In a culture that has embraced the grim aspect of cinema – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy being a prime example – audiences are faced with the entertainment industry’s consistent attempts to take anything slightly garish and make it dark. Colour? Non-existent. If it isn’t a shade of grey (and yes, I want to kick myself for even borderline making that reference), we’re not interested. Dark. Gritty. Maudlin. Something that can make the modern audience grit its teeth and let out an unintelligible Bale-esque grunt of satisfaction. Or something like satisfaction; the Batvoice is never all that specific on emotions, or words, or anything really.
Anyway, back to the game that really deserves centre-stage compared to Bat-in need of a cough sweet-man. Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us falls into the same category of dark, gritty, and maudlin, but it never feels gratuitous. There is no violence for violence’s sake, unless, cleverly, it is by the player’s choice. And isn’t that just the icing on the cake? There can be no complaining about the choices the character makes, or the way they act within the plot, because, ultimately, you create the plot; or rather, your place within it. Just as with The Walking Dead game, which led me by the hand Bill Willingham’s Fables adaptation, the player seizes control of the game on a level that extends beyond picking up the controller.
However, control itself is not enough. What is the sense in seizing control of a narrative without caring about the characters involved? As such, what I will say for Telltale is that they are fantastic at creating interesting and likeable characters, and none more so than TWAU‘s protagonist: Sheriff Bigby Wolf. Now what is it about a villain turned hero that makes someone so damn captivating? Maybe, as a culture that likes to believe in second chances – even when we adhere to the grim pessimism of claiming that there’s no such thing – Bigby represents that teetering position between evolution and reversion. As players, we decide if we want him to renounce his past and become the hero of Fabletown, despite the obstacles and prejudices facing him. Or maybe we say to hell with it and let the Big Bad Wolf embrace his true nature (which, admittedly, can be a slightly more enjoyable option). But that’s the point. The Wolf Among Us doesn’t just question our moral compasses; it allows us to indulge in that villainous side. There is something to be said for telling someone to “f**k off” with no provocation on their part and immediately feeling that buzz of satisfaction.
I call it therapeutic. Others might say sociopathic. Semantics, am I right?
The Wolf Among Us is more than just the gimmick of grim realism, unnecessary expletives and viciously smashing glasses in peoples’ faces. It is about the loss of frivolity and optimism; of ripping fairy tale characters from a place of imagination, and for many, innocence, and thrusting them into an urban wasteland of debauchery, murder, and prostitution. It’s a bitter world where Beauty and the Beast are in debt, The Little Mermaid is forced to be a working girl, and Snow White is stalked and objectified by her boss. In the premise of a modern day collection of fables, Telltale bludgeons players with stark commentaries of class struggles and the abuse of women who, for the majority of the game, bear the brunt of male brutality. Yes, the protagonist is the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame, but if we changed his name and his back story, what changes? Nothing. The agonisingly real components of modern day struggles remain constant within the narrative, weighing us down like the cinderblocks on Lily’s ankles.
As is an iconic stylistic element of Telltale’s games, the comic pulp aesthetic enhances the fairy tale-esque quality of Fabletown whilst relying on a dingy shading and colour to breathe life – or rather Huff ‘n’ Puff it out of smoke-filled lungs – into a New York city backdrop. It is a master class in gaming magical realism; a seamless combination of the sublime with the mundane (or the world of Mundies, as the Fables would say).
The gameplay itself is interesting. Barring the choice element that allows players to inhabit Bigby Wolf’s character and add their own voice to a cleverly constructed and well-written plot, the level of detective work required sets TWAU apart from countless other games. It is more than solving puzzles to access the next level, or room, or secret compartment hidden in plain sight. Like any detective novel, or film noir, the story continues to unravel until the final act in which all pieces of the puzzle slot together seamlessly. Having a hand in that revelation makes the conclusive payoff all the more satisfying; you found the clues, you solved the murders, you saved Fabletown. It’s a level of exhilaration not often felt when the final credits roll at the end of a game.
That is not to say that the player has free reign. Rules force players to abide by certain decisions, but these choices are tailor-made to allow for the most crucial of dilemmas within the game: whether or not you decide to save Bigby’s soul. Much like in season 1 of The Walking Dead when you are forced to decide how much of Clementine’s innocence to spare and how much to destroy, The Wolf Among Us hands the vital task of saving the protagonist’s soul to the player.
As such, the beating heart of the game reverberates within its brooding protagonist and his definitive sculpting into either the shape of a hero, a villain, or neither one nor the other. Do you decide to lie to Beast to keep Beauty’s secret? Do you tell him the truth even when you told Beauty you wouldn’t? Do you offer to help Toad and his son? Do you choose your friendship with Colin over the strict rules and regulations of Fabletown? Each of these choices shape both Bigby and the player who shares his journey, causing seconds of intense agonising over each decision while your thumb hovers between triangle, cross, circle, square. What the game does brilliantly is in creating a bond between character and player, creating an urge to protect and help the lovable protagonist who, despite the darker choices offered throughout the course of the game, remains a strangely comical and light-hearted presence within the gritty milieu.
Ultimately, although the detective element of the plot will always reach a resolution, no matter the choices, it is Bigby’s fate that remains in the players’ hands. You decide if Fabletown fears the Big Bad Wolf or if he takes a step towards acceptance in their community. You choose to save or condemn his soul. For Bigby, and The Wolf Among Us, I can’t help but recall the old Cherokee tale about two wolves at war within us. One is evil and the other is good. So, in the case of Telltale’s narrative, which one will win?
Undoubtedly, the one you feed.