The Horror of 'The Wolf Among Us: Smoke & Mirrors'

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.