The Wolf Among Us: A Gaines, Nick, and Stephanie Review

So, what’s the deal with The Wolf Among Us? Well, I’m only just now getting around to playing through The Walking Dead, so I called in some reinforcements on this one: Stephanie and I did two play-throughs together, and Nick bowled alone.

This is the first time doing critical reviews for all of us, so we’re kind of winging it.  But, I’ll try to bring in the standard formalisms of critical reviews, and Stephanie and Nick will clean up.

By Gaines:

First, a summary statement:

The Wolf Among Us is a limited mobility, point-and-click detective story set in the world of Fables, Bill Willingham’s comic about fables living in contemporary New York.

Second, an overview of the narrative (unless the narrative is vapid):

In The Wolf Among Us you play Bigby Wolf, also known as the Big Bad Wolf, who is the sheriff of Fabletown, a neighborhood in New York City where fables live as normal(ish) citizens.  You’re introduced to the variety of negotiations that make-up playing sheriff to a group of fables, some of whom have centuries-old grudges, in a secret community.  During this early introduction, where sane players will realize that being the “reformed” Big Bad Wolf means playing a “blind” Justice for The Woodsman (who stopped you from eating Little Red Ridinghood) and leads to a series of fraught decisions.  Shortly afterward, a murder happens in Fabletown, and you must investigate it with the help of Snow White.

The narrative seems darker than the Fables I’ve read.  We seem to be playing through a noir tale with the Big Bad Wolf as the gruff, tragic detective. Thankfully the average player will know a good deal of your character’s history from fables: This is a tremendous improvement over the beginning of Walking Dead where you’re left largely in the dark about the character’s history, cutting you off from a sense of the role or motivations the game was expecting you to play.

Third, the look (unless the look is totally derivative):

The art style is reminiscent of Borderlands 2, with lighting from Bunraku. So, if a purple and yellow color palette rubs you the wrong way, you’re out of luck.  These purples and yellows develop a chiaroscuro lighting style that gives the relatively shallow perspectives of the scenes more depth than they would otherwise have.

Despite the chiaroscuro lighting, the moving characters often appear flat, so the depth of volume that the chiaroscuro lighting offers ultimately loses the fight to the Borderlands 2 art style’s heavy outlines. But, I still find that art style surprisingly compelling.  Until motion capture gets better (or maybe it’s the after-mo-cap work that needs improvement?), I think I’ll continue to find that this comic-like art style (pardon, I don’t know the art terminology to describe it better than that? Drop it in the comments to help me out) is more emotionally compelling than the art style of Last of Us or Heavy Rain.

Fourth, the mechanics:

I’m not a big fan of the point-and-click narrative game style—I’ve wasted hours of my life on superficial FPSs—and I despise quick time events (QTEs are the other half of Tell Tale Game’s primary mechanics)—I prefer my 360 no-scope headshots to come from several, well-timed fingers not from a thumb on a Y button. That said, the mechanics are sound.  The QTEs are forgiving and fairly instinctive, and the point-and-click mechanic is well-suited for a detective story where discovery (instead of, say, survival) is the goal of every scene.

The dialogue is smooth, and the options are largely believable.  Like The Walking Dead, they are limited to four options, which occasionally feels frustrating during investigation scenes, particularly when items you select from the background lead to dialogue options for interrogating a witness. Still, the dialogue is my favorite part.  Between the timer for answering and the scripted options, you almost always have an easy flowing exchange between characters, assuming you can forgive the notable pauses while Tell Tale informs you that something had an influence on the future decision trees.

Finally, a conclusion (and a score or buy/don’t buy recommendation):

This is solid game.  Far better at its craft than The Walking Dead, especially since the detective story makes more sense for the point-and-click.  If there were more options, à la Mass Effect or Fall Out, The Wolf Among Us would have the lock-down on good conversation style in video games.

By Nick:

I’m pissed at this game. I feel like it lied to me when it began with the words “The game series adapts to the choices you make.” I’ll tell you why in a bit. However, there are plenty of great things about it that Gaines mentioned. The art and music are solid, the story does keep you interested, and it even persuaded me buy the season pass. I want more of the story and I want to know these characters a bit better.

But you can only play this game once. Play it twice and all of the magic and imagination shoots from your head and instead you’re just angry at the repetition from your previous playthrough. Yes, the game does change based on SOME of the choices that you make. And that “some” ends up being about four or five decisions throughout the game. Those decisions certainly alter how the game plays through, but I was led to believe that most of my input would be significant. My first time through the game, I was so enthralled because I had a feeling that things were changing based on my own actions. The game even leads you to believe this through pop-ups in the top-left corner of the screen that tell you that someone will remember this particular exchange of words. It gave the conversation meaning and it made it engaging.

But then I played the game for a second time to see how much my decisions affected the outcomes of conversations. How much do they? Not much at all. Yes, there are some additional lines of dialogue thrown in and some are removed based on what you do, but ultimately the same things are said in certain situations. For example (no spoilers here), you meet a flying monkey named Bufkin who helps you with some research. The first time I played, I was nice to Bufkin and the second time, I told him to “Fuck off” (An oft-repeated phrase in the game, which I was happy with). However, the only thing that changed was a single line that was added afterward. Bufkin still helped me read a language that I couldn’t understand and no information was lost to me.

I guess this is a spoiler if you haven’t played it. You probably can’t go, play it, and still feel like you had control over the situations your character was in. I guess I’m sorry for that.

I still suggest the game, but only if it’s played once. I think it’s pretty fair to compare it to a fast-paced film. They both run about the same time and, with both of them, if you watch it too many times you’re going to notice things that annoy the fuck out of you. However, it’s a ton cheaper than a movie (I ended up paying about 20 bucks for all five episodes when I purchased the season pass), and I will say that it’s worth it. Go pick it up….or just grab a couple of Fables trade-paperbacks.

By Stephanie:

Unfortunately, I find it difficult discuss The Wolf Among Us without making reference to The Walking Dead. So fair warning: there will be mild spoilers ahead for both games.

I’ve seen some say that they’re discovering that The Wolf Among Us is a more powerful experience than Walking Dead, but—for many of the same reasons that Nick has said he doesn’t recommend a second playthrough—I can’t say I’ve had the same experience with the game thus far. That isn’t to say, though, that it isn’t a fun game or that it isn’t worth playing. It’s solid. It’s well-made. It’s enjoyable. But is it as engaging as its TellTale predecessor? I’m not so sure.

We’ve traveled a lot of this ground already. The illusion of choice, which catches you in the moment and then takes you to the same place in the end regardless of what you pick. The point-and-click format. The comic-derived art and setting. The troubled, aging man with a dark past that’s really a good guy deep down, but who can only find that good side of himself by coming to the aid of young women in need (I’m waiting for the onslaught of posts on this subject, if it hasn’t happened already, considering we already went through it with The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last of Us already within the past year).

As I played through the game, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d done so before. But that first time (i.e. Walking Dead), it was something different. It was novel, special. Now it feels more predictable and familiar. I know what to expect in the overall setup even as the plot tries to throw surprises at me. This choice means something, I think as I stare at my options.

—[SPOILER]—

We went to Toad’s aid first and Lawrence died while we did—and it should mean something.

—[END SPOILER]—

But will it really change anything in the end? Maybe. But based on both my experience with The Walking Dead and my own two playthroughs of The Wolf Among Us, probably not. The illusion of choice in Walking Dead meant something in the end; there was a message along with it that fit in with the game’s theme of futility. But truth be told, I’m having a slightly harder time buying it in the detective story of Wolf Among Us.

That being said, though, there’s something about the way that TellTale deals with choice that still gets to me. Something about seeing “She will remember that” makes me feel terrible when I do something wrong. Usually, I have just enough time to read the choices and hit a button—and then I instantly question what I did. I regret my decisions incessantly. I wonder what will happen, that maybe this time it’ll have some dire impact on the game (and I certainly wish it ultimately will). I find myself worrying over what the characters think of me, of my behavior. I want to do the right thing; though often, as in Walking Dead, there is no right thing.

Having to own those decisions throughout the course of the game is, I think, what makes TellTale’s narratives so powerful and compelling. I prefer having to go through the game always wondering if I did what was right, mulling over my what I did and didn’t do, speculating on how things could have been different, but recognizing all the same that I did what I felt I had to do and that now I have to deal with that. It is, in fact, primarily why I agree with Nick that a second playthrough just doesn’t have the same impact. I want to feel like I’m responsible for my decisions—that I have no choice but to be responsible for my decisions. The second time around just isn’t the same.

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About Gaines Hubbell

Gaines Hubbell is a lecturer of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His dissertation tracks the history of topoi and loci of invention in twentieth-century rhetorical theory, pedagogy, and criticism. His research focuses on the historical and contemporary development of rhetorical theory and its adaptation for newer media environments.
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11 Responses to The Wolf Among Us: A Gaines, Nick, and Stephanie Review

  1. Wait, was I the only one left carrying a torch for the choices? Well, I guess that liking the dialogue ultimately means I’ve got to like the choices (speech-act theory and what-not).

    Still, why does the second play through ruin the choices? I don’t usually expect games to have branching narratives, so when they do, it’s great. Even when I put on the reviewer’s hat, I’m still pleased with the game, partly because I give the game a break while I peek behind the curtain.

    How much of not liking the illusion of choice is to do with the process of review? Or, does being a review play-through make it different from a regular play-through? I’m kind of thinking of http://playersdelight.blogspot.ca/2013/10/beyond-two-souls-most-unique-feature-is.html , except it’s that’s got a different issue going on with the review.

  2. Do you think we’ll get the strong Cinderella of Fables (or any of the other strong female characters) or is the whole tale going to be damsels in distress by fiat of noir/serial killer/reformed damsel distresser?

  3. Firstly, I don’t think that liking the dialogue means that you have to like the choices. I still liked the dialogue but the action of choosing (and choosing between 4 answers and speaking, I would think, are incredibly different) just lost all of its ability to compel me the second time through. And this totally may be because of the problem of playing to review. I thought about writing on this topic, but I wasn’t able to get it out before. This game is a fucking hellstorm for review-play (what I’m guessing is the attempt of a reviewer to play a game through at least two of its possible permutations while minimizing repetition and achieving different endings, particularly when the idea of player choice impacting the story comes into play). We don’t know when or why the memory box will pop up and we don’t have any clear delineation of good/bad choices like Mass Effect’s system (or at least what I remember of it…I really need to finish those games). Additionally, we’re totally screwed over by the timer. The only way to really do this would be to go through and press the same button for every dialogue option (but I’d kind of like to enjoy the game and vary my inputs a bit). Yes, there is the default of silence, but fuck that noise. Did you guys use the silence option often? I really only did when I took a drink of water and didn’t realize anything was happening.

    I guess one reason why I was angry was because of the very small number of choices that were listed at the end of the game, highlighted as ‘important’ and possibly game-changing. I expected more dialogue choices to fill up, but the only one was ‘defending Snow White against Crane,’ and I know that shit has no actual impact on the story.

    On the Cinderella question, I have no idea, but I do remember her name being labeled ‘classified’ in the book that Bufkin updates when Faith is killed (couldn’t really avoid that spoiler). Maybe she’s there, maybe not. However, I wouldn’t put money on an independent female character being here. Bigby is ‘likeable’ and ‘gritty,’ like a somehow-more-believable Christian-Bale-Batman. Oooh, maybe there’ll be a Catwoman that we can all sort of cringe at because fan service and misogyny and shit. God, I hate myself.

    • I don’t think I get what you mean about dialogue not being the choices? Well, there are those two big decisions where the game stops for you to make choice, which were definitely different, but the dialogue still has a few choices attached to it.

      I agree there were a surprisingly small number of choices that appeared in the percentile review. Disappointing. But, I liked that there were more “X will remember that” moments than there were items on the review. Those moments, like Stephanie said, meant more than dialogue options in Fall Out: New Vegas or Mass Effect did to me. Yet, rails are rails; I think I just enjoyed the way the illusion of choice was laid on thick (timer, silence, “X will remember that”) while I rode the rails.

      We did use the silence option a couple of times. Mostly early when we weren’t sure that we needed to cut Snow White in on who we thought was a suspect (and who wasn’t). The silence option worked well, mostly.

      I’m also really interested in the problems of review-play. Should it be all subjective play or where’s the line to call it less a subjective play-through and more review-play through? But, if you think the second play-through wasn’t compelling on The Wolf Among Us, try keeping your brain from petrifying during the second play-through of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Battlefield 3.

      • But I would be totally expecting repetition for those games, you know? They aren’t setting me up for anything off the rails and I realize it and accept it and slowly die because, “holy fuck why am I reviewing Call of Battlefield?”

    • I’m also not betting on the appearance of strong female characters in The Wolf Among Us. I suspect lazy misogyny (to keep with the genre of noir, the damsel-distresser-turned-good-guy Bigby’s characterization, and the serial killer m. o.) will win out over women… again.

  4. Erik Bigras says:

    After reading the post and the comments, I’m kind of interested in the way the game mechanics here seem to delineate the space within which the game’s story can be told.

    Detective games have a long history of using point-and-click mechanics. Grim Fandango was like that, as well as the many Sherlock Holmes games on the Sega CD. Even the more recent detective games I can think of like LA Noire and Heavy Rain pretty much use similar mechanics to those old point-and-click detective games. So what is it about the genre that seems to combine so well with that type of game mechanic?

    One way that The Wolf Among Us seems to be different is that little “X will remember that” bubble, which seems to imply branching linear paths, but reading the reviews that seem to be fairly minimal deviations. Are there other ways that branching linearity is introduced (I hesitate to call it nonlinearity because branching choices are still largely linear)?

    Of that games I mentioned, only Sherlock Holmes used a different approach in their game mechanics. The other games don’t really let you advance until you’ve made a choice, and most times that aren’t “Bosses” (like LA Noire’s facial recognition mini-games), the right choice. Success or failure is predicated on a single, obvious moment that can be identified, returned to, and played through again.

    Sherlock Holmes did something different by allowing you to not make a choice. By that I mean that it’s possible to progress through the game without finding all the appropriate places to click. If you fail, it’s because you really missed something important, so another playthrough requires you to go over the case files with a fine-toothed comb to find those clickable places.

    Is there something in The Wolf Among Us that accomplishes something similar? From reading the review and comments, it doesn’t seem like it.

    • I think the interplay between mechanics and (literary) genre is a fascinating topic. There’s certainly a connection between them, but, on one hand, I’m not sure I’d know how to transition it into a discussion of design. By that, I mean what comes first? (Literary) genre or game mechanics (if one precedes the other)? Based on Dan Whiteside’s presentation at PCA/ACA 2012, it seems that at Bioware (and probably many other AAA studios) writers and artists have a lot of control early in pre-crunch-time development. But by crunch-time, artists are severely budgeted, and coders, those typically responsible for mechanics, take more of the control (and major writing decisions are finished–but are changed as everyone else suffers from budget controls). This might not be the case at TellTale though, where I wonder if their ludography is the way it is because they don’t have the staff expertise to jump off the point-and-click ship.

      On the other hand, I can see how merging Galloway’s gamic actions and Sicart’s mechanics would make for an awesome discussion of the generic affordances of mechanics….

      The Wolf Among Us doesn’t give you much option for failure. The narrative will go on (provided that you don’t stand around ambient acting or fail the QTEs)–The case can’t go cold because you were a jerk or a rube in dialogue choices. (Insert a reluctant and tired aside here about the definition of games: Twine, Encyclopedia Fuck Me by Anna Anthropy, failure, and Jesper Juul)

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