Searching for Dramatic Stakes in ‘The Wolf Among Us’

[27 June 2014]

By Nick Dinicola

Structurally, Telltale’s games are pretty linear. We’ve realized that now after seeing the format repeated in both The Walking Dead Season 2 and The Wolf Among Us. Our many choices in these games exist to make that linearity feel unique and personal to us. This is particularly noticeable in The Walking Dead with its constant concern with life and death stakes. As a result, our every decisions feels like it carries that heavy dramatic weight. Each death of one of the game’s cast members feels partially like our fault because of the choices we made, and this gives us a sense of personal responsibility for the actions that have played out. These extreme consequences keep us invested and interested in every little choice made in that game.

However, for the first couple of episodes of its season, The Wolf Among Us has struggled to evoke similar stakes. Since the game is set before the events of the property that it is based on, the Fables comic book series, the game lacks the constant threat of death that exists in The Walking Dead, for which Telltale has created original characters for the most part. Thus, it doesn’t hit those same emotional buttons or evoke the same sense of personal responsibility that the other game does. Also, whereas The Walking Dead embraced its episodic nature by telling largely episodic stories, Wolf is very much a single story stretched across five episodes. That means that the opening episodes are bound to be slow as the story builds momentum. For a moment, in episode three, “A Crooked Mile”, the series found its proper dramatic stakes, and the result was the best episode of the season. Sadly, in episode four, “In Sheep’s Clothing”, it loses those a sense of having consequential stakes once again.

To recap: The Wolf Among Us is a mystery of the hardboiled or film noir variety starring fairy tale characters, i.e. Fables, who hide among us. Our heroes are Bigby “Big Bad” Wolf, the Sheriff of Fabletown, and Snow White, the assistant to the mayor of Fabletown . A series of brutal murders lead our pair to learn of a conspiracy that concerns most of Fabletown and exposes the deep corruption of their supposedly lawful institutions. It’s important to note that our heroes seem to start the story in positions of power, since that supposed power is slowly undermined throughout the first two episodes as they come to realize that Fabletown is really run by a crime boss called The Crooked Man.

In retrospect, the first two episodes are slow and lack powerful choices because the characters themselves aren’t actually in positions of power. They can’t change anything about the world even if they want to. These early episodes are meant to break them down, to expose them to their own powerlessness, and to throw up roadblock after roadblock in their investigation until they’re frustrated and angry. That anger then builds to a wonderful midpoint climax in “A Crooked Mile” when we finally get the opportunity to strike back at The Crooked Man—though, at a cost.

We’re given a choice to burn down a magical tree, which will stop the production of illegal magic potions but the results of which will also render an old witch destitute. We’re also given a choice to kill or spare one of the henchmen who has been a nuisance to us throughout the game. These choices are important because they feel like the natural conclusion of everything that has come before: After being jerked around for nearly three episodes, Bigby and Snow finally get a chance to attack The Crooked Man’s criminal empire. Burning the tree and killing the henchman will only hurt The Crooked Man slightly—if at all—but it’s something. That’s what makes it tempting, even when these actions will greatly hurt the bystanders and underlings who don’t really deserve to have such violence visited upon them,  This choice forces us to decide how far we’re willing to go to fight The Crooked Man. What innocents (and not-so-innocents) are you willing to sacrifice in the name of the rule of law and your own sense of power? As such, this feels like a defining moment in the series, one that will reverberate throughout the rest of the game for these characters, at least.

But there is no clear consequence of this act. “In Sheep’s Clothing” is a disappointing comedown from the previous episode because it kills the momentum that made “A Crooked Mile” so tense. This may be partly due the non-episodic structure of Wolf. Following what was a midpoint climax results in a kind of comedown before the final climax. Yet, “In Sheep’s Clothing” feels like it’ is structured to mirror episode three, specifically in regards to those major choices. It feels like this episode is trying to build on previous momentum, to continue asking us what we’d be willing to sacrifice to solve the game’s mysteries, but then the game swerves away from that theme at the last second.

“In Sheep’s Clothing” sends Bigby to a butcher shop with another illegal potion making facility in the backroom, and he fights with another henchman at a Pawn Shop who exists just to obstruct him. As a player who previously chose to burn the tree and kill the henchmen, I kept was waiting for a similar choice to appear again in these circumstances. I was waiting for the opportunity to make Bigby into an even more amoral lawman. I wanted to keep burning things and keep killing people, since the game seemed to be going in that direction. 

However, you don’t ever get the chance to destroy the potion facility or kill the henchman. Instead, you just walk away from both conflicts. If “A Crooked Mile” was about Bigby and Snow forcefully taking back some semblance of power in the name of institutional authority, “In Sheep’s Clothing” is about them falling back into the weak, bad habits that caused them to fail to notice the machinations of The Crooked Man in the first place. By the end of the episode, I didn’t know where the story or the characters were going, not because the story is so complex, but because it is an inconsistent story.

You are faced with choices that will hurt innocent bystanders in this episode, and that hurt that you cause them will be done in the name of the law. However, these choices have nothing to do with The Crooked Man or his criminal empire. You can choose to send your talking pig friend and a talking frog to “the Farm,” a kind of prison for Fables. You can force them away because, well, they’re talking animals and that kind of stands out in the world. Normal humans might get suspicious of things like that. So, we are hurting innocents in an attempt to reestablish our authority. However, without the specter of The Crooked Man hovering over these decisions, justifying our cruelty, hurting these fables just seems, well, simply cruel. The Crooked Man gave us an excuse to be mean, which made those other choices disturbingly compelling. Now we’re just being jerks.

In retrospect, the first three episodes were very well-structured and effectively built on one another. The plot thickens during those episodes in clever ways, the characters grew in interesting ways, and the themes deepened in smart ways. By comparison, episode four seems to be just spinning its wheels, getting the proper plot in place for the final episode. It feels mostly unnecessary. 

Maybe this is a sign that Telltale should mix up their episodic structure some more. We don’t always need five episodes in a season. A season length should be able to expand and contract as the story requires. Individual episodes already vary wildly in length, so why not seasons as well? The first seasons of recent television shows Fargo and True Detective are comprised of only 10 episodes each, a lower number compared to many cable television shows and a very low number compared to network shows. Both shows benefited from more compact seasons. Mysteries can only be stretched so far, and when the investigation starts repeating itself, you know that it’s been stretched too far.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/183201-searching-for-dramatic-stakes-in-the-wolf-among-us/