The Wolf Among Us isn't the same morality simulator as The Walking Dead, and that's a good thing.
The Wolf Among Us: Episode 3Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Telltale Games
Release date: 2014-04-08
Yes, Episode 3 is a step up from the previous two as a solo outing, but not because the first two were bad or even mediocre. It's because Episode 3 is the beginning of the pay off for all that set up. I don't like how the early consensus is that The Wolf Among Us is finally getting good with the latest episode. These comments ignore a lot of the material and structural set up that took place in the first two episodes and the very different goals that this game is trying to accomplish in contrast to The Walking Dead.
The Wolf Among Us has been rather obviously about the economic inequality plaguing Fabletown and how the power structures in place have either been inept, willfully blind, or actively complicit in the plight of the downtrodden and soon to be downtrodden. I feel like no matter how obvious this theme is and the messaging of it may be, it is lost due to the presentation of the murder mystery that is central to the plot of the game. Plenty of poorer works have weaseled a certain modicum of seeming relevance out of referencing such topics in any otherwise formulaic narrative without the same due diligence of making them a part of the work itself. Procedural “murder of the week” detective shows do this all the time. I feel this may color some of the reception The Wolf Among Us,as without closer inspection it may seem to following in similar footsteps.
Since the game isn't gut punching its audience on a personal level like The Walking Dead did, it is being evaluated as a lesser effort. Subconsciously the economic themes may feel like mere lip service to the times, another skinning of current events over another serial killer narrative, but The Wolf Among Us is better than that. Not only have the themes been integral to the plot, but Episode 3 proves that the game is more seriously concerned with such commentary.
In the previous episodes, the story threads concerning how the issues facing Toad and his son and those facing Beauty and the Beast paralleled the plot of the murders in order to highlight the trouble of Fabletown. Episode 3 now concerns itself with corrupting nature of those that would abuse a culture's most basic system of exchange. Money itself isn't evil in this context. The forces behind the scenes may have started down this path out of avarice, but money itself is no longer their dominant interest, and Bigby's and Snow's greatest obstacle isn't that they lack the monetary resources that their enemies do. It's that Bigby and Snow haven't got the resources and that their enemies don't care. The crooked forces working from the shadows will gladly lose money if it means they can retain power. They will throw anything that they have to the wind in order to beat down the Sheriff and keep the case officially unsolved.
Another factor in The Wolf Among Us's general disfavor among critics and fans has been that the choices in the game seem to reduce the complex and more ambiguous morality system of The Walking Dead to something like the binary system of a game like Mass Effect. Again, it is the context in which the system is placed that is important, not the system itself. The good/evil or paragon/renegade binary of many video games of the last decade aren't a problem simply because they set up a less than complex presentation of moral choice. The problem is that they set up a simplistic system of such choices and then try to apply that system to every conceivable situation and context. Mass Effect applies the paragon/renegade divide to life or death situations concerning individuals or entire races of people, to issues concerning individual rights, like freedom of the press, to familial spats, to honor in combat, and to attitudes about economic transactions. The states of these choices range from galaxy effecting issues to minor personal inconveniences. The sense of weight of these issues isn't so much lost as it is outright ignored by this use of the system.
The concerns The Wolf Among Us are presented differently. Not only are the stakes of moral encounters resting on a rather even plane in relation to one another (they are all pretty intimate encounters), they all repeat the same question on the same issues and change only the contexts. The game's seemingly simplistic morality system is given depth by changing the context in which that question is asked. Yes, the outcomes of the “big decisions” that players of the game on the whole make, which the game displays the percentages for at the end of each episode, are pretty lopsided and continue to be not represent the most interesting parts of the game, but the other moments of roleplay have a greater place to play in the back of the player's mind. One moment that stuck with me this episode was in investigating what I'm sure was a drug operation and finding some money obviously involved in this illegal activity. I decided to pocket it, and even though the game didn't chide me with something like its all too common "He will remember that" notification, I had to repeatedly justify the action to myself, especially since a similar situation had come up multiple times before.
Leaving the money where it is or pocketing it has come up three times so far in the game, each time with slight variations on this motif. The fact that choices like these are not remarked upon directly by the game leaves judgment about them in the player's hands and may ultimately mean more than the advertised decisions at the end. In fact, I question the necessity of the ending comparisons at all. These served as a great conversation starter in The Walking Dead, where each choice in the game resulted in asking a very different questions about weighing the needs of survival against basic decency, but The Wolf Among Us doesn't provide such an unusual setting for its decisions to be made in. Instead, this game places its decisions in the context of a world with the kinds of consequences that we all face.