The Wolf Among Us – Just Following The Pack

When Telltale Games released the first season of The Walking Dead, the industry rightly paid attention. It was a brilliant, brutal story, beautifully told and boldly presented. It was unafraid to pull punches, kept you guessing, and often felt like those moral choices meant something; even if the journey from A to B always started and ended the same way, the changing contexts from your decisions meant it was never exactly the same journey for everyone.

Keen to keep up the momentum bought about by endless accolades, a new series swiftly began development. While players waited to find out if it would be much cop, considering all the major minds behind it had scarpered to form their own studio, we were given something new to focus our attention on. The Wolf Among Us, based on the comic book series Fables, promised us something altogether different. Rather than a bleak, depressing yarn that left you utterly broken, this would be a cool noire-style adventure that saw you playing as detective Bigby Wolf as he attempted to find out who was behind a series of brutal serial killings in a land where all the fairytales you remembered were real and living in a hidden part of New York.

While it opened with an intriguing episode that did well to set up the universe and the characters who lived within it, I personally found that, before long, the series started losing steam and eventually petered out to a finale that didn’t actually satisfactorily answer any of the questions that had made the mystery so compelling in the first place. It was an enjoyable ride for all intents and purposes, but it often felt like it was resting on its laurels, content to adopt the style of The Walking Dead without expanding on the formula that made it such a mesmerising experience.

Much like the majority of Telltale’s output, The Wolf Among Us is based on another property, but The Walking Dead expertly skirted this issue by setting it in another part of the world. This allowed them to have a mostly unique cast whose fates were indeterminate, so there was always a palpable tension as you’d never know who was going to make it out alive. On the other hand, The Wolf Among Us is set a few decades before the events of the comics, so while there’s the opportunity to explore the past lives of your favourite citizens, there’s also far less tension when you realise that anyone you recognise is going to survive. In a mystery that initially sets itself up as “someone is killing Fables!” with a dash of “anyone could be next!“, it’s hardly compelling when you know anyone actually interesting is going to come out completely fine.

The other major issue here is that, once you knew your hero was going to survive no matter what, all the action scenes ceased to have any weight to them. Granted, failing a quick-time event would occasionally lead to a non-standard ‘Game Over’, but you’d often have to go pretty far out of your way to lose those anyway. Where there once was a constant threat of zombies in a scenario where your safety wasn’t guaranteed, strutting through a story knowing your character will make it no matter what was a bit of a step back. There’s one point later in the season where it’s revealed that Bigby Wolf – by virtue of being the Big Bad Wolf – is weak against silver bullets and that he might die if another one hits him, only for that threat to never come up again. Sure, he’s threatened with guns fairly often, but there’s no point after that warning where anyone explicitly tells you they’re packing the precious material, and you know he’s not going to get shot anyway, thanks to that pesky canon business.

At the risk of harping on about Telltale’s other series, their biggest master-stroke came in the form of Clementine, an innocent yet capable child who slowly gained a reputation for being one of the greatest characters around, thanks to the fact that she was intelligent, helpful, and believable. While that’s been diminished somewhat in season two, what made season one so powerful was that her safety was at a premium the entire time. Dilemmas would often arise where what you wanted and what was best for Clementine would be constantly at odds with each other, and navigating that moral quandary while doing your best to stay alive was a balancing act you could never truly win.

The Wolf Among Us has nothing like that. Instead, there’s a prevailing mentality of Bigby just doing whatever gets the job done, whether he has to argue, punch, or plead his way through every situation. There’s still the problem that permeates Telltale’s other series where what you’ll want them to say and what they actually come out with will be completely different, but it’s slightly less egregious this time around, if nothing else. Whether you want to be the Big Bad Wolf or a neutered pet is the player’s prerogative, but this slight freedom comes with the caveat that the perception of your character rarely changes. There’s a pervading context throughout the season that most of the Fables hate Bigby because of his past actions, while he’s trying to prove that he’s changed for the better, but there are no significant clashes between the two ideologies.

There aren’t any major dilemmas where you’re forced to choose between doing the right thing and having people hate you for it, or making your own investigation harder in order to convince people you’ve changed for the better. There are no moments where giving in to Bigby’s animal side is presented as the better option, or taking the obviously “good” choice backfires miserably. Considering that the game makes such an effort to dangle a question mark over moral choices, they couldn’t be more black and white if they tried. If you want Bigby to be a good guy who is good, then pick all the ‘good’ options. If you want him to be an an aggressive tool who doesn’t play by the rules and looks like a jerk doing it, then pick all the ‘mean’ options.

Even when the game teams you up with Snow White on multiple occasions, the formula never gets any more complicated than that. It’s a shame, because Snow’s probably the most nuanced, interesting character of the lot, whenever the writers know what to do with her. She’s nowhere near as annoying or inconsistent as, say, Skyler White in Breaking Bad, but most of Snow’s problems come from other characters insisting on trying to coddle her. It almost makes sense when you consider her back-story in the Fables comics (some of which is handily put into the game as an unlockable Book of Fables entry), but the early episodes have a weird fascination with having everyone insist on double-checking if she’s sure she wants to go out into the big, mean world and help solve the scary murders.

Yet, once she’s actually out in the field helping you, there’s no real drive to do what she tells you to do. The story will try to compel you to appease her because there’s a poorly-handled will-they-won’t-they going on, but even then the choices are overwhelmingly binary. The worst part is that in the third episode there’s a moment that threatens to finally give you a hard choice, but then gives it to Snow instead. She deliberates over it, casts her mind back to her past and the events of the story so far, and makes her own decision. It’s not necessarily the right choice, but it is to her, and then the game asks you to either do what Snow says, or completely undermine her and refuse. One of the only genuinely difficult dilemmas is given to someone else, and your only part in the proceedings comes from either obeying them or negating a potentially character-defining moment.

At least it can be said that Snow White gets her own narrative arc, because she’s one of the very few. There are plenty of moments throughout The Wolf Among Us where something interesting happens, only for it to neither get bought up again or resolved. A character called Flycatcher shows up for the easiest moral choice ever (ninety-seven percent of people chose one way over the other), then only gets one more scene in the entire season. Then there’s the matter of Bluebeard, who is repeatedly shown up to be a counterpart to Bigby to the point where he’ll actively express his approval if you do the most blatantly evil choices. In the third episode, he hampers your investigation by going to whatever location you don’t and destroying evidence, only for it to never come into play or even be mentioned again.

Weirdly, there’s also a moment where the game temporarily forgets its own plot, bungles the reveal of who the killer is – which was originally supposed to be the entire driving force of the story, by the way – and then does everything it can to ignore it and move on. Even when you reveal their identity to someone else later on, everyone involved in the revelation has moved on by the next sentence. It’s hands-down one of the oddest, most underwhelming reveals I’ve ever witnessed in a game. It’s almost as if the writers got bored, introduced a new plot, remembered they hadn’t resolved the previous one and threw a dart at a list of names before going to lunch.

I can’t even say that I enjoyed the conclusion too much either; considering there were still plot threads that hadn’t been tied up and some that had been abandoned entirely, it felt remarkably cheap to wrap the ending up with a further mystery. Truth be told, it came across as trying to keep people guessing at the cost of plot coherence. There’s a defence somewhere that a lot of the plot threads could come back in the second season – if there is one – but to me that doesn’t quite excuse how carelessly they’ve been dangled thus far.

There are rumours that there was a massive re-write between the first and second episode of the series that could explain some of these issues, but the lack of any confirmation makes it harder to discern. Theories include Telltale rewriting the entire plot after some fans guessed the outcome after the first episode, the writers changing direction because the original story wasn’t strong enough, and Willingham himself being unhappy with the story presented to him and requesting alterations. Not all of them seem plausible, but if any are remotely true then they could go some way to explaining some of the major inconsistencies. The fact there was a rewrite does seem to have a grain of truth to it, considering the preview still for episode three originally featured a character who disappeared after the opening scene of part two, before it was changed to the image it is now.

I’ve almost certainly come across as extremely negative about the game up to this point, but I don’t think it was awful by any reasonably stretch of the imagination. It’s disappointment that’s led to this, no doubt bought on by the expectations of what Telltale could achieve after dazzling us all so much beforehand. In that sense, they’re the victims of their own success; achieve to such a high standard once, and people will provide greater scrutiny from then on, itching to see if it was a one-off or if you’re the next big thing.

For what it’s worth, however, I think there’s plenty that The Wolf Among Us did expertly. The voice-acting was genuinely superb, with not a single bad performance to speak of. Although Dave Fennoy seemed like an odd choice to play Bluebeard – especially after portraying Lee in that other series – special mention has to go to Adam Harrington, whose casting as Bigby Wolf was basically perfect. The game should also be applauded for actually taking a great deal of your moral choices into consideration, far more so than appears at a first glance. While not every action is catered for, I was pleasantly surprised by how often I found innocuous dialogue choices coming back in some way or another. The moral dilemmas may have been ridiculously binary at times, but at least they’ve been acknowledged more than the choices in, say, the second season of The Walking Dead. The adventures of Sheriff Bigby and Co. may not have been as satisfying as initially hoped, but it’s still a far more solid experience than most stories in games will even attempt to give you.

As it stands, The Wolf Among Us was ultimately kind of disappointing. While by no means bad, it certainly lacked the same innovation, intrigue and tension that made the first season of The Walking Dead such a compelling and memorable experience. It could feasibly have built on the formula, but instead chose to make a series that predicated itself on a story that ended up lacking where it counted. Where The Walking Dead became a trendsetter, The Wolf Among Us just followed the pack.

Last five articles by Edward


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