Best of 2014: The Wolf Among Us
This post contains some minor spoilers for The Wolf Among Us.
For most of the year, The Wolf Among Us sat atop of this list. I can’t recall a game that hooked me as quickly as the first episode did and Telltale Games silenced everyone who doubted that lightning could strike twice. Throughout the first half of the year, Telltale Games delivered an enthralling murder mystery video game. The true test of narrative excellence is when a writer or designer is one step ahead of the audience and The Wolf Among Us is several steps ahead at all times. There are so many subtle hints in the early episodes that come up later in ways you don’t expect. It’s one thing to be a step ahead, it’s another to do so without the audience even being aware of it.
For those of you who have lived under a rock for the past year, The Wolf Among Us is an episodic adventure game made by Telltale Games, the brilliant studio behind The Walking Dead. The series is based on the Fables comics and stars Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown which is a community of fairytale creatures and characters in New York City. The series serves as a prequel to the comics and luckily you aren’t required to read the comics to enjoy The Wolf Among Us. The five episodes follow Bigby as he investigates a series of murders that leads to him uncovering a conspiracy.
I won’t discuss the gameplay here. It’s not particularly bad but quick-time event gameplay isn’t going to win any game design awards and more importantly it’s not what the player is going to remember. If you’re playing The Wolf Among Us, you’re playing it for the story so that’s what I’m going to discuss.
Part of what makes The Wolf Among Us so great, aside from the stellar writing, is the atmosphere. The art style, soundtrack and sound design all come together in such a unique way with many callbacks to pulp, noir, detective novels. The purple nights and orange dusks seem to leap from comic book panels and come to life on screen. The Wolf Among Us proves it’s possible to be gritty and colourful within a single art style.
The Wolf Among Us isn’t just a game about story, it’s also about themes. While both seasons of The Walking Dead focus on society, The Wolf Among Us is ultimately a game about community. The player goes through this game, being judged by different characters and different times for different reasons. Every character in this game agrees that Fabletown needs to change but nobody can agree what that change means. This game features less difficult decisions than other choice driven games, instead opting for a different approach.
The Wolf Among Us is about deciding to how one will manoeuvre through the web of beliefs and prejudices in Fabletown. Do you take pity on people like Aunty Greenleaf, who break the rules to get by or do you make an example of these people and use fear to make people fall in line? It’s these kinds of questions that The Wolf Among Us asks of the player and the result is a game that leads to different types of conversations than you’re used to hearing in video games.
Oddly enough, for a game about talking toads, trolls and magical spells, all the characters in The Wolf Among Us feel like real people, more so than any video game before it. Video games often show people in extraordinary situations whether it’s surviving an apocalypse, journeying through an underwater city or saving the world from an evil curse. The characters in this game are certainly extraordinary within the context of the fairytale setting but in comparison to most video games, they are ordinary people.
The Wolf Among Us isn’t about saving the world, it’s about people trying to get by and move on with their lives. To quote Ichabod Crane from the second episode, “[their] stories used to be so simple, They had a beginning, a middle and an end.” Now however, these stories are over and living in the real world often fails to live up the wonder and fantasy of fictional stories.
Everyone in Fabletown faces this problem and they all deal with it in different ways. Certain characters, such as Bluebeard take a more pragmatic approach while others such as Beauty and Beast hold on to their material possessions in attempt to emulate their former lives.
In the middle of all this chaos is Bigby Wolf who, when the game begins, is well-known for his past misdeeds. Bigby is trying to make a fresh start and this gives him the perfect clean slate for the player to work with.
No matter what, Bigby remains fixed on doing the right thing but how he gets there is up to the player. Is the new Bigby Wolf more calm and patient or does he resort to violence whenever possible? Whichever approach you choose, the people of Fabletown you question the player’s judgement, leaving it up to them to justify their decisions. The last game I recall that did this was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, which came out almost exactly ten years ago.
It’s not just the entire experience that’s worth discussing but how each individual episode adds to the overall effect of the narrative. The first episode “Faith” establishes the Fabletown community and brings up the question whether it’s better to be feared than loved. Many of the choices reinforce this theme.
After an incredibly brutal Bigby has the option to rip his opponent’s arm off. Consider what the designer is asking of the player. This person attacks Bigby unprovoked and while he had his own reasons he was clearly wrong for doing so. But does that mean he deserves to suffer just so he can be made an example of?
It’s one thing to have the player debate philosophy but what this first episode, and the rest of the series, does so well is put these questions to the test. It makes the player back up their beliefs or risk coming across as a liar. Best of all, there’s so easy solution to any the problems in Fabletown. This is one of those games where discussing your decisions with another player is half the fun.
The final episode does such an amazing job wrapping up the entire story, not just from a narrative standpoint, but a thematic point-of-view as well. The finale is a twenty-minute scene featuring most of the Fabletown community on how to handle what’s transpired thus far. This scene almost accounts for one-third of the entire episode and it pulls together all the thematic hints that have introduced in the four previous episodes.
Upon the player making the last big decision in the episode, they’re given a message in the top corner that reads “Fabletown will remember that,” or a slight variation on the phrase. Truth be told, this has been going on for five episodes because everything Bigby does will be remembered by someone in Fabletown. I only hope that Telltale Games makes a second season so we can truly understand the impact of what’s happened in Fabletown. If I had to guess, much like the real world, there won’t be a happy ending in Fabletown’s future.