The Wolf Among Us is never quite sure of what it wants to be, a problem that is represented through the core gameplay structure and even through the world weary attitude of the protagonist himself. At times it is a brooding noir mystery, at others it evokes gothic fantasy in a contemporary setting.
An Inspired Story
The episodic nature of Telltale game’s narrative driven adventure game is fitting considering the source material, a series of comic books known as Fables, with each instalment uncovering new information about characters and the world they inhabit. Set in a universe where entities from old folklore and fantasy stories exist in a loose community hidden from normal society, the player follows the journey of Bigby Wolf, known to many as the Big Bad Wolf who appears as an antagonistic presence in several fairy tales. Taking place in Manhattan during the late 80s, he’s tasked with solving a string of grisly murders in the mythical community. There is a certain charm to meeting the ensemble cast characters, including Beauty and the Beast, the Jersey Devil and Bluebeard, all of whom have adapted to modern life in one way or another. However under all the fantasy elements there’s a sinister malevolence that pervades the events that occur in Fabletown, not unlike the macabre themes of the original tales. During his investigation Bigby has to contend with mature themes of corruption, forced prostitution and blackmail as he chases doggedly after a shadowy crime syndicate led by a criminal known as The Crooked Man.
All this is helped along by a cell shaded art style evocative of pulp fiction magazines. An oppressive concrete jungle illuminated by a myriad of lurid colours, casting even deeper shadows go a long way to supporing the motifs of danger lurking in a whimsical society. Add to that an incredible soundtrack ranging from subdued melancholic tracks to a murky synth score than wouldn’t look out of place in a John Carpenter film and you have a game with near immaculate presentation.
A Werewolf Transformation Adventure
Transformation plays a key theme in the game, both physically and metaphorically. Bigby is a prime example, able to change appearances from a hot-tempered human, to hulking werewolf and finally to his true incarnation, an immense wild wolf with blazing eyes. Compared to most werewolf stories, where the human would be considered the natural form, Bigby represents the reverse. Essentially he is a wolf who acts human, reverting back to his real self when required. He serves as an ideal representation of the fairy tale world adapting to modern society. Even when he appears as an average human, his bestial nature shows through a gruff demeanour and penchant to snap aggressively at others. Naturally his wolfish identity is known to most of the other fables, who generally react with begrudging reverence or open distrust due to his grisly past.
Throughout the story he changes from an unsympathetic sheriff to reluctant yet determined hero, transforming in order to protect his community and friends. What was previously a stigma of remorse for Bigby becomes his biggest strength as he comes to terms with his monstrous identity to enforce what he perceives as real justice for those who have been wronged. Yet even then his actions are met with contempt from those who still judge him based on his past, showing they are unable to realise he’s changed emotionally to become more humane. Despite everything the wolf does, the Crooked Man’s criminal actions almost go unpunished, with two eventualities. The player can either choose to have Bigby kill the Crooked Man, indicating his past violent nature as a beast is still present or the criminal is found guilty by a false testimony made against him, showing the traditional justice he represents is still massively flawed.
Transformation as Symbolism
There is a collective malcontent amongst the fairy tale citizens, especially from the non humanoid creatures who are pressured into using a magical spell known as glamour to appear human. Themes of consumerism and class conflict can be considered here, where those who cannot afford to purchase glamour at extortionate prices are forced to work long hours and live in squalid apartments under threat of being arrested and sent to live in a rural community known as the farm. Regardless of the player’s actions, residents Mr Toad and his son TJ are fated to be evicted to the farm, unable to live amongst normal humans. There’s a stark comparison here between Bigby’s empowering transformation to overcome opponents and the restrictive use of glamour here. Alternatively the concept of a spell that can change one’s appearance fits well with the mystery themes of the game. By the end of the game there is a strong implication that the victim of the first murder Bigby investigated is still alive, disguised as another person. It makes for an effective twist to linger upon, but in a story full of deceit and intrigue the inclusion of magic that can alter one’s appearance feels somewhat underutilised.
The physical appearance of his lycanthropic form also brings up an interesting point. Fables gain power equal to how well know their stories are. Bigby’s werewolf transformation is not dissimilar from the appearance of the Wolf Man in the 1941 horror film of the same name. Rather than portray a Lupine face and a full fur coat his look is remarkably human. The only downside is that, likely due to budgetary reasons, there is no distinct transformation from one form to another. The models are simply switched at a moment’s notice, either off screen or at an incredibly zoomed in angle.
The moments where the beastly side of Bigby emerges is when the overall tone shifts from a methodical crime noir to something more supernaturally charged. Bigby leaps from rooftop to rooftop effortlessly in pursuit of a getaway car, or clashes with the deadly urban legend Bloody Mary in an abandoned factory. Indeed there’s little to no downside to his transformation beyond losing a shirt each time. Such displays of inhuman strength would be impressive if it wasn’t for the game’s biggest shortcoming.
Limited Choice Mechanics
The basic formula of the gameplay revolves around the illusion of choice. During conversations the player is given dialogue options to choose from, occasionally making a binary decision that may affect a later scene but overall doesn’t lead the narrative in a new direction. Moments of action are sprinkled throughout the story, consisting of button prompts to engage with whatever is happening on screen. Bigby is near immortal due to the popularity of his stories, meaning he can shrug off gunshots, falling out of windows or even broken bones with little adverse effects, which means the fights he engages in can be incredibly creative.
Yet for all the frantic action and death defying stunts, the game never gives the impression that there is as much at stake for the player as there is for Bigby. For all the urgency the game attempts to convey in combat, there is little consequence to the player’s response. A prompt may appear to block a punch, with two immediate results. Whether the punch lands is irrelevant, as the next scene will play out more or less the same way. Once you become aware of this aspect of the game there’s an abrupt dissonance between the perceived dangers Bigby places himself in compared to how much the player can engage with what is on screen.
It even goes so far as to undermine the few impactful moments where Bigby finally transforms into his werewolf form, which looks aesthetically impressive, but consists of nothing the player hasn’t done before. While other games may stress the significance of such a transformation, there is only brief satisfaction to be had due to the lack of control the player has over it. In the rare moments where a missed prompt results in Bigby’s demise, the game over state proves too forgiving, placing the player seconds before the prompt occurs. Success is all too common for a character who barely comes out as top dog in the end.
All this isn’t to say The Wolf Among Us isn’t a bad game. It faithfully adapts the look and feel of its comic book source, telling an interesting story through complex and enigmatic characters who are never quite what they appear. Yet the limited game mechanics are a detriment to showing off the full scope of Bigby’s many transformations. This issue would continue to plague developers Telltale Games as each game released subsequently was met with diminishing returns, until they were forced to close in late 2018. While The Wolf Among Us will likely never get a sequel, it stands by itself as an unconventional story told in an all too conventional way.