The extent to which a story is interactive isn’t defined by how many buttons we press, but how important each button press is.
The first conversation in Telltale’s The Walking Dead (well, the first conversation of Season 1, a soon-to-be-necessary distinction) kept its focus squarely on Lee. The conversation was meant to establish his back story and personality; it was meant to be mundane and casual in order to establish a baseline normalcy that was soon to be shattered. Working in its favor was the fact that it didn’t have to do any world building. The Walking Dead takes place in the real world, so there was no need to explain any supernatural rules (well, not at this point anyways, that doesn’t happen until the zombies show up). This first conversation didn’t need to be expansive so it was kept narrow, focused, and the game benefited from that focus.
The Wolf Among Us has a much greater challenge ahead of it. This is a story about fabled fairy tale characters living in secret in Manhattan. By its very nature, the game has to explain a lot more about its world than The Walking Dead ever did. The first conversation in this series still needs to introduce us to Bigby Wolf, but it also has to explain the complex rules and politics of this secret fantasy society.
The first other character that you meet in the game is a three-foot tall talking toad in human clothes, aptly named Toad. The game doesn’t try to hide its inherent weirdness, it throws that weirdness in our face right off the bat, but then it pulls back so as to not overwhelm us. Your conversation with Toad outlines the concept of a Glamour, a magic that gives the fable characters a human form. As Toad starts making excuses for his un-Glamourized appearance, he starts adding layers to the conversation: He complains that Glamours are expensive and that the rates keep going up and that the magic is getting less effective and that he’s got a family to hide and that he can’t afford them and that the system is stacked against him. He sets up the larger class struggles at the heart of The Wolf Among Us in a concise, defensive rant.
The rest of the conversation focuses on this issues surrounding of Glamours, but that’s the only type of magic that is brought up. There’s so much back story to the world of Fables (the comic series that the game is based on) that The Wolf Among Us could easily have become an encyclopedia rather than a story. But Telltale holds back that flood of information, drip feeding us only what we need to know in the moment. This conversation is an excellent bit of introductory world building because it is so narrow in scope. It’s not meant to explain how the fables came to New York, how Bigby became the Sheriff, or the details of how magic works. It simply explains what Glamours are and the punishment for not using them. At the same time, it works as an introduction to Bigby because it establishes his role as Sheriff, and then immediately challenges that role with an ethical dilemma.
In response to Toad’s many excuses, you can choose to be sympathetic, dismissive, or stern. As the first choice in the game, your response here sets a precedence for how Bigby reacts to the world around him, so even though you’re just talking to Toad, you’re not just talking about Toad. If you’re sympathetic towards his financial troubles, you’re also expressing sympathy for the entire lower class of Fabletown. If you’re dismissive of his financial troubles, you’re dismissing the problems of the lower class in general and making an ethical stand with “The System.” If you’re stern, expressing sympathy while also admonishing Toad, then you cast Bigby as a reluctant drone in The System. This first choice sets the starting point for Bigby’s character arc: Is he a good man, a bad man, or a defeated man?
In the first five minutes we press all of four buttons, but The Wolf Among Us is engrossing as a story and as a game because those buttons are so important. The extent to which a story is interactive isn’t defined by how many buttons we press, but how important each button press is. In this case, we’re choosing sides in a grand class struggle, and even if our actions for the rest of the episode undercut that initial choice, it still serves its purpose in the beginning by quickly engaging us in the conflicts of Fabletown. In fact, the more that we undercut that initial choice, the more interesting a character Bigby becomes. I was a hardass to Toad, but I was much more forgiving of everyone else and that probably has a lot to do with the mitigating presence of Snow White, which brings up a whole other aspect of his character.
Telltale has honed their writing to such a fine point that four buttons is all it takes to start navigating the political muck of a fantastical community. Four buttons is all it takes to define a character and a world.