Hi! Nelson here.
As you might have seen already, I’m stepping back from game journalism to focus on making stories and games of my own. During this time, I’m looking for work, as well as catching up on games and movies that I might have missed. One of these titles has an incredible storytelling trick that impressed me so much that I feel I have to write about it.
For my Christian readers, The Wolf Among Us has a number of potential issues. Nudity, witchcraft, and profanity; explorations of the dark side of human nature, morality, and compromise…The works, basically.
I will not be depicting these elements, so if you’re willing to learn from a perhaps unlikely source, hit the jump below.
The Wolf Among Us* is set in the Fables (not to be confused with Fable) universe, where fairy tale characters and legends are real, and forced from their homes, must live on the seedy side of modern-day New York City. You play as the reformed Big Bad Wolf and current Sheriff of the Fables community, Bigby Wolf, in a brutal murder mystery touching every aspect of their world. How reformed Bigby is, if at all, is up to you.
What’s beautiful about this premise is how quickly and easily it’s established. We all know the story of the Big Bad Wolf, and how he’s terrorized his way through stories from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs. Once you find out he’s a law-enforcement officer, it’s a short leap to grasp how this important figure wrestles with his own nature, and how he’s perceived by other Fables who remember the old Big Bad.
Bigby is an immense physical presence, even when standing next to the likes of trolls and actual Beasts. He’s the definition of noir cool, sizing up potential threats calmly, cigarette in hand (or mouth). Launching into fights headfirst, fur bursts from his arms as he slams targets into glass, walls, furniture, and unfortunate automobiles. Every snarl, and option to tear apart obstacles to your investigation, convey the line he’s tiptoeing to check his violent urges and still get results.
It would be easy to make this balancing act, or in-game responses to your actions, a conventional Good-Bad meter. If you acted like an unrestrained murderous jerk, you would become the “Bad,” animal version of Bigby. Alternatively, if you assumed the role of a spineless, repentant crusader of virtue, you’d be the more human, relatable Bigby.
Developers Telltale Games avoid such a cliche. However, they establish Bigby’s character and internal struggles in such a way that it almost wouldn’t have mattered.
The Wolf Among Us follows the typical Telltale mold, with timed decisions and tightly-choreographed action scenes advancing a fairly linear plot. However, your personal journey as a player, due to the setting and main character, are like nothing I’ve experienced before. The moment you start the game, you’re made to see Bigby as a man who wants to change–who has changed–and most important of all, wants others to believe that he’s changed. He isn’t a blank slate for you to project your punch-happy desires on. He’s a visibly damaged man who wants to do his job the ‘right’ way, but whose world demands answers only a rough approach might gain. A man who’s already taken the first steps towards redemption, and just wants his community to finally see it themselves.
This changes the question of your behavior from the typical ‘gamey’ one of how ‘good’ you want to be, to that of whether you’ll actually allow Bigby to save his soul. In effect, you’re wrestling with your inner nature as a player who wants to experiment, break protocol, and blow stuff up, as much as Bigby is with his. Every decision has to be answered for, so if you choose to smash someone’s face in, wreck their business, or claw out their necks, you better count the cost first.
As Fabletown rots to its core, the people Bigby loves most getting corrupted or killed, you feel like ripping, tearing, and avenging as much as he does. When someone lies to Bigby, they lie to you. When your investigation is blocked by bureaucracy, you bristle with him at the intrusion. This is your job, dangit, and you’ll get it done one way or another.
Since you’re also in a position of authority, the battle for Bigby’s better nature ripples to affect every single person he meets in Fabletown. People are afraid of you–of what you did back in the old world, and what you’re still capable of now. Of the power you wield, both supernatural and legal. Are you going to prove them right?
Are you still the Big Bad Wolf?
With some extremely effective characterization and tone-setting, The Wolf Among Us makes you feel responsible. It almost doesn’t matter what feedback the developer gives you, because the stakes and payoff of your decisions play out within your own head, moment by moment. Telltale Games makes your actions feel important (even if they don’t matter all that much individually) by giving them a context–an immediate way to see what you’ve done, how, and why.
When you play the Wolf Among Us, whatever you do, for better or worse, you’re affecting People. Individuals with complex motives, and facades they have to hide behind just to get through the day. Men and women die. Their loved ones grieve. Relationships are tested. Life goes on.
And there you are.
Left with a sinking pit in your stomach as you wonder whether you did the right thing for the right reasons.
Just like Bigby.