The Wolf Among Us, Episode 2: A Nick, Gaines, and Stephanie Review

From Nick:

I’ve been thinking about games recently through the lens of Objective Game Reviews and their ridiculous idea of objectivity’s applicability to games, so I’d like to start with an objective game review of The Wolf Among Us, Episode 2.

 

The Wolf Among Us is a game…well I guess the farthest that we got was “The Wolf Among Us is” until we fell into a deep pit of subjectivity, where the world lost all meaning and we could no longer craft any type of judgment. So that’s it. Review over.

But seriously folks, we’re continuing Higher Level Gamer’s review series on TWAU with a look at the second episode. Why? To be honest, I can’t think of an actual answer other than, “I bought the season pass,” but maybe Gaines has a better response to that question.

When we left Fabletown, Bigby had just arrested one suspect (be it Tweedle Dee or the Woodsman, player’s choice) and was returning to his Fables HQ when he saw the decapitated head of Snow White laying outside. That was a spoiler from the last episode and I’m going to try to steer clear of spoilers for this episode in case you haven’t played it yet.

After the discovery of White’s head, Bigby questions the chosen suspect – in my case Tweedle Dee. Like the first episode, the player is given dialogue and action choices throughout the scenes to direct the conversation/action. In this case, the player is allowed, on multiple instances, to engage in ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ The player is given the option to tighten the straps binding Dee to the chair he is sat in, burn Dee with a lit cigar, or thrash his head with a bottle of whiskey. I’m not entirely sure why I did it, but I cracked Dee over the head with the bottle.

I am focusing on this scene in my part of the review because of what I had written for the review of the previous episode. I had complained, at length, about the lack of consequences for actions that were given a bit more weight within the game. It seemed like everything I did had barely any effect outside of the immediate dialogue and scene, even though I was repeatedly told that these decisions could come back to haunt me.

Maybe it was because it was the first episode or maybe it was just an area that Telltale didn’t focus on, but I was left unsatisfied. However, in this episode, Telltale delivers a bit more on its promise. My decision to smash a bottle over Dee’s head reverberated through parts of this episode and was a primary point of conversation in many interactions with other characters. It finally felt like the game’s setting was alive, acting on its own, and not wholly dependent upon my input for its development.

However, that excitement slowly faded throughout the episode and by the end it seemed as if I had never tortured anyone. There were a lot of rumblings over GTAV’s inclusion of a torture scene, but what should be noted is that the stain of torture didn’t follow Trevor throughout the game (at least explicitly the torture) and it didn’t follow Bigby throughout TWAU either. This is something that games developers and writers need to work on. If we’re being placed in a morally challenging position and commit morally reprehensible acts, have the other characters treat us as such throughout the game. It didn’t seem like the characters cared anymore by the last act and I would be pretty shocked if it was referred to in the third episode. Why isn’t the gravity of these actions being carried throughout the games that they are in?

Before letting the other two loose, I’ll end on a bit of summation. The second episode is pretty much more of the same of the first. We find out a bit more and the decisions of the player, at least in one case, are brought into play by NPC’s more often than the last episode. However, it all ultimately fades into obscurity behind a noir theme and dark ambient music. I had difficulty just remembering the order of events when getting this review together. TWAU is a feeling, not a story. It’s the furthering of a gestalt instead of a successful narrative or mechanic. In a word: meh.

From Gaines:

Well, I’ll start by objectively answering Nick’s question: We’re continuing the review series because the review series is… ‘Nuff said.

Stephanie and I played through TWAU, Ep. 2: Smoke and Mirrors on my Xbox 360, which I’ve run the HDMI output through Xbox One. In case you were wondering, doing this makes for noticeable visual lag, which for some games, like Borderlands 2, is more like a refreshing additional challenge than a real problem. But, as Kirk Hamilton mentioned in his review for Kotaku, TWAU, Ep. 2 has a terrible case of hardware stutters and processor lag on the 360.

Most of the time the hardware problems don’t affect making choices–although I should say that it should be embarrassing for Tell Tale to release such a poorly optimized game when they’ve had all the time in the world to optimize this engine. It did play a part, compounded by the Xbox One’s slow HDMI in, our two-person consensus on decisions, and my slow fingers, in the brothel scene where Bigby is standing behind a dancer who he’s interrogating. In our game, the dancer offered subtle clues, the camera cut to Bigby, who failed to respond and stared longingly at dancer’s back with a mixed look of “I wonder how surf’n’turf tastes” and “I’m too noir to not frown, seriously.”

I’ll continue to give everyone on the art team of TWAU praise. It’s still a great send up of noir cinematography. The lighting is good. The voice acting is great. And, the scenes are still an impressive mix of little details and noticeably interactive objects.

I will say though, if nothing happens with that video camera in the opening dialogue and no character gives background dialogue on why Bigby didn’t take the tape out of it, I’ll be disappointed–not because it’s a big deal, but because details matter in detective stories.

I’m on the other side of the fence from Nick. I didn’t feel like the choices mattered this time. And, despite the “X will remember this” notifications, the dialogue menus were still written for a fiction novel not for a video game. We didn’t have Bigby torture anyone, but no one really held it against Bluebeard, who did and who, so far, exists only to move the plot.

The one exception to this lack characterization (other than the player-character) is Snow White, and I agree with Becky Chambers’s [the following link contains spoilers] take on Snow’s character. But, that particular turn in the story reminds me of a television trope [the preceding link might be a spoiler].

It strikes me that where TWAU does well is in the standards of television. Lighting, set, direction, acting–they’re all pretty good or better. For that matter, the writing’s not bad if it were for a television show on ABC Tuesdays at 8pm / 7 central.

What if TWAU is the future of television? This question came to me a week ago during an after dinner conversation with some colleagues. They were talking about what TV shows they’re watching that were worth watching; I stood thinking to myself about how I haven’t seen any good TV shows other than TWAU, which admittedly is a strange thought.

Anyway, I think TWAU is really good for a television show. That’s actually how we’ve been playing it, more or less, with Stephanie and I running the decisions while Candice and Nathan (a fellow editor at JGC) were watching–The four of us piled on the couch in front of the television with snacks, drinks, blankets, PS Vitas, and homework. (Stephanie, you left your blanket, you know, the one you brought to our apartment, not because we wouldn’t offer you one or anything like that).

Maybe it’s partly because I think of playing TWAU for the story. Maybe it’s because failure is barely a recognizable outcome. Maybe it’s because the interaction is so… limited. Something about TWAU makes me think it’s a television show, and it’s alright at being that.

From Stephanie:

Speaking of choice (or lack thereof), I was really annoyed at that damned cassette. Really really annoyed.

I’ll try to skirt around spoilers here, but in the last scene of the episode, you’re prompted to investigate a crime scene. There are pieces of evidence and important(?) details scattered around and the other character in the room with you will periodically ask you what you think happened there so that you have to (presumably) think through what you’ve uncovered and what it all means together. Too bad the game is trying to hurriedly usher you to its inevitable cliffhanger conclusion to let you really explore. Or think. Or do anything except watch the scene that it so desperately wants to throw at you.

At the beginning of this sequence, the first object I directed Bigby to was a cassette player, which triggered some dialogue about it. As I continued my exploration, I eventually stumbled on a cassette–which undoubtedly could be put into the cassette player for more details. I decided that I would take a closer look at a few other things in that area before going back to the player; but then I found something that triggered an ending to the scene and then it was all over and the cassette was still in my inventory, untouched.

My perfectionist, must-complete-everything gamer instincts couldn’t let go of that. But even putting aside that engrained aggravation, it’s just genuinely disappointing to play a game that is supposedly exploratory in its point-and-click format that won’t actually let you explore. To clarify, I don’t mean explore in any sort of open-world or sandbox sense. I understand what kind of game I’m playing: a linear narrative within a confined space.

What I mean is that I would actually like to be able to interact with my environment, with objects, with the characters, with the story, without having the game gleefully, impatiently fidgeting in the background, waiting to funnel me back into its self-indulgent oh-so-juicy cutscenes. For precisely those reasons of linearity, I actually want to have the opportunity to see what the scene has to offer because I know it’ll be my one and only chance. As soon as I accidentally stumble on the trigger, that opportunity is gone.

To be fair, there are times when these kinds of situations might be appropriate. For instance, if I chose to interact with an object that would obviously spark an event that would somehow change the scene at hand (e.g. if I interacted with an object and cause it to explode, this would be an appropriate time to have a scene change or end). But in an investigative scene such as the one in question (and many others like it in TWAU), there is an apparently arbitrary event that initiates the next scene without my being able to know what it is, without my being able to stop it, and that then prevents me from being able to go back.

I want to further clarify that my complaint isn’t that certain choices that I make block off access to other choices. Rather, it’s that I often feel as though the game isn’t affording me the opportunity to even make choices (in fact, I’m often utterly unaware that I’m being forced to make a choice). Gaines mentioned that he thinks that TWAU makes for a really good television show–and this is precisely what I mean to say. TWAU is very eager to show me its narrative. In fact, it’s so eager to show me its narrative, it doesn’t seem to really want me to play. Instead, it seems to prefer that I sit back and watch its plot unfold. But what I want to do is experience the narrative, explore it, and actually participate in the investigation of a crime scene.

That kind of confinement irritates me. Why can’t I just play?

Nick’s Response:

Obviously we’re being a little reductive when we say that TWAU doesn’t include choice, but I think this an interesting experiment. This would set up choice as the central term for games – its qualifier as a distinctive medium. Does that work? Also, why are we going back to television and not film? Is this an episodic melodrama or a noir quintrilogy? Or can we just sort of lump the two media together since we’re only discussing them in relation to the non-choice of this game?

I think one of the biggest problems that I have with the game is that decisions are limited by time.  I barely have the time to read through each of the options before time runs out, not to mention consider what consequences my actions/words might have. It almost makes me feel like Telltale wants the player to be silent more often than talk, since silence is the default action for when time runs out. If decisions weren’t time-limited, Telltale could up the number of possible dialogue choices, which, assumedly, would increase the possible dialogue trees. Could the processor handle that? I have no idea, especially since TWAU is already pretty choppy.

Ultimately, aren’t we bringing up our problems with choice because of the expectations we had coming into the game? We don’t expect choice from Call of Duty or the like, but we were set up by Telltale that the game would adapt to our choice. So is the problem with the possibility of choice or the possibility of the player’s choice having an impact? Or both? How many choices are possible with an XBox controller? Developers are limited by the context of the story as well as the number of possible inputs. Since Telltale has limited the time available for each choice, the input also has to be one easily completed. Sure, they could tie inputs to the triggers and the bumpers, but how easily can someone read through that in a few seconds? I guess it’s time to reign in my expectations.

Gaines’s Response:

Good point about choice. I’m not comfortable with making choice the essential defining aspect of games as a medium. I’m not even a fan of making games a single medium–for games, “genre” and “medium” are too close (does the coding of platforms in a platformer make it a different genre or a different medium?).

I’m really going to television for the comparison because its a short game, and it’s episodic, and it’s presence in the home (as opposed to movie theatre). I certainly don’t want to make the comparison so strongly that television, film, and games merge into some nebulous moving image medium(a). There’s definitely already too little media specific takes on games.

I still like the time limitation. It makes the dialogue options play out more believably–I’m a really big fan of those instances where the player-character cuts a NPC off. It makes the player-character seem more emotional, more decisive.

Meh. I’m not really swayed by the technological limitations argument, especially for this game. Time and money are too frequently cop-outs for the “why didn’t you make this game good” question. I do, however, think TWAU’s failure to live up to the expectations (that itself sets) is a good point–it reminds me of Kenneth Burke’s idea of form (you can see a good write-up on Burke’s “form” by Hans Linquist in the KBJournal). I think Stephanie’s got a good point on this not just being a failure to satisfy the expectations of the form that Tell Tale’s told us our decisions will matter; it’s failing to live up to interactive narrative as something playful.

Stephanie’s Response:

I know I used “choice” a lot in my argument, but that’s really not exactly what I’m trying to get at. I think what I really mean is action—TWAU really restricts and often removes my ability to act within its narrative. When I sit down to play a game, I expect to be involved. I expect to be able to play. My gripe–and the reason that I also invoked a comparison to television–is that I feel as though the game is removing my ability to play in its eagerness to show me its narrative.

Putting aside the issue of whether or not our in-game choices matter, I think there’s an imbalance between the plot, arbitrary triggers that suddenly end scenes, etc. and the opportunities for action and play (exploring the environment, talking with other characters, etc.) such that I’m left just spectating as the story unfolds, rather than being a part of it. Often, I just feel like I’m clicking through scenes. It’s like just sitting there hitting the “play” button on a remote (ironically?) instead of actually engaging (or actually playing) with the game in any real way.

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About Nick Hanford

Graduate student at RPI and editor-in-chief at Journal at Games Criticism. Reach me at https://twitter.com/nicholashanford .
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