The Wolf Among Us was my first experience with Telltale Games, despite the urging of my friends to play The Walking Dead. I ignored their cries of “it’s the greatest game ever” because I was certain that they were exaggerating. I was interested in the game’s visual style and storytelling techniques, but wasn’t willing to deal with the whole zombie-apocalypse thing. I really don’t like zombies.
Then Logan played The Walking Dead and thought I’d love the way the story unfolds based on the player’s actions. Since he knows me pretty well and figured I wouldn’t be able to get past the zombie-centric story, he took me to GameStop and pointed me towards The Wolf Among Us. There was another Telltale Game that didn’t involve zombies!? TWAU was at the counter and paid for before he even started to tell me what he knew about the game’s premise.
The next morning I popped it in to play, Logan settled in to watch, and there went the day. I played that whole game in one sitting. One sitting! As much as I enjoy games, I don’t usually play for more than an hour or two at a time, so to go through an entire game at once was a huge deal for me. I absolutely loved it.
The question is: Why? What about TWAU pushed all my buttons just right? It’s been a little while since I played, so I’ve had time to step back, decompress, and analyze the whole experience. As with anything, there are a lot of factors combining to make TWAU a great experience, but I think the main ones are these:
- beautiful visual style
- familiar characters given depth and rendered unfamiliar
- opposite main character
- foggy morality
- seamless integration of choice and not-choice
- expertly paced story in a well-loved genre
Let’s break each of those down.
1. Beautiful Visual Style
The game’s art style is a stunning homage to the world of comics whence it originally sprang. It’s obviously intended to flout realism with its use of cell shading, which works in its favor. The story is magical and unrealistic, so why should the visual style be realistic?
I was a huge fan of the game’s use of color, particularly the neon purple present throughout the menu screens and opening credits. It’s unapologetic vibrancy made me sit up and pay a little more attention. I’ve gotten so used to the washed out, gritty color schemes of the games that usually appear on our tv that the purple was almost startling.
2. Familiar Characters Given Depth and Rendered Unfamiliar
By using characters that most players are intimately familiar with – fairy tale heroes, heroines, and villains – TWAU doesn’t have to waste any time establishing motivations for everyone we meet along the way. There’s no need for lengthy bouts of exposition because we have been hearing that exposition our whole lives.
The genius of the game lies in the choice to turn these familiar stories on their ear and add layers of complexity to these well-worn (to the point of cliche) characters until they feel new again.
Though this idea of re-imagining fairy tale characters in as something more realistic and/or darker has become a cliche in and of itself, TWAU feels different. All-too-often the subversion of fairy tales from fairly innocent children’s stories to something more entertaining for adults takes things too far. The stories start to become dark for the sake of being dark, rather than fueled by any sense of conflict or tension that feels uncontrolled and inevitable. That’s where TWAU differs and shines. The story is dark, yes, but in a way that feels natural. The characters aren’t trying to be dark, they’re simply trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for them, the unrelenting force of which causes them to do things that feel dark to us, because we’re used to their actions as heroes in the stories designed to teach us about heroism. If they weren’t fairy tale characters, their actions wouldn’t feel as wrong and wouldn’t affect us as deeply because we’re used to people acting in morally challenging ways to make life work. It happens in the real world every single day.
The story works so well because we’re not seeing people turn to the things we wish will never have to. We’re seeing Fables down on their luck, doing their best to survive each day as it comes. We are watching our fantasies turn to the actions of our nightmares and are forced to re-look at the models for our entire lives.
3. Opposite Main Character
The sense of hopelessness that arises from seeing dreams turned to mundane crime is tempered by getting to play as Sheriff Bigby Wolf, aka The Big Bad Wolf. Among the turmoil of heroes turning to whatever means necessary for survival and giving up their spotless moral standards, we are shown a ray of hope in Bigby Wolf. He is a villain given a chance to start over – a chance to become a loved and respected hero instead of a condemned monster.
This dynamic works not just because of the rags-to-riches, phoenix-rising story that we love so much, but because it doesn’t just happen. Playing as Wolf gives the player the choice to move beyond his past as a hated man-eater or to retain his bestial ferocity through hundreds of scenarios, small and large.
4. Foggy Morality
The numerous choices available throughout the game are difficult to make because they’re not black and white. Many times there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to respond to a given scenario. To play the game well, you can’t always be the good cop and you can’t always be the bad cop. You have to retain your ferocity while carving out a new role for yourself. You have to be inconsistent in the way you respond to different things because the situations life throws at you are inconsistent.
This inconsistency shows your fallibility. Your new-found humanity. And because these choices are made in real time, they show our human flaws as players because we often make choices that don’t play out the way we hoped when under pressure. We don’t have time to think everything through and are forced to live with the consequences of our hasty decisions, for better or for worse.
5. Seamless Integration of Choice and Not-Choice
We’re also forced to deal with the all-too-real difficulty of dealing with the unpredictable reactions of others. You may be sure to play everything straight and be as kind as possible to everyone, yet have your actions misinterpreted and make everything worse.
You get to make choices as Wolf, but you don’t get to control the choices of others. Despite Wolf’s attempts to turn over a new leaf in the human world, he is still dealing with a lot of bias. The other Fables have hundreds of years of experience with the Big Bad Wolf, and a much shorter time with Bigby Wolf. No matter what actions he takes, he’s struggling against a current of distrust.
5. Set in a Well-Loved Genre
You may be thinking that TWAU is starting to sound less and less like a game and more like real life. You’re not wrong. To many people TWAU would not strike them as a game, but instead some sort of interactive movie.
While I would argue that the term “game” is one that is not as well-defined as many would like to think – I’ll save that for a rambling all it’s own – I won’t say that thinking of TWAU as an interactive show is wrong. After all, it’s broken into five “episodes,” each of which is held distinct from the others through forced breaks, highlight reels, and even an opening cinematic with theme music. It does feel like you’re playing a show.
The murder mystery theme plays into this as well, since crime procedurals dominate modern television. It’s a wildly popular genre that lends itself well to episodic, player-driven episodes.
Regardless of whether TWAU is a game or “simply” an interactive, choose-your-own adventure story, it’s a wonderful piece of storytelling that gripped me from the moment I started and still hasn’t let go weeks after playing.