No Happy Endings: The Tale of A Wolf Among Us
Telltale Games tackles the Fables comics in their upcoming interactive drama. Kevin VanOrd takes a close look at the first episode.
No one really lives happily ever after. Not even in fairy tales.
If you're familiar with the Fables comic book series by Bill Willingham, this upsetting truth comes as no surprise. In that universe, the storybook characters you loved as a child have been driven from their homeland and seek refuge in the bustling metropolis of New Amsterdam, where they have developed a new culture plagued by mistrust and addiction. It is the big bad wolf who is charged with enforcing the letter of the law in a society where princes aren't always charming, and the snow isn't always white.
Telltale Games has successfully tried their hand at developing interactive fiction in a somber universe already. Its series set in the Walking Dead world has garnered more than a few awards, and if their upcoming episodic tale The Wolf Among Us is any indication, the developer doesn't see The Walking Dead as an aberration among adventure games, but as the portal to an entirely different genre. Telltale is one of the torchbearers for the choice-driven drama, and The Wolf Among Us is its chance to prove that the torch will continue to burn brightly.
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Lord knows the world of The Wolf Among us needs a bright light to shine in its darkest recesses. The game sets a grim tone with its heavily shaded graphic-novel appearance, purple shadows and deep droning music foreshadowing unsightly events to come. And while the opening seconds draw you in, the next few events are a fierce uppercut to the psyche: As a chain-smoking Bigby, the big bad wolf of yore, you confront a trash-talking, filthy-mouthed Mr. Toad--as in, Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows fame. There is no escaping the vulgarity of The Wolf Among Us; it is as much a part of Fabletown as beauties and beasts.
The conversation between Bigby and Toad doesn't last long: a commotion on the second floor of Toad's tenement draws Bigby's attention. The uppercuts then become real: a young woman is fending off a bald bearded brute in clear need of anger management guidance. Bigby steps in and a disturbing interactive scene follows, the camera closely caressing every slam and snarl. Timed event prompts have you targeting objects for gruesome environmental violence, and you target the bearded man's tender parts during the sequence in the hope of overcoming his savagery.
The timed nature of the gameplay makes a tense situation even more stressful, though the barbarity is front and center, coming to a halt only when the young lady plunges an axe into the bald boor's skull. Yet as it turns out, he'll be fine. You see, Fables are hard to kill. An axe blade splitting your cranium apart? Just walk it off.
The bearded wonder is Bigby's old nemesis, the woodsman. The identity of the young woman isn't so clear, but she clearly needs some cash, as it's money the woodsman is extorting. Bigby's conversation with the woman is reminiscent of Lee's conversations in The Walking Dead, each choice allowing you to steer Bigby down the path that seems most fitting to your vision of him, and the game informing you that your conversation partner will remember your response. But even though the woman may tell you that "you're not as bad as everyone says you are," make no mistake: Bigby's a jerk. You will not be guiding him towards virtue.
It's here that the first episode takes a breath, dropping in small sight gags (a glimpse of a shop called "Glass Slipper Shoes," for instance) and fleshing out Fabletown and its inhabitants. As Bigby heads to his tiny flat in the Woodland Apartments, he encounters both Beauty and Beast, their domestic troubles playing out before your very eyes. Once inside, you can check your mailbox, wash your face in the kitchen sink, and inspect your fridge, where you'll find a box of frozen Huff & Puff. But Bigby isn't coming home to an empty apartment; he has a visitor. A visitor whose house he once blew down.
You might think that having an anthropomorphized pig bumming a smoke off you and begging for a sip of whiskey would disrupt A Wolf Among Us' serious noir tone. Yet the episode comes across as strangely coherent, grounded by the sedate music and staid voice acting. The ensuing scene subtly communicates information about this world as the characters banter. You learn that creatures must purchase an item called a glamour from a witch if they wish to pass as human among the general populace--or are otherwise sequestered in a plot of land called The Farm. You learn about the romantic tensions between Bigby and Snow--that is, Snow White. And you are reminded that Fables (as they call themselves) aren't easily killed.
But they can be killed. And so one is.
The crime scene is gruesome. Gruesome, too, is the attitude of acting mayor Ichabod Crane, who blames Bigby for allowing the crime to happen on his watch. He demands heads--an ironic turn for a man who once feared a horseman without a noggin. Fortunately, the mayor's office is a treasure trove of information, housing not only volumes of Fable history, but the famous mirror (mirror on the wall), who demands you approach with a rhyme before he will divulge the information you seek. Bigby and Snow also enlist the help of a winged monkey called Buffkin, an apparent escapee of the kingdom of Oz.
The clues surface. So does a concerned Mr. Toad, who rings up Bigby to inform him that someone is upstairs rifling through the woodsman's things. And so you make your first vital decision on where to take the investigation. Telltale is quick to say that A Wolf Among Us is not an investigation game in the manner of L.A. Noire--but is also quick to share that decisions have more layers than they did in The Walking Dead, and that your decisions' consequences won't be immediately obvious. And here is the first example of such an occasion, pushing you down a path that has no clear endpoint.
Sometimes, you don't know you're making a life-or-death decision until the choice is made and fate has determined an outcome. But in A Wolf Among Us, you can't always sit idly by and let someone else make the choices for you, though silence can indeed be golden. This fall, fans of the Fables universe will learn of the events that preceded the first comic--and newcomers can take refuge in the shadows of this fairy-tale noir, not just in fear of the murderer skulking the streets of Fabletown, but of the Wolf dedicated to keeping its streets clean.'
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