I got The Wolf Among Us during a Steam sale months ago. It was on a lark, really. I hadn’t read the Fables series of comics and knew basically nothing about the game, but it did have the vaunted Telltale label. Having also just completed Tales from the Borderlands, I decided to give Wolf a try. I wanted to compare this earlier Telltale game to Tales, to see if my dissatisfaction with Tales’ lack of meaningful game mechanics would carry on to this game.
It’s surprising, but I liked Wolf a little more than Tales, because Wolf gives me that feeling (or illusion?) of agency where Tales did not. Wolf does two things a little better than Tales. First, it actually has some incidental interest. Unlike Tales, which felt like an on-rails experience with very little breathing room, Wolf gives the player a little more space to explore without relentlessly rushing him or her to the next narrative set piece. There are quiet moments where the player can walk around, poke at things, talk to people, and listen in on their character’s’ internal monologue. That’s not to say that Tales didn’t have player-controlled segments, but Tales’ playable areas seemed desultory and devoid of interest.
Secondly, Wolf ‘s game mechanics are made meaningful through alignment with plot. The game puts you in the shoes of Bigby Wolf, a sheriff of a town of Fables, who are near-immortal mythical characters from the myths and legends of cultures all over the world. The game has Bigby (who is the analogue of the Big Bad Wolf of Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs fame) investigate the murders of two women, Fables of Fabletown. A lot of these puzzles are about exploring the environment and finding the right clues, or playing “choose-the-dialogue-option” scenarios during cutscenes. The player is essentially experiencing the illusion of undertaking a murder investigation through going through the gameplay motions. This gives the rather half-baked mechanics some contextual meaningfulness, and thereby masks, to some extent, the superficiality of the base mechanics (i.e. interacting with objects and choosing dialogue options).
Wolf, is therefore, a better game experience (in terms of player agency and empowerment) than Tales was. But was it a better story?
This is where I go a little more subjective. I felt compelled to binge-play Wolf more than I did with Tales. While Tales had its moments and giant wacky set pieces, Wolf had the more streamlined, incisive story. It’s only got the one player character, after all. Wolf also proved the more immersive, riveting experience, not least because of its episode-ending cliffhangers, its tense noir sensibility, and the tension that emanated from its darker setting. I cared more about Bigby than I did either Rhys or Fiona, too. And Borderlands jokes need a bit of a cooling-off period.
The most compelling thing about the plot is that it actually gives the player ethically meaningful choices; choices where there is no clear right or wrong. Too often, games present a binary moral choice based on whether you’re roleplaying the good or the bad guy (KOTOR is a case in point). Wolf, luckily, has more shades of grey than that, and it makes for a compelling story, especially in the denouement.
Wolf does have its issues, of course, which appear in most player-choice narrative games. While the player is given latitude to role-play the main character, the game often has a more restrictive view on what the character should be like. In Wolf, one of the themes that the writers were trying to get across was that Bigby was in a constant struggle with his more animalistic tendencies, which he had suppressed after he came to Fabletown. There are times in the narrative where you can choose to act upon those urges. But when you roleplay Bigby as a goody-two-shoes, as I did, that thematic angle loses its potency, because my version of Bigby never seemed to have an issue tamping down on his emotions, only bringing out his big bad wolf form in self-defense. But again, the limitations of budget and scope are at play here.
In all, The Wolf Among Us is a strong, compelling and atmospheric entry in the Telltale pantheon of narrative games, and actually distinguishes itself in the relative depth and context-appropriateness of Telltale’s suite of game mechanics. Hard-hitting, morally complex choice-based narrative games – I’d like to see more of these, as ludic narratives have such potential to expand the frontiers of good storytelling.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 ribbons