Over many years and many intellectual properties, developer Telltale Games has honed its aptitude for creating player-guided, story-driven games, culminating with last year's critically acclaimed series, The Walking Dead. Now it has introduced player agency to another comic series, Fables, which proves to be an uneasier fit. The bold artistic style and lively characters bring creator Bill Willingham's world to life vividly, but giving you control over a strong personality in this rich universe has a diminishing effect on both.
I own the first trade paperback in the comic series, titled Fables: Legends in Exile. It had been a few years since I'd read it, but when I started playing The Wolf Among Us, it all came flooding back to me. The premise: colorful characters out of fables and fairy tales have been forced out of their magical homelands and now live in modern society. Bound together in a secret community, they must face the troubles of mundane life as well as a few challenges unique to them; nonhuman folks must constantly maintain a costly glamour spell in order to appear human, lest they be sent upstate to the farm where conditions are less than desirable.
It's an immediately intriguing setting, one that drew me in as effectively in the comic as it does in the game. Affinity for beloved characters from my childhood mixed with empathy for their unhappy exile and made me yearn to learn all I could about their plight. The Wolf Among Us is quick to introduce a great example: Mr. Toad. Once the quirky, wealthy owner of the stately Toad Hall, Mr. Toad is now the landlord of a run-down tenement house that is currently playing host to a violent domestic dispute. His brusque cynicism speaks volumes about his change of fortune, and there's an undeniable charm in having an adversarial conversation with a cranky, bipedal toad.
As the Big Bad Wolf (call him "Bigby"), you have a part to play in this dialogue. You're the Fabletown sheriff, and you have to respond to the ruckus in Toad's building, but not before confronting him about his conspicuous nonhuman appearance. Whether you give him a hard time or let it slide this time is up to you, and you can choose your dialogue responses from among four choices (one of which is usually to remain silent). To keep things moving, you have a limited amount of time to choose your response before the scene moves on, and this can urge you to be a bit more instinctual with your choices, as opposed to letting you carefully deliberate as long as you like.
Dialogue choices are the beating heart of the gameplay experience in The Wolf Among Us. By taking a substantial degree of control over Bigby's lines, you take on an active role in shaping his character and, by extension, the story. Having a part to play in the story makes you an active participant and is meant to make you more invested in the characters, events, and world of the game. Many narrative-heavy games have been immensely enriched by this kind of investment, including Beyond: Two Souls, which I had finished a few days earlier and found utterly engrossing. Telltale's previous tales have benefitted greatly from giving the player control through choice, but The Wolf Among Us is poorer for it.
Instead of feeling like I was molding my own character in the game, I felt like I was diminishing a character from the comic book.
So why did this technique work so wonderfully with The Walking Dead yet falter here? The difference and the disconnect lie in the nature of the protagonists. In The Walking Dead, you played as Lee Everett, a character created specifically for the video game adaptation of the comic series. Though his past is eventually fleshed out, he begins the episodic series as a largely blank slate. This leaves a lot of room for his character to develop and, more importantly, a lot of room for you to create his identity. With each choice you make, you are claiming parts of Lee's personality for yourself and becoming more invested in his struggles.
The same is true for Bigby Wolf; with each choice you make, you are claiming parts of his personality for yourself. However, while playing as Lee is like filling a role, playing as Bigby is like taking one over. With every dialogue choice, you are imposing your personality on a strong character; Bigby has a dark past that he has tried to escape in his new life, and the struggle between his reformed attitude and his true nature is a gripping one. It's not that any of the dialogue options feel wildly out of character, because they don't, and the sharp writing throughout strikes a great grim tone with a few welcome beats of levity.
Rather, the issue is that in shaping Bigby's responses, I really just wanted to know what Bigby would do rather than choosing myself. By choosing sympathetic, indifferent, or harsh options, I felt like I was shutting off other parts of his personality that might be truer or more interesting than the ones I was choosing. Bigby's strong persona was already well established in this world, and I felt like an interloper. Instead of feeling like I was molding my own character in the game, I felt like I was diminishing a character from the comic book.
This feeling nagged me throughout the game, but I was still eager to see this first of five planned chapters through to its conclusion. Encountering other characters, like the boozy flying monkey or one of the three not-so-little pigs, was a regular treat, and interacting with the hard-working Snow White and the hard-drinking Woodsman left me even more sympathetic than I'd been to begin with. Bigby's investigations lead to some startling discoveries and hint nicely at the conflicts to come (though how much those conflicts diverge from arcs in the comic series, I couldn't say). With strong dialogue and interesting characters, The Wolf Among Us tells a stimulating tale.
There are spikes of action as well that lend some extra drama to the proceedings and offer provocative peeks at what happens when Bigby lets his claws come out. These scenes rely entirely on those double-edged swords: quick-time events. While these scripted skirmishes are exciting and nicely choreographed, the large button prompts tend to draw your attention away from the action, though one type of prompt does counteract this by making you look at environmental elements. Beyond: Two Souls had similar fight scenes, but instead of looking for a prompt, you had to take your directional cue from the protagonist's body language by paying close attention to the dramatic action taking place. I felt invigorated as I closely watched my character's movements, while in The Wolf Among Us, I felt enervated as I waited for the on-screen prompts.
Certain conversations were also plagued with a similarly draining mechanic. Intermittently, the game displays a message in the corner of the screen informing you how a character reacted to something you said or did. Lines like "Snow White is still skeptical of you" or "Toad will remember that" are meant to be teasers of consequences to come, but they feel like placeholder captions for sentiments that should be expressed through animation or dialogue. The Wolf Among Us conveys a range of emotion through the natural flow of the game, making these messages stand out like so many sore thumbs.
After the few hours it took to complete this chapter, I wasn't certain I how I felt about playing the next chapter. The characters and the world of The Wolf Among Us create a strong draw, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was somewhere I didn't belong. The world of Fables is so rich and so intriguing, is there really room for player agency? In The Walking Dead, zombies are a variable that allow for flexible dramatic staging. In Fables, the fairy tale characters are constants on a dramatic stage that is already set. Without an inherent narrative flexibility, The Wolf Among Us makes an awkward fit for the winning Telltale formula.