Everybody knows the name Telltale Games now. After quiet takes on Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and a few other titles that nobody seems to have played, they seemed to come out of nowhere and took the gaming world by storm with their version of The Walking Dead. It captured all of the bleakness, emotional devastation, moral quandaries, and general excellence of the comic it was based on and really put the player in the story, forcing them to have a personal stake in the outcome by using their choices to propel the narrative.
The Walking Dead shocked everyone and claimed a lot of Game of the Year awards in 2012 in spite of its status as a low-budget download-only title with relatively weak graphics. With this stroke, Telltale proved definitively that writing in video games had attained a new level and could carry an indie title into AAA territory by itself, provided it could engage players on an emotional level. But you already knew all that.
The anticipated follow-up to their big breakthrough turned out to be The Wolf Among Us. It’s based on Fables; another independent comic property, although one lesser known than Robert Kirkman’s red hot zombie franchise. Being a big fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables, I was really excited. I expected big things, but what I didn’t expect was that Telltale would exceed all expectations and up the level of storytelling yet again.
The Wolf Among Us not only meets the lofty standards of its predecessor, it exceeds them in a number of ways, and it does it without relying on emotional shocks and horrific violence. It remains doggedly true to the tone of the source material without retreading old stories and delivers more narrative freedom and consequence to the player’s actions and choices than was available in The Walking Dead’s story. The chapter releases were being somewhat staggered with the second season continuation of Telltale’s breakthrough hit, and in my mind the new guy has kind of overshadowed it.
In The Walking Dead’s first season, whoever was going to die is going to die. How you responded in the moment was more the thing. The story went where it was going regardless of those choices. In The Wolf Among Us you play as Fabletown sheriff Bigby Wolf, a former menace who still inspires fear and distrust in his fellow mythological, fairy tale, and folklore figures but is determined to earn their trust. Except you ain’t got to play it that way if you don’t want to.
If you’re feeling the need for some poetic injustice, you can re-enact a scene from Beowulf to teach an uncooperative fable a lesson, and even end someone’s life with your own hands on more than one occasion. While in the comics, Bigby is dedicated to using only the amount of force necessary to get the job done, Telltale gives you the option to have him take on a different mindset: yours.
You can violently terrorize the baddies and earn the fear and mistrust that comes with it, or you can stand up for the little guys against the authorities. You can do both. Or you could just uphold the letter of the law and do as you’re told. The feeling of personal freedom is huge in this game. Every interaction rebuilds character and defines your Bigby, and the consequences of your actions are palpable.
The five chapters of The Wolf Among Us do an incredible job of building a complex narrative, and it’s done so well that it’s not until the final scene that you realize just how much thought was put into it. The understated conversation that serves as the season finale was almost as jaw-dropping in its way as the end of Bioshock Infinite; it literally redefines the entire narrative as you’d perceived it.
And that ending wasn’t even my favorite moment from the final chapter. Being a reader of the source material, I was aware that Bigby is easily the most powerful being in Fabletown, and he holds back a lot. Ever since the sheriff wolfed out in the first chapter, I’d anticipated seeing him get really Big and Bad. And when it finally happened….dayum. Like a dream come true; the video game equivalent of that moment in the movie theater when you want to jump out of your seat and scream “WOOOOO YEAH!”
As much as I loved The Walking Dead and its parade of original characters, horrific atrocities, and abject hopelessness, I feel like it’s more challenging to take on the role of an established anti-hero faced with dozens of shades of grey morality and tasked with being the hand of justice in situations where it’s often not clear what justice even is. In The Walking Dead, you are faced
with mindless zombies and utterly evil people and often given choices between doing something wrong, terrible, or unthinkable with bad results regardless. In The Wolf Among Us, you are forced to search your own morality and decide for yourself the meanings of law and order and how you distinguish between legal/right and illegal/wrong. Other characters have to live with your decisions.
I love that Telltale so successfully captured the mood and social dilemmas present in Fabletown and stayed true to all of the characters and I also like that the overall mood and tone closely matched the first arc of the comic while being a better overall (much better, actually) story. Indications within the story seem to suggest that the second season will continue this trend and shift away from the noir motif to take players to the Farm. The only question is can The Wolf Among Us top one the best Fables arcs like they did the first time out.
If I had my way, the story would turn away from the wolf at this point and focus on another Fabletown resident like Snow White or Cinderella (who is a secret agent in the comics with her own miniseries), but given the game’s title that’s not likely to happen. But hey, I love me some Bigby so if being put back in his shoes is the worst of my problems, there’s a lot to look forward to.
The comic doesn’t get lost in its own grittiness and I hope to see The Wolf Among Us branch out in tone as well. As well-written as The Walking Dead is, being a horror franchise it’s limited in the kind of meaningful experiences it can feed to the player. Fables doesn’t have that limitation so the sky is absolutely the limit for Telltale to bring us just about any kind of story they want and that’s what gets me really excited.
Sure, they could stick with the procedural detective work punctuated with monster fights as Bigby unravels conspiracies and have it remain compelling and fun, but I’d be surprised if that’s what we got. Expect big things from this one in the future. If you’re someone who loves a great story and you haven’t given it a try yet, you’ve done yourself a disservice that is easily corrected. The Wolf Among Us represents the next level for a developer that is helping redefine gaming as a storytelling medium and is constantly improving. Check it out.