We share our world with fables. These figures straight out of folklore have escaped the fairy tales and fantasy kingdoms we know them from and live among us, eking out an existence as best they can. In The Wolf Among Us: Episode One - Faith, you move through the cel-shaded streets of Brooklyn as sheriff Bigby, aka the Big Bad Wolf, keeping your fellow fables in check, and enforcing the laws that keep them safe, sane, and hidden from the prying eyes of mundies--that is, the mundane citizens who walk the streets.
This premise may seem weird--corny, even--but like the comics that inspired it, The Wolf Among Us maintains a steady noir tone that permeates the experience, only occasionally allowing humor to bubble to the surface. There are nods to the world's inherent ridiculousness; Bigby's preferred brand of smokes is Huff'n'Puff, for instance, and you get a glimpse of a shop called the Glass Slipper Shoe Store. But while you'd think that the sight of a porky pig sliding out of an oversized easy chair would be good for a laugh, I was instead struck by the hog's weariness as he shifted his tired bones into gear and slumped in the corner. "Happily ever after" is a myth, even for fables, and The Wolf Among Us takes every opportunity to weigh down every reference to the delightful tales of our childhoods with emotional bricks.
An early scene in Bigby's apartment provides a great example of the episode's dark tone. There's an old box of Chinese food on the table, and cigarette butts are strewn next to the sheriff's rotary-dial telephone. The dingy brown wallpaper is torn in countless places, and a pan rests on a stove burner; you don't know how long it's been there, but you sense it's been there a while, the grease at the bottom adding to the abode's staleness. As soon as I entered this bachelor pad, I swore I could smell it, so pungent were the striking visuals and subtle pulsing bass lines of the soundtrack. Bigby shared my sentiment, remarking that he should have cracked a window before proceeding to do just that.
Bigby is not the episode's "big bad." That honor belongs to the unknown perpetrator of a heinous murder that results in a decapitated head staining the walkway at the entrance to the Woodlands apartment complex, where many fables live. The victim is a fable, which is a shocking development given how difficult these not-so-mythical beings are to kill. And so the investigation begins, though The Wolf Among Us is not an investigation game in the style of L.A. Noire, in spite of some superficial similarities between the two games. You can even leave the murder scene without investigating much at all.
Bigby is a chain-smoking, hard-living antihero, with a furrowed brow and persistent face stubble. He might light a beating victim's cigarette in his best moments--or ask to bum a cigarette from that same victim in his worst.
I wanted to know as much as I could about this violent act, however, and the murderer who would dare resort to such brutality. I noted the streaks of blood on the ground, and collected a bit of denim fabric left for Bigby to find. Actually, I didn't know that it was purposefully dropped there, but I was convinced that the victim's remains were left for Bigby to find. The crime was a message, and I said as much to Snow (Snow White, of course), the mayor's comely assistant, and the one who stumbled upon the victim's head.
I didn't have to tell Snow that I thought this crime was a message, however; as in Telltale Games' previous episodic adventure, The Walking Dead, you're free to follow conversation paths as you wish, and the game politely informs you that characters will remember your words and actions. Just how these choices may affect you in the future isn't immediately clear, and may not even become clear before the first episode reaches its shocking conclusion. And the choices that do play out sometimes have only subtle effects on the story. For instance, should you give a gift of money to a lady of the night, you won't be able to buy a drink at a grimy dive bar later on. Other choices have life-or-death consequences, though you may not even be aware that the effects of your decision ripple so far outward at the time you make them.
This uncertainty lends great tension to even the smallest of decisions. You have limited time to respond to dialogue prompts and story-altering choices, forcing you to consider many possible outcomes before pouncing on the option that not only seems like the right one, but is also consistent with what you think Bigby would do. Bigby's moral compass never points in the "paragon" direction; he's an asshole in almost any context. You are merely nudging him toward degrees of harshness. Bigby is a chain-smoking, hard-living antihero, with a furrowed brow and persistent face stubble. He might light a beating victim's cigarette in his best moments--or ask to bum a cigarette from that same victim in his worst.
The beast inside Bigby is let out on a few occasions. "You're not really supposed to do that, are you?" asks a witness, upon seeing his eyes glow in rage and his lips spread to display fangs. But it's during A Wolf Among Us' dramatic action scenes that the brutality fully erupts. You don't have free range of movement during these sequences, but you must quickly respond to timed button events and move your targeting reticle into the proper position to survive. The episode's first savage showdown occurs right away, thrusting you into conflict with your nemesis, the balding woodsman, who once had the gall to slice you open to save Red Riding Hood.
The brilliance of these vicious confrontations--particularly the episode's final, breathless assault--is in how simple trigger pulls and button presses enhance the anxiety. Sometimes, the anxiety forms because you must quickly decide whether to throw your seething target into a bookcase or a bed frame. (Which is the more murderous possibility?) Other times, it comes from how quickly you must flick the analog stick to avoid the swing of a sharp axe. Even furiously tapping a single button takes on special significance when that straightforward but strenuous activity is so well matched to the powerlessness you feel in that moment.
Cityscapes are cloaked in deep purple haze and long shadows, and droning minor-scale chords heave and sigh, suffocating you with their smoky nuances.
Few characters in The Wolf Among Us are any more noble than the woodsman, though some are gentler than others. Mr. Toad, seen in his amphibian form because he doesn't have the device that allows him to pass as human, may not shy away from dropping obscenities in front of his son, but he's also fiercely protective of the boy. Acting mayor Ichabod Crane, on the other hand, exhibits a mile-wide nasty streak that makes the "F*** you" dialogue response a tempting option. I found it easy to believe in these characters and their behavior, even when I was ordering a winged monkey to fetch me books in Crane's impossibly large and cluttered office. Episode One's focus on characters and their dilemmas, and its smart avoidance of cheesy humor, is what makes it so believable.
The Wolf Among Us relies on its story and atmosphere to draw you in, so when visual and storytelling blips occur, they're more likely to jar you than they might in another game. When an animation resets at the end of a conversation, you notice the hitch and are aware that you've reached a point of narrative convergence. When the frame rate jitters during a frantic chase scene, the natural tension of the scene is replaced by a worry that you'll miss a prompt and lose sight of your prey as a result. And when Bigby closes a conversation with the rhyming mirror ("Mirror, mirror, on the wall") each time with "Nobody right now," even when it doesn't make sense in context, you notice the line's contrivance.
In spite of such minor bumps, this debut episode from The Wolf Among Us crafts an excellent illusion that usually veils the systematic gears that click and whir whenever you veer down a particular path. More impressively, it nails its atmosphere. Cityscapes are cloaked in deep purple haze and long shadows, and droning minor-scale chords heave and sigh, suffocating you with their smoky nuances. No matter how this story unfolds, it's hard to imagine a happy ending clearing away the pervading darkness.