Good writing can make any video game memorable, if only in certain parts or levels. Exceptional writing can make the entirety of a video game burrow into your soul. This is the case with Tell Tale’s The Wolf Among Us, a story set in the Fables’ comic universe where fairy tales live hidden amongst us with problems inherited from the realities of the mundane.
The Wolf Among Us came out episodically throughout 2013 on all major consoles, from the previous to current gen systems (you can even play it on your iPad). The writing team bears mention because this game’s legacy is definitely propped up by its complex, multiple path script. Pierre Shorette, Dave Justus, Dave Grossman, Adam Hines, Dan Martin, Matt Almer and Nicole Martinez all collaborated on the multi-chapter story along with several directors, each taking on a different chapter.
Players step into the shoes of Bigby Wolf, aka the Big Bad Wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale and now the sheriff of Fabletown, as he investigates the death of a woman from The Homelands (the magical realm these Fables immigrated from after a tyrannical force inspired them to escape into colonial America).
It’s 1986 New York and the game works hard to let you know and feel like it is. Neon lights, rundown clubs, and dark alleys serve as your stomping grounds. The people that walk the streets are fully aware of the city’s decay and they blend in with it. The amount of worldbuilding done by the visual design alone is enough to fill volumes.
Fabletown is in New York City, but the game manages to carve out its world within it and then infuse it with enough hidden magic and mystical undertones to set it apart. Every character that inhabits it looks like he or she came with the city, that the place is theirs.
Bigby’s world is one of secrets and glamours, the latter being central to the story as it’s the name given to the enchantment that allow Fables to look like regular people in the city. This element turns to deceitfulness and corruption as glamours allow Fables to choose the way they’ll look to the mundies (real humans).
If it isn’t obvious by now, The Wolf Among Us is a noir through and through. Not a single character wears their true emotions on their sleeves, everyone requires verbal dueling to get even the smallest sliver of information out of them, and no secret is ever content with being simple. They all have layers and players have to pay extra attention to facial expressions and body language to get a hint as to how to extract what Bigby needs.
Given the game unfolds as a third-person ‘point and click’/quick-time event procedural, having a good eye and knowing how to read people are key skills in The Wolf Among Us. They may as well be pre-requirements to get the most out of the experience, included in the back of the game’s cover along with the system’s requirements.
These conditions will determine what type of Bigby you’ll be in the game. “Option” is the name of the game here, as your Wolf can be a classic hard-as-nails shamus or a detective with a heart. You decide whether to stick as close to the Fable laws as possible or to mete out the only kind of justice the streets respect.
As a gamer that loves agency in deciding the character’s moral compass, I tend to go for the reasonable detective type. My Bigby was a mediator and sometimes even a diplomat. I preferred to tread carefully to get the most information out the people I came across. I wasn’t afraid to let a few punches go here or there, but I needed my reputation to precede me so that everyone knew I was insistent with my line of questioning.
This made my conversations with the game’s colorful and downright impressive cast of character feel even more tense, though. Without spoiling much, Bigby has to talk to fairy tale characters that range from the monstrous to the fragile and then to combination of both those types in his investigation.
Characters like Snow White, Blackbeard, and Ichabod Crane all require a different approach. What works for one will not yield the same results with the others. A punch might end a conversation for some while the mere threat might scare another to let some of that precious information go. The inclusion of a fairly short window to choose conversation options works to ramp up the tension in these situations. It feels like a boxing match with words. Every single time.
As a fan of the original comic book the game is based on, which was created by Bill Willingham for Vertigo Comics, I appreciated how the fairy tale elements translated into a fully animated game while still conveying layers upon layers of necessary hints and clues as to which ways are best to crack the game’s characters under questioning.
The game never lets you feel as if your story is contained to just a few characters either. Much like a true noir, the soul of Fabletown is at risk and the Bigby you allow yourself to become as a player will ultimately decide its future steps as a community. This makes every decision carry weight and it’ll hurt when certain things don’t go your way.
One of the most impressive things The Wolf Among Us manages to achieve is letting the player experience the truly imperfect nature of dialogue and interactions. There were moments when I was sure I chose a dialogue option thinking it would come out in a much nicer way than it did, and vice versa. Friendships were fractured and the game’s subtle notifications as to how characters took my remarks made my heart tighten at times. I’ve never been so anxious to see “So and so will remember what you said” on my TV screen. My choices were final and I had to live with the consequences.
The degree of choice, its ripple effects, and the effect of a few words on the lives of many make The Wolf Among Us one of the best stories to get wrapped up in if you have the time to spare. In our current predicament, this seems to be the case for many and I cannot recommend this game enough in times like these.
It’s not a light experience. You’ll question a lot about yourself while playing it, but then you’ll also have time to reflect. That’s something very few games lay a claim to, which is why it deserves your attention. You’ll remember what was said and you’ll remember how much it hurt, but you’ll also be aware of how many options you have to work it through.