Thoughts on The Wolf Among Us

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a fan of TellTale Games’s episodic adventure series that they release periodically (their most prominent property at the moment is The Walking Dead, but they’ve also done several other high quality series).

Fables Telltale Logo.png

I particularly love the shading effects in this game. Those deep blacks make for such great images. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The other day I just finished The Wolf Among Us, a series set in Bill Willingham’s Fables universe prior to the beginning of the comics (I had the great pleasure to read most of the run up to what was then current several years ago thanks to a co-worker who shared my penchant for having way too much spare time at the first white collar job I worked; it’s a series I would happily revisit, though I’ve not had the opportunity lately).

In this game, you play as Bigby Wolf, the recently appointed sheriff of Fabletown, a small community of fairy tale figures living in New York City after being driven from their homelands by “The Adversary.”  Bigby’s your typical former villain looking for redemption among his peers who all just wish he’d leave them alone and not remind them that their lives are all a lot harder than they used to be (I think there’s something particularly poignant about a series where most of the characters hail from white European folk traditions and have formerly affluent lives while being reduced to scraping by in early ’90s New York).  The plot’s a standard murder mystery that unravels out into a conspiracy involving a bunch of shady characters in Fabletown’s underworld.  Balancing out Bigby’s more brutal impulses is Snow White, Assistant to the Deputy Mayor, and de facto administrative leader of Fabletown.

The general gist of the gameplay revolves around real time conversations and quicktime events where the player has a limited window to make a decision about what Bigby will say or do in a given situation.  About once per episode the player’s presented with a major choice that significantly impacts the events that follow (usually these choices are presented as binary decisions with no timer so that the player can weigh both options without feeling rushed).  It’s a simple formula that TellTale originated in the first season of their Walking Dead series, and though the mechanics offer little gameplay variety, they facilitate a very rich storytelling structure (despite criticisms that TellTale’s games tend to only offer the illusion of choice, since the broad endings of each series are predetermined and will be reached no matter what decisions are made, the strength of the writing and acting in these games serve to build narrative cohesion and a sense of consequence for decisions that ultimately don’t figure into the final results).

Thematically, what’s really interesting about this game is the struggle that Bigby has to go through in figuring out his new identity in Fabletown.  As the former villain of several prominent fairy tales, he has a really bad reputation with among his peers, who feel that the general amnesty provided to all refugees from the homelands shouldn’t extend as far as it does (this motif of problems with unconditional grace gets further exacerbated by the presence of characters like Bluebeard, who is a prominent citizen of Fabletown with a murderous history but the clout and cunning to smooth over any present indiscretions).  On the other hand, Bigby, who as part of his amnesty was given a potion that permanently grants him a human form, also gets treated as a traitor to the less privileged fables, who get pushed to the edges because their appearance requires that they spend extra money on glamours to let them pass for human or be exiled to The Farm, a reservation where nonhuman fables are forced to live.  It’s in this tension between the privileged and underprivileged fables that Bigby exists, and so he’s constantly forced to choose between the two sides as he wrestles with his own nature.

Of course, this is only one dimension in the player’s decision-making (if it were as simple as privileged versus underprivileged, then I’d always side with the fables who get a raw deal due to both systemic and criminal prejudices); Bigby represents the law in Fabletown, and this extension of power to someone that most of the fables don’t trust means that there’s a constant fine line being drawn between showing restraint for the sake of upholding order in the community and bending or breaking rules when you think they’re getting in the way of doing what’s right.  Bigby is pretty much able to act with impunity, meaning that the only checks in place to keep him from going too far are his (read: the player’s) conscience and the social pressures imposed by the different fables you encounter along the way.  Much like in the first season of The Walking Dead where the player is free to act as they see fit knowing that certain parts of the story will come to pass regardless, it’s the impact your decisions have on the character relationships that really drive the tension in this game.

With the last episode finally out, you can download this game in its entirety for either your console or PC for $20 (or, if you just want to try it out without committing, each episode is $5 by itself).  I’d say that this is a game well worth your time.

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