The Wolf Among Us: Season One - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
After having read a large chunk of Bill Willingham’s long-running comic series Fables, I played Chapter One of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us on a sluggish iPhone when it first came out. Although I enjoyed the experience, the slow down my knackered phone was facing during fast-paced scenes made it feel cumbersome. When you add that to the heavily delayed release schedule it saw (the five episodes were inconsistently released anything from one month to four months apart), I stuck my interest in the game on a backburner until I could play the whole story in one package. Although this came in a retail release of all episodes in 2014, by this time my interest in the Fables universe had waned as well. After a while I didn’t keep up with the comic, and with my attention gone I closed the book on this series forever.
Or so I thought. The Wolf Among Us was back in my feeds recently (albeit just news articles announcing further delays in the release of a sequel), so this seems the perfect time to see if the world of Fables still holds any magic for me.
Thirty Minutes In
The intro to this game is a statement of intent; a straight up neon noir, all smoke, stretching shadows, and a sleazily murmuring electro soundtrack which nods to 2011 film Drive. Bigby Wolf lights a cigarette and scowls in the back of a taxi as we’re taken along a short nighttime vignette of 1980s New York.
There is a little opening exposition to set up this world for a newcomer, but all you need to know is sounded out in incidental conversation fairly early on: A number of Fables (characters from fairytales and storybooks) have fled their homelands to escape an invading army, and settled into an uneasy new life in the gated community of Fabletown, in upstate New York. Is this enough for someone who doesn’t know what the world is about beforehand? Yeah, probably. There’s hundreds of more outlandish setups for a game which are accepted just as easily, so I don’t think this will be an issue.
We start off meeting with Toad at the shabby walk-up apartment he rents with his son — a long way away from the Toad Hall he’s used to. The first dialogue options give you a chance to rebuke Toad for being out of his Glamour (magic to disguise non-human appearance from the world outside). I’m feeling the surly vibes Bigby is giving out — most games I play I try to bend an ear or my back to make NPCs like me, but in The Wolf Among Us I already want to be a pain in the ass for anyone wasting my time.
It also helps that the voice acting and script is great so far. Toad is a whining shitbag, but his squirming as I tower over him is delivered with a funnily pleading faux-chumminess. He’s not an enemy, not a friend; I don’t trust him but as long as he keeps on cowering around me I’ll keep him around for the ego boost.
With that done, I head upstairs to investigate the noise disturbance Toad called in, only stopping to pick up a matchbook from a nearby strip club (a clue if ever I saw one!), I barge through a door into a trashed room and the first quick time event of the game, protecting a prostitute from a drunken Woodsman (an old world enemy, who once saved Red Riding Hood from… well, you). QTEs get a lot of stick, but I’ve always been soft on them, especially when they’re well constructed. You guide a reticule into a marked area on your opponent or the environment, and hit the prompted button to strike, hurl or choke. It’s up to you to choose where to hit them and which piece of furniture would be the most fun to throw someone through. The camera cuts close to accentuate violent contact, and pans back to let in more surroundings as you weigh up your next move. It’s perhaps not as cinematic as found in a game like Heavy Rain, but the action is straight up gleeful fun.
I really liked this whole opening sequence, which if it’s roughly sketching out how the rest of the game will play — a couple of conversations, pick up some clues, explore an area, and have a nice action scene to finish it off — I’m happily on board.
One Hour In
The plot takes shape. The lady you met earlier in the evening turns up on your doorstep — or rather, her head alone does. And that’s it, you’re off. It’s Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, except you’re a seething lupine detective following blood spatters and underworld gossip to find your way to truth (for you), justice (for the deceased), and a few broken limbs (for anyone attempting to intervene).
Ah. The first bits of trouble in paradise — the dialogue options do not always best reflect what you end up saying. It starts off innocuously enough: an early attempt to sympathise is accidentally delivered sarcastically, which means they don’t want to help me anymore. Strewth, fair enough. Maybe I need to read the options more closely next time.
Fast forward and I’m being grilled by skeevy Mayor Ichabod Crane, who I know damn well I don’t want to share my information with, as he’s pretty high up on my naughty list. I try to shrug him off, withholding that my investigations are leading towards a certain character. But no, instead the game effectively locks me out of a few points of enquiry as it doesn’t think I actually suspect that person anymore. It’s another half a chapter until I incidentally come across that same trail and can pick it back up again.
Two Hours In
Ooh, this is good fun. I’m interrogating Tweedledee from Alice in Wonderland, after collaring him skulking around a bar where I’ve been shaking down the locals for information about Georgie Porgie (of Pudding and Pie fame, here a mean cockney pimp).
Threaten or cajole? Offer Tweedle a drink, or pour it over his head? Give him a cigar, or stub it out on his arm? I want to follow my worst instincts, mostly because of how fun a similar scene in GTA V was, but also because the Tweedle character design is creeping me out: he’s relatively normal compared to the inhuman Fables — a bulky man with a wide mouth of crocodile teeth — but there’s something else in his face which I can’t put my finger on.
You’re joined by a few prominent Fables in the room here, each of them expecting you to follow a different method of conversation with your hostage. You can’t please everyone in this game, but I’m pretty sure I want Snow White on my side so I’ll play it by the book. Tweedledee leaves me uneasy as I decide to play him nicely, coaxing enough information out of him to follow the murder mystery further up the criminal foodchain.
Three Hours In
It’s easy to lose yourself in the story. There are already two dozen characters to keep track of, each with different affiliations and motives. The initial murder mystery gives way to a larger criminal conspiracy, as Bigby claws his way further and further into the seedy underbelly of Fabletown. And through this, you ignore the gameplay.
Outside of the aforementioned QTEs, the main focus comes in how best to wheedle information out of your confidants. More convoluted Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle style item collecting and combining to solve puzzles would have been out of place, but in the rare moments where the pace drops off I would have welcomed the variety.
Three and a Half Hours In:
I’m presented with a choice during a fight with one of the Tweedle brothers… do I kill him, or allow him to escape? At this point, I’ve engaged so deeply with the character that I know the right choice for me: I am Bigby Wolf. Violence was my past, Fabletown is my future. And if I want a return to peace and relative normalcy? I have to do this by the book. I have to be better. I have to let him go.
Three and a Half Hours and Two Seconds In
I finally remembered who the Tweedle design reminded me of: noxious British comedian Bernard Manning. I rip his throat out and don’t feel too bad.
This little moment here probably exemplifies best what The Wolf Among Us achieved for me. Bigby Wolf is a hard-nosed grump when you meet him, but after living in his gumshoes for a few days I found myself wanting to help out here. I can turn Bigby’s life around and rise to the occasion, setting an example and proving to my fellow Fables that Snow White and I are starting a new chapter for Fabletown. But, like all best laid plans, sometimes they get away from you and you’ve got to go with your instincts.
Four Hours In
You could make a game of cliché bingo out of the old and new crime fiction staples being thrown around here. Chain smoking! Corrupt officials! Unwelcoming bars! Sex workers with hearts of gold! Mood lighting! Alcoholism! Abandoned warehouses! Flickering neon! A rooftop foot chase!
If The Wolf Among Us hadn’t leaned so hard into crime fiction stereotypes, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable. Each of these above mentioned scenes, taken individually, might make you think it’s got no original ideas. Or even — with a string of murdered Fable prostitutes turning up on Bigby’s doorstep — being cheap and nasty with its tropes. By throwing the kitchen sink at the story, any talk of genericism is muffled by a tongue firmly in cheek.
Four Hours and Forty Minutes In:
Snow White is still annoyed with me for killing Tweedledum, but there isn’t a dialogue option to explain about Bernard Manning and why it wasn’t really my fault.
Five Hours In
After a dozen or so quick time brawls and pursuits, I’m a bit nonplussed with the controls in these sequences now. The timed icons popping up on screen made sense — often L1 for left hand side actions, R1 for right hand side, and so on — but it often doesn’t matter whether you press the correct button prompt, or just go with any button you fancy. So what’s the point in labelling them like that? I don’t know whether this is a badly mapped port from the original Xbox release, or just a way to make the ‘gamey’ segments feel more ‘gamey’ by encouraging a bit more concentration from the player.
Six Hours In
All the way through to the closing scenes, the choices you make do feel like they impact upon the story I’ve laid out for myself. Characters will remember your attitudes towards them, and they’ll reciprocate with how helpful they might be in the future. While the QTEs feel impossible to fail, decisions found at multiple times in each chapter have me pondering whether I took the ‘right’ pathways. You can’t just go through all available dialogue options until you’ve got the information you need. You can’t ignore a phone call from an acquaintance in order to pursue a different lead, and expect them to be still waiting for you when you’re ready for them. The plot progresses always onward, and it’s up to you to keep your goal in mind to best get to the bottom of this modern day Sam Spade adventure.
I don’t fancy replaying the game to explore the other decision trees. I’m not tired of the world of The Wolf Among Us — quite the contrary: I just don’t want to expose the artifice of the storyline by breaking it down into simple A and B routes in each scene, when it felt so natural and well structured to have moved through the plot as I did.
For a game released near-identically across multiple platforms and generations, The Wolf Among Us holds up very well. Certain animations are a bit clunky (why do none of these characters know what to do with their hands when they’re talking to you?) and shadows can pop in and out like there’s an indecisive strobe light just out of sight. I still can overlook this — the action scenes are well directed, and the confident animation style turns any screenshot into a panel from a comic.
This might be the most important takeaway for how to keep a game timeless — the art style. Cuphead will still look the same ten years from now, but games which have pushed towards graphical realism simply can’t be looked back at with the same eyes, short of endless patches or remasters (here’s looking at you, Skyrim). The Wolf Among Us uses cel shading and dramatic lighting to create a timeless slice of stylish noir which exists more or less outside of increases in processing power. If you can handle the lack of conventional gameplay and instead approach it as a ‘choose your own adventure’ with a slick script and voice work, check out The Wolf Among Us.