Illusions, Interactivity, and 'The Wolf Among Us'

Part of what makes a great game great is how well it fosters its own illusion.

A couple of weeks ago, Jorge Albor wrote about how horror drives The Wolf Among Us:

The Wolf Among Us [changes] the significance of player decisions... 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. (The Horror of ‘The Wolf Among Us: Smoke & Mirrors", PopMatters, 27 Feburary 2014

I had a similar sense of lessened interaction upon finishing the game. Decisions did seem less meaningful, and like Jorge, I didn’t find that to be a bad thing. The Wolf Among Us is a stellar example of the illusion of interactivity done right. It proves that my specific interactions with a game are not as important as the illusion those interactions facilitate. Put another way, it’s not about how many buttons I press but about what I think each button means.

The choices you make in the game don’t really impact the story and don’t seem to impact your relationships with other characters. They only impact that the player has is on what dialogue is spoken and what is left unsaid. The story progresses in much the same way no matter what you do. This is a typical trait of the “Telltale style” of adventure games. These games are always more linear than they let on. The choices that you make in conversation are less about causing branches in the plot, and more about developing your character. What you do doesn’t matter as much as what you say because events will play out as they are fated to by the developer. However, we can decide how our character (Lee or Bigby) should respond, molding their character through those responses.

This style of adventure game has always prioritized illusion over interactivity. We choose whether to save Carly or Doug in the first Walking Dead game, but no matter our choice, they’re gunned down a couple episodes later, having never even had the opportunity to affect the plot. Yet, they affected us. We saved one or the other for a reason, so we’re invested in their livelihood because of that decision. They’re not important in the grand scheme of the story, but they’re important to us because we had to justify saving one of them while letting the other die. That act of choosing makes us feel personally responsible for their safety. We’re not, but that’s the brilliant illusion at the heart of Telltale’s games: We always feel responsible.

The Wolf Among Us fosters a similar sense of responsibility, even though it gives us less interactivity in the world and less control over its characters. The noir genre helps foster this illusion. When I start questioning a suspect there’s an implied risk that I might ask the wrong questions and end up getting no good answers. There’s an implied risk of failure, and that implied failure makes me consider each dialogue choice carefully. I want to think about how I act, what I say, and how I say it. I want to analyze the situation and choose the best question to get me the best answer. This isn’t actually necessary, the importance of this choice is an illusion, but the game plays into our natural gamer desire to overanalyze situations.

The Wolf Among Us is not a game with a particularly deep set of mechanics or controls or branching narratives. It’s not very “interactive” in the most common sense of that word when it is applied to gaming, but what little interaction there is facilitates an illusion of interactivity, an illusion of consequence.

As Bioshock taught us, all of our sense of control over a game is an illusion. We are never in control. Even in open ended, emergent games, we’re limited by the mechanics and the design. For as open as Day Z or Rust seem to be, you can’t play baseball within their worlds. Of course, why would you? One doesn’t go into those games with a desire to play a sport, but that’s just part of their illusion. Both games stress the dangers of survival and the risks of human interaction. The games create a context in which their limitations are not obvious, but those limitations still exist.

Part of what makes a great game great is how well it fosters its own illusion and how much we’re willing to buy into it. The Wolf Among Us is a testament to the power of that illusion. I know it’s all faked. I know the full extent of the gameplay is simple button presses encouraged by a timer. I know that its narrative doesn’t branch. I know that its characters don’t really change. I know that none of my choices will come back to bite me in the ass later. I know decisions are less meaningful. But I also know that none of that matters because the game is so slick, so stylish, so well-acted, and its story is so engaging that I’ll buy into that illusion of personal responsibility every time.

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