative, and every one-liner out of Bigby’s mouth something straight out of a Noir movie.
I do have my suspicious about the extent of interactivity in the story narrative, something I feel is much slimmer in The Wolf Among Us. I really don’t care, because I think player-driven narrative in a game with fully fleshed out voice acting, animation, and set pieces is always going to be limited, but at one point when I was asked if I would do something which, the implication was, would save a female characters life; I chose not to. According to the statistics, only me and 12% of other players are assholes, but I’d bet my PC that 88% of players were met with the same fate, since it was a major part of the story.
I don’t really feel like I have any choice in the conversational prompts, but moments where I have to pick a direction in a chase, or choose who to run after, certainly give me a sense that the story will change depending on my decisions, and these are new types of decisions not seen in The Walking Dead.
Unlike The Walking Dead, the drama here is nuanced and subtle. It is in the conversations, the tensions between characters, and the set pieces. There are seldom moments where everyone is shouting at each-other, and, in the opposite direction, the quieter everyone is, the tenser the moment. Particularly in the bar with the ‘toilets are for staff and regulars only – tough shit’ sign, I turned to my girlfriend and said outright: “this needs to be a movie.”
The Wolf Among Us is a step above The Walking Dead. It’s imaginative, classy, intelligent, well written, graphically superior, well animated, well voiced, and with a unique original fantasy theme that should inspire both haters of Disney and classic fairy tale lore, and those who adore it. Return to Oz struck more chords with me than The Wizard of Oz, and I’ll watch Watchmen before Spider-Man any day of the week. The Wolf Among Us presents a plethora of smart ideas, least of which is the idea that these whimsical fantasy characters serve almost as a satirical representation of our own cynical desires and fears.