I was a late-comer to Telltale’s The Walking Dead last year, unconvinced that I would find its narrative focus and stripped-down gameplay engrossing. I eventually played it after all the episodes had released, and, though I liked the game, I felt that I had cheated myself a bit by not experiencing the story serially—a mistake I’m not making with Telltale’s latest effort, The Wolf Among Us. While comparisons to The Walking Dead are inevitable, The Wolf Among Us stands firmly on its own with its first episode, “Faith.” Trading horror for noir, survival for intrigue, and nihilism for good ol’ fashioned pulp, this story steps out from its predecessor’s long shadow to deliver an absorbing experience with plenty of bite.
Set in the world of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series, The Wolf Among Us takes place in an alternate New York where fairy tale characters (the titular “Fables”) attempt to blend in with the mundane city folk (called “Mundies”). The player controls Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation that threatens to kill or expose the people he has been charged to protect. It’s a simple premise that matches the point-and-click gameplay that made Telltale a noteworthy team, and this marriage of familiar tropes with an unfamiliar setting breeds a unique take on a well-established genre. “Faith” is a Raymond Chandler novel by way of the Brothers Grimm, with all the scheming and violence of both.
Gameplay will feel familiar to anyone who has played a Telltale title. You control the character with one joystick (or keyboard) and a reticle for interaction with the other (or a mouse). The scheme works well with the game’s stripped-down approach to adventure gameplay that The Walking Dead established. When Bigby investigates a crime scene, there’s no mystery regarding which pieces of the environment are interactive. Vague tasks evaporate to make room for narrative efficiency, which works well in this type of game. Choosing how to respond in a conversation bears just as much weight as a thorough evaluation of your surroundings. There’s a direct calmness to the mechanics in these quieter moments that allows limited but tactile exploration of the game’s strange world.
Of course all this clarity becomes frantic during the games action sequences which out-crazy anything that The Walking Dead attempts. Struggling to move the cursor to a point of interaction during a fight scene creates serious tension. The visceral brutality of these moments make them all the more entertaining. Bigby’s confrontation with The Woodsman and a bar fight at the climax of the episode stand as some of the most entertaining moments of any game I’ve played all year, and the fact that Fables are notoriously hard to kill offers ample opportunity for some really savage beatdowns. While I normally consider quick time events to be the absolute worst type of neutered compromise between gameplay and cinema, these directed sequences are perfectly choreographed and unexpectedly satisfying.
The real draw of the game, however, is its vibrant world. The neon lights of Fabletown transform the familiar New York City into a cheap, offensive fairyland. It’s the best kind of uncanny landscape with one foot grounded in realism and one hoof trip-trapping into twisted fantasy. Familiar characters take on uncomfortably frank personalities. Mr. Toad trades his joyriding days for his current position as a slumlord. Ichabod Crane acts as a jerk of a mayor with Snow White as his supplicant yet good-willed assistant. Flying monkeys and talking pigs drink and smoke, and the game plays all of these elements with a straight face. There’s no winking irony or smug meta-awareness of the ridiculous on-screen, and the game is stronger for it. The Wolf Among Us believes in and commits to its world so fully that I found myself really wanting to call Ichabod Crane an asshole without acknowledging how ludicrous the concept appears on reflection. Before playing the game, I had never read any of the Fables comics, but the game makes no qualms about selling its world to the uninitiated.
The gorgeous visuals supplement the sharp writing and help to establish the grimy aesthetic. The Wolf Among Us is a game of contrasts, and the art direction reinforces this thematic duality. Just as fanciful creatures blend with streets of New York, the bright and beautifully animated visuals clash brilliantly with the dark, visceral story. Neon colors make the shadows sharper, hinting at dark happenings in the alleyways and recesses of this urban forest. A synth-heavy soundtrack provides both an electric pulse suitable for intense action and a rhythmic murmur for the quieter, more introspective moments. I rarely ran into the occasional presentation stutter, and I never felt the game falter to the point of shattering its glamour. From the moment I started playing, Bigby and his fellow Fables had my undivided attention.
Such a fully realized world, though, carries with it a good bit of baggage. Unlike Lee from The Walking Dead, Bigby Wolf is an established character in an already functioning environment. He interacts with characters who know him and his history. We can build Lee however we want and shape him as he meets new people in a new, more hostile world, but Bigby comes with his own identity. He starts out as a hardass, a mean cuss of a sheriff. The player can choose to fulfill, exacerbate, or remediate that identity, but he/she cannot ignore it, as every character seems intent on telling you what a bastard he is. Without this blank slate, we come to the game from a completely different perspective. In this way, The Wolf Among Us offers a much richer, more complicated character study than The Walking Dead, further distancing itself from its predecessor. Playing the game uncovers aspects of Bigby’s personality rather than creates them, and this structural difference will likely be one of the driving narrative forces in the upcoming episodes.
When I began the game, I had an idea for how I wanted Bigby to develop. I knew I wanted to play the sullen, mopey jerk of a guy with a chip on his shoulder, a penchant for violence, and a love of whisky. For the most part, this personality carries through fine, but the game has moments when it undercuts your choices. When I want to tell someone to fuck off, I don’t like the game giving me the option just to take it away, and there were times when I wondered why certain responses were programmed instead of allowing me more control over Bigby’s dialogue. Nevertheless, the choices available have depth and purpose. At one point, I got tired of a character’s lies and almost resorted to violence when he pleaded for mercy on behalf of someone in the other room. It was a sobering moment where I rethought my line of inquiry on a moral basis and not the only one in the episode. Most times, though, I chose to be less forgiving–especially during a bar fight at the episode’s climax. I don’t regret that one.
I thought I knew what to expect from The Wolf Among Us, and I was largely correct. I did not, however, predict it would be as absorbing as it is. Telltale uses the template set with The Walking Dead to build something that feels fresher. It’s a game I never knew I wanted to play set in a universe I never knew I cared about. Episode Two cannot come soon enough for me. And they better get on it soon because I doubt I’m the only one out here who’s impatient enough to start huffing and puffing.