Playing Detective in ‘The Wolf Among Us’

Set in a world populated by fairy tale princesses and monsters, Fables is not an immediately attractive comic series to most readers, particularly those who have grown accustomed to vampire-romance dramas and their ilk. In fact, Bill Willingham’s work is not just mature, it is shockingly dark and and often tragic. The series holds its own among the more adult works in the genre. Coming off of The Walking Dead adaption then, Telltale is a natural steward for the characters and the world of Fables.

With the bar set so high by The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us has a lot to prove. Not only is it a new franchise to adapt, with its own lore and style, but both Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the two co-writers and project leads on The Walking Dead, have moved on to another project. The team must walk a fine line between satiating their fan base and deviating enough from The Walking Dead so as to distinguish their newest title both thematically and mechanically.

Within the first few minutes of Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, the game frees itself from any childish perceptions. Stark shadows contrasting with bright lights quickly establish a darker world than one might expect from a fairy-tale-inspired universe. Liberal use of adult language coming from a three-foot, slightly overweight toad also set a mature tone, but one distinct from the studio’s previous game. This is an animated and exaggerated world, yes, but its roots clutch firmly to the seedy streets of Noir fiction. It is a significant stylistic departure from The Walking Dead, even while it mirrors the cel-shaded comic styling of the game.

Rather than deviate drastically from interactive story elements, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us uses its detective story backdrop to distill and refine its established core gameplay. Like The Walking Dead, players maneuver the game’s hardboiled detective, Sheriff Bigby, through various sets and quicktime events, responding to button prompts or clicking on various objects or people to progress the story. Quicktime events require as much quick decision making as ever and feel just as natural in a mystery setting as they do in a zombie apocalypse.

Even in the minute interactions with the world, The Wolf Among Us embraces self-doubt, a driving force in the “whodunit” world of pulp detectives. The in-game symbols that indicate interactive objects are more immediately noticeable in this game than its predecessor. Everything feels as though it has equal significance, be it opening a door or looking at a dropped matchbook, and importantly so. As a detective, every little clue may help identify the murderer.

In one scene, while Bigby is chasing a potential suspect through a building, he turns a corner and sees two separate doors, both with large white circles around them, both possible routes to take. With the suspect fleeing quickly, players must make a quick judgement call. When playing the scene myself, I chose incorrectly and immediately felt the pang of doubt. The apartment number on the other door was swinging, that must have been the correct door. While admonishing myself, I spotted my prey through the window and continued the chase.

Moments of self-doubt are frequent in The Walking Dead as well. Deciding who to give a granola bar to, for example, can become terribly difficult. The decisions in the game are often ostensibly about survival but more implicitly about perceptions, predictions, and motivations. How would Kenny feel about me giving a granola bar to Clementine instead of his own son? How will Clementine react to me murdering someone in cold blood? These are essentially narrative questions that drive player decision making in the game.

In The Wolf Among Us, the narrative questions are intimately connected with the mechanics of the game. In another interesting scene, Bigby questions Toad while poking around his home. Without ever blasting players with a big mission notification, the scene quickly becomes a game of interrogation. Looking at a smudge on a window sill provides some evidence, but deciding the approach to take with Toad is largely up to the player. How might he react if you call him out on a lie? And even if he does change his story, how might this help you find the killer?

These question come up time and again. At several points in the game, Snow, Bigby’s boss and love interest, asks him who he thinks the killer is. The game offers several options, including silence. At every turn, the game asks players to think in the long term, to take on the role of detective, to always play the part. Yes, reading character motivations and doubting your own decisions play important parts in The Walking Dead experience, but in The Wolf Among Us, they are the essential components of the game’s narrative design.

In The Walking Dead, the goals are simple and clear: survive and protect Clementine. It was the outlying human relations that made the act of survival more interesting. In The Wolf Among Us, without some overarching and massive evil to contend with, all that remains are motivations and mystery. Somehow, Telltale’s point-and-click adventure style of storytelling has found an even more comfortable home in the pulp detective world of The Wolf Among Us.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.