[11 December 2013]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
While I’m aware that a lot of people are pretty pleased with Telltale Games’s handling of The Wolf Among Us, I remain (at least presently) more enamored with their handling of The Walking Dead than this newest Fables property.
Part of my issue (again, at least presently) is that the protagonist of The Wolf Among Us, Bigby Wolf, and his supporting cast just seem to lack the same compelling interest that Lee Everett and his fragile charge Clementine did, as do the significance of the decisions, both practical and moral, that became the hallmark of Telltale’s previous amazingly emotive and well crafted game.
The Wolf Among Us certainly offers the player moral choices to wrestle with, delimited, of course, by a timer that disallows that player the opportunity to overthink these visceral reactions to circumstances. It also certainly makes an effort to create situations and characters that will evoke pathos and concern in the player. My initial experience of Episode 1 of the new game just felt different, less conversational and less philosophically and morally challenging and more, well… action oriented.
Not that The Walking Dead is without its action sequences. Yes, most of the game is driven by interactions focused on the conversation wheel that allows players to shape their vision of how the game should play out. However, The Walking Dead was, of course, a game about zombies, so the need for a few tense quick time events, in which Lee had to kick free of a crawling zombie or smash one’s head in with a shovel to avoid a zombie bite was apparent. The story required tension, and its few action oriented mechanics that required frantic stabs at buttons in response to onscreen prompts was enough to mimic The Walking Dead‘s requisite nod to the horror of its zombie infested world.
The first episode of The Wolf Among Us, though, felt much more strongly defined by action, whether the form that action takes is combat or a chase sequence. At first, I thought that the game simply featured more action sequences than most episodes of The Walking Dead, but really that doesn’t seem to be the case with really only two fistfights and the aforementioned chase sequence being the extent of the episode’s “action.” In reality, if The Wolf Among Us seems more action oriented, it is really the length of these sequences and the effort required on the part of the player to resolve them that is different. Bigby’s fights require a lot more button presses than anything that Lee ever had to physically perform, and failures to land every blow perfectly do not necessarily mean the death of Bigby, as they would have with Lee. Instead, the quick time events that make up the action sequences of The Walking Dead simply become more complicated give-and-takes between Bigby and his opponent because, if he fails, Bigby merely takes some lumps before returning some more of his own.
In essence, the quick time combat of The Wolf Among Us resembles a struggle more than a tense escape (like moments form the walking dead) or a balletic experience of combat (as it might in a more traditional action game that would feature a more complex and comprehensive system of combos and counters than something like the reactionary quality of a quick time event).
The more and more that I consider the sense of desperate struggle that the simple extension of a quick time event over a minute or two as opposed to the few seconds that these kinds of events usually take, though, the more I begin to admire how this simple representation of combat is so much more appropriate to the story and genre that The Wolf Among Us is telling and conforms to then the tense, brief encounters with zombies from The Walking Dead.
The world that Bigby occupies blends a kind of 80s inspired neon-washed world with high contrast cel shading that seems appropriate given the narrative’s film-noir-like vibe. Bigby is an investigator in the hard boiled mode, a wolf in the guise of a man, who is less a Sherlock Holmes than a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe. American detective fiction has always been notably more active and directly violent than the English drawing room mystery, and its protagonists are less thinkers and analysts than they are tough guys and troublemakers.
Holmes sits passively in his flat at 221 B Baker Street, musing and generalizing and drawing conclusions based on his assumptions about the physical and social world. That deductive method is, of course, less empirical than its is merely an expression of mathematical rationality and sets him apart from the typical criminologist who gathers specific physical evidence and data and then seeks to synthesize that information into a solution. However, even the more traditional inductive method of real policeman and detectives is considerably different than the methodologies of the typical detective of film noir or hard boiled detective fiction.
The simplest way of describing the hard boiled detective’s approach to “solving a mystery” is that the detective of classic American fiction simply likes to “stir things up.” Spade, Marlowe, or Chinatown‘s J.J. Gittes are less thinkers than they are aggressively social, and their means of communication often provokes violence. Detectives of this sort recognize who the major players are in an incident that they are investigating, and in order to get at the truth of that incident, they simply make a nuisance of themselves among those players to see what kind of reactions they get from stirring the pot.
Often this means that Marlowe is going to get cold cocked or Gittes is going to get his head bashed in, but that’s okay, these acts of violence indicate who is concerned with what the investigator knows and strangely then become a more obvious conduit to uncovering truth. The price that the private dick pays for the truth is physical struggle and pain. The good hard boiled detective (as the name implies) is less a thinker than a man whose chief attribute is endurance. He just has to be able to take enough punishment for someone eventually to slip up and spill the beans, even if spilling the beans basically amounts to whacking our erstwhile hero upside the head with a blackjack.
Hence, my eventual appreciation of and approval of the action elements of The Wolf Among Us. Combat is certainly not what typically defines the adventure game, and great or fun combat is certainly not often associated with the simplistic enactment of virtual combat through quick time events. However, the awkward struggles that emerge from playing out The Wolf Among Us‘s quick time events typify the hard boiled genre better than any elegant combat system would or than any analytically driven puzzle solving might. They are long, awkward, and clunky. Moments less to be won than to be survived or endured.
I’m still not sure that I’m hooked on the story that The Wolf Among Us wants to tell, but I do have to admire that the mechanics that support that storytelling at least feel like they appropriately express the kind of story that the game wants to tell.