[21 February 2014]
Given how well The Walking Dead turned out in 2012, it is understandable that I found the inaugural episode of their first post-zombie adventure game a little lacking, no matter how much of a fan I am of the Fables comics. Yet, at the same time, I was willing to put that aside in recognition of the fact that the Fables universe requires a lot more explanation and set up for newcomers to understand (fairy tale characters are real, have been exiled to New York, and the 70s/80s are taking their toll on this populous) than The Walking Dead does (zombie apocalypse in Georgia). There’s a lot of minutiae that needs to be understood before the game can really get going.
Having played the second episode now, I think that the problem may be much deeper than that. In the first story arc of the comic book, what amounts to the first four issues collected in the first trade paperback, Bigby Wolf tries to solve an apparent murder, does some investigating, and along the way we are introduced to the hows and whys of Fabletown. It uses the well understood archetypes and narrative beats of the detective genre as a scaffolding on which to build an introduction to Bill Willingham’s world. The Wolf Among Us is following in the footsteps of that narrative arc.
Likewise with that initial Fables arc, The Wolf Among Us can’t be properly appreciated in fractured installments. There are things to like about each episode, but unlike the first season of The Walking Dead, it seems that its success or failure can’t really be appreciated until it is complete. While they are both comics turned into video games, they represent different genres and therefore require different pacing and a different structure. The Walking Dead could work episodically because there is no solution to the problem faced by its characters as a whole (zombie apocalypse). Thier interest is merely in survival. Each episode was a new tale told about this effort. The episodes of The Wolf Among Us are acts that make up a single adventure, a mystery with enough meat in it to map out over five episodes instead of the prime time television standard of one case per episode.
Having said all I that, I still really like The Wolf Among Us so far. I’m enjoying the play-by-pay interactions of Snow and Bigby and Colin and Bigby and really anyone and Bigby. Bigby Wolf falls right into the tradition of the beaten down noir investigator, a figure along the lines of a Philip Marlowe or a Sam Spade. However, he is different enough to eke out his own individuality—so long as he’s working off of someone else. He isn’t a character that is interesting enough on his own; he’s isn’t a proactive character. He’s a reactionary character and needs interesting people to play off of. Thankfully, The Wolf Among Us offers a steady stream of interesting characters out of fairy tale and other public domain works that you may or may not recognize to play off of him.
The game opens with Bigby Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, called in to stop a domestic complaint. The woodsman, the man who cut him up in the story of Little Red Riding Hood, is beating a woman. Later that night, this woman, Faith, is found dead on the front stoop of a Fabletown apartment building. Despite being a first victim, all signs point to a serial criminal. In investigating the crime, Bigby finds the fairy tale land they’ve carved out for themselves in NYC may not be as shining or happily-ever-after as those at the top might think.
The story follow a recognizable structure of looking for clues, interrogating suspects, and the detective getting the crap kicked out of him and dishing it out in equal measure.
It’s a well worn structure, and it is made or broken based on the writer’s ability to deliver not just a good mystery, but a believable drama and thematic resonance. Telltale has a good track record as a studio of decent writing and really managed to step up their game with The Walking Dead. The Wolf Among Us continues that high watermark.
While a full sense of The Wolf Among Us can’t be gleaned as of yet with so many twists and turns as well a red herring or two to go, the shape of the world is more than enough enticement to play. The game takes place in an era of New York City when the grunge, dirt, and sleaze of the 70s collided with the neon gloss of the 80s. Everyone is down on their luck, and those in power have closed their ears to the cries of the powerless. Bigby is a man caught in between these two forces.
Bigby is a part of the ruling class. He serves as their enforcer, but he is also the man who keeps everyone safe by keeping everyone’s fairy tale identities a secret. Much of the choices in the game are not making big life or death decisions, but in defining Bigby in that role. He is the Big Bad Wolf. Will he succumb to everyone’s expectations as the violent brute or will he rise above and suppress his instincts?
But really even that black and white explanation is a false dichotomy. Rising above it is not simply choosing to not swing the bat, but instead to merely speak softly as you carry it around. And there come the moments where it is necessary to get physical, which the game presents as split second decisions made during quicktime combat sequences.
The comic art style is brought to life by the character’s movements, and the voice acting is perfect. This is the first time that we get to hear the characters from the comic pages, and while I didn’t know what to expect beforehand, on hearing the characters speak I felt that I knew that this is what they should sound like and who they are. From the restrained gruffness of Bigby to the bureaucratic wheezing of Crane to the self indulgent, smarmy confidence of Jack. But even better than all that are the background details flesh out the world. From posters on the walls to familiar names on plates mounted by the elevator in the Fabletown apartments, the setting tells as much about what is going on in between the scenes and out of sight as the unraveling of the case does.
I like what I’ve seen and I like what the game promises, but it isn’t a work that breaks down into smaller chunks so easily. The initial two episodes provide a strong setup, and I’m eager to see how the game looks once I can see it as a whole.