Smoke & Mirrors is a strange play experience: not particularly interesting mechanically and certainly not fun, but nevertheless unique and entrancing.
This article contains spoilers for The Wolf Among Us: Episodes 1 and 2.
The first episode of The Wolf Among Us proved something important. TellTale’s narrative-driven formula works for more than just The Walking Dead. The story beats, dialogue options, social reminders, and action sequences could all live within an entirely different world and do so very well in the realm of Fables. As I discussed in a previous article, in many ways "The Wolf Among Us uses its detective story backdrop to distill and refine its established core gameplay.” However, with the latest episode in the five part series, Tell Tale has shaken up the norm by moving its themes further away from mere detective work.
Sure, The Walking Dead is chock full of rotting corpses and sudden acts of violence, but Smoke & Mirrors, the second episode of The Wolf Among Us, easily wins the award for TellTale’s most gruesome story yet. What began as a dip into Fabletown’s seedier underbelly has instead become a deep dive into its rotten core. By the game’s end, The Wolf Among Us fully embraces the gothic horror aspects of its pulp legacy to color exploitation in its grisly pink and purple hues.
There is a strong underlying horror to this episode established almost immediately. Following the apparent decapitation of Snow White, Bigby finds himself under interrogation by “mundy” police officers. After a few moments, the woman questioning Bigby starts to act strange. Her nose starts to bleed, she forgets for a moment who she is, and she starts to beg, perhaps for an end to her suffering. Crane is the source of the unsettling event, having cast a forgetting spell over the police department. The scrawny bureaucrat shrugs it off as a simple matter, but the horror of the scene remains and never really leaves.
Each chapter of Smoke & Mirrors maintains or elevates the dread that pervades this episode. While you may pass over the torture scene without burning, punching, or humiliating Tweedledum, knowing the option is there -- and may even be necessary -- is still severe. The game then moves along briskly, from examining the desecrated and track-marked corpse of the Snow look-alike, to a grungy brothel, then to a bloody tableau in a dank hotel.
This unrelenting journey into darkness significantly departs from the themes of the previous episode. Yes, from the beginning, Fabletown is clearly not the paradise its fairy tale inhabitants might expect, but Bigby’s role in it is virtuous. Gameplay decisions fit into the detective narrative with each decision and moment of self-doubt resonating with the clue-driven work of a PI. By episode two, the tension of player decisions has been replaced by steady dread. For example, in both conversations with the troll bartender Holly and with Toad Jr., Bigby’s (and by extension the player’s) behavior is largely constrained. Bigby lacks the tools required to maneuver that particular social environment, so the player decisions necessarily feel removed from the narrative in a way.
Some of more tepid reactions to Smoke & Mirrors, I suspect are the result of a tonal and thematic shift in the storytelling of The Wolf Among Us that changes the significance of player decisions. Broadly speaking, horror drives the story, perhaps made most clear in Bigby’s recreation of the grisly murder scene at the game’s climax. More specifically, Smoke & Mirrors transitioned the larger narrative away from the muscly detective story towards a story about exploitation and money.
From fast-talking Jack and Holly in the Fabletown bar to Georgie in the Puddin’ and Pie strip club, NPCs are constantly reminding Bigby that the Woodland Office, the town’s governmental body, ignores the plight of its citizens. In turn, the ignored exploit each other. Lilly scrapes by, feeding her addiction, by prostituting herself. Meanwhile, her debt piles up as made up fees essentially keep her a slave to Georgie. Likewise, a black market for illicit magic pops up to meet the demand of a particularly needy population. The magical Fabletown looks startlingly like our own reality.
Faced with the horror of unseen exploitation, what is a pulp detective to do? Like the player, Bigby is helpless. Even Bigby is exploited by the bureaucratic apparatus embodied by Ichabod Crane, who both runs an ineffective mayorship and becomes the sleazy suspect in the murder case. Fabletown is not a fun or even rewarding place to be. Decisions seem less meaningful in Smoke & Mirrors because none of them lead out of the macabre world deepened in The Wolf Among Us. The result is a strange play experience: not particularly interesting mechanically and certainly not fun, but nevertheless unique and entrancing. For once, I am grateful for the long wait between visits to Fabletown.