(Telltale Studios, 2013)
Review by John Monaghan
The Wolf Among Us is a new game from Telltale Games, the studio responsible for the modern classic The Walking Dead. This time their source material is Bill Willingham’s Fables from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The premise is that fairy tale animals are living in New York disguised as humans, seeking refuge from the land of make believe. You play as the Big Bad Wolf or Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown (the name given to the community of fairy tale characters living in New York). Straight from the outset of the game, what will doubtlessly seem like a cheesy high concept to those unfamiliar with the comics is naturalized in a dark, gritty New York. Immediately the fairy tale concept is confused by the injection of economic hardship: your first interaction in the game is warning a fable not to let you catch him in his fable form again lest he be sent to “the farm”, and he expresses concern over the economics of this. Next you meet a fable who is a prostitute. Without getting heavily into the plot what I want to get across is that this is first of all worlds apart from Walking Dead and secondly, that what seems like a cheesy concept is in fact naturalized early on within a much darker context and the juxtaposition between the two sparks an engaging premise. The Wolf Among Us successfully drops you into a world with an already-established premise and lets you find your own way through it, not glossing or over-explaining, but instead eking out nuggets of information and revelation.
In terms of gameplay, The Wolf Among Us has the same system as Walking Dead. The real strengths of Walking Dead are the strengths of The Wolf Among Us. Firstly, through the timed choices and customizable route through the story, the linearity of the plot is obfuscated by your personal, emotional involvement in its unfolding. The way that decisions you make – often in a split second as the timer runs out at the bottom of the screen – reverberate throughout the entire game makes you feel like part of the mechanics of the plot. Going back to re-play Walking Dead it became obvious that there were set plot parameters within which you could only customize small aspects of the experience. What is important however is that the first time you are playing it you don’t feel like that and for my money this is one of the most engaging and exciting conventions in the world of video game storytelling today. Long story short as a free download it would be difficult not to give The Wolf Among Us a chance.
The second big strength is that just as the decisions you make are timed and therefore often clumsy or spur of the moment or not thought out properly – as they are for the character you play in the game – the mini-game driven fight scenes are made tense and blood pumping by a clever de-familiarization of the controller. It has to be said that ultimately these aren’t video games in the conventional sense with such limited character control but they employ mini games and button bashing in a way that manages to add atmosphere and tension to action sequences in a way that a majority of post-Shenmue interactive cut scenes do not (here I can’t help thinking of the constant mini-games in Resi 6 which were irritating and little else).
I think my big criticism would be that the game felt quite slowly paced at times. In Walking Dead, there was a tense, existential weight and urgency behind every decision, firstly the importance of having a child to protect and contemporarily having spent hours and hours watching the character you control grow up, gave the game an element that isn’t mirrored here. Episode 1 of The Wolf Among Us ultimately felt at times like a point and click detective game, at times not a million miles away from L.A. Noire crime scene investigation and, as it lacked the drive and bite and existential urgency of Walking Dead, these quieter scenes sometimes felt frustratingly slow. Time will tell if that is an aspect of the game or just a symptom of the wheels slowly picking up speed.
For free download this is an enjoyable couple of hours gameplay and there’s a good chance you’ll get hooked. Telltale Studios proved they had an exciting, interactive, episodic form of storytelling with Walking Dead. The Wolf Among Us is a study of the versatility of that format.
Follow John Monaghan on Twitter: @deadlifts