The Wolf Among Us in Review: A Full Season Discussion11 Jul 2014  by
Tim McDonald: After what seems like forever, The Wolf Among Us has reached the inevitable conclusion of its first season. I’ve been reviewing each episode of the series as it came out, which has gradually become more and more difficult because – as the episodes move on – there’s not much you can say besides “It’s quite a lot like the last episode, only with different story stuff which I can’t talk about for fear of spoilers.” Stretching that out to 1000 words is an art form, I tell you.
Tim: However, now that the final episode is out, I decided to do something a bit different – and not only because it makes it a little easier to write something about it. Fellow IncGamers staffer Peter Parrish has also been diligently investigating The Wolf Among Us (or, at least, watching his wife investigate it) so we’re actually in a position to do a sort of joint-review for once. But rather than just review it and dance around spoilers, we’re going to talk a lot of specifics about the whole season. We’re going to have a look at both the fifth and final episode – Cry Wolf – and the season on the whole. We’re going to talk through specific plot points, and things we liked, and things we didn’t.. We’re also bringing two different perspectives to this, because I’ve actually read the comics, and to the best of my knowledge Peter hasn’t.
Also, doing it like this makes it a little easier to write something about it. I’m not going to lie: that’s my main reason behind doing it this way.
I’m going to say one thing now: this discussion will spoil a lot. If you’re just looking for an opinion on the season as a whole… welp, I loved it. I think Peter loved it too. So you can probably buy it without fear. 9/10, and all that.
There’s quite a lot I want to say about the final episode, but as I’ve written the introductory paragraph, I think I’d better let Peter have the floor. Mr Parrish, what are your initial thoughts on the final episode of the series?
Peter Parrish: Is this the point where we should reiterate that we have no qualms about spoiling things from the entire series, and episode five in particular? I think it is. There will be Cry Wolf finale spoilers. Many of them.
I’ve watched my wife play the episodes as they came out, but this weekend I also played through all of them myself (minus the finale, which I played yesterday) and had a thoroughly noir time. She’s read (some of) the comics. I haven’t, but would occasionally ask her questions like “so is this stuff about Ichabod Crane ever referenced later?” I’ve absorbed a bit of knowledge about them that way.
Anyway, the final episode. Noir, at least Raymond Chandler’s books, has a bit of a tradition of finishing in quite an unsatisfying way despite being an engaging journey. Loose ends and things still being a bit confusing or messy is a genre staple, I think. Who killed the Chauffeur in The Big Sleep? Even Chandler had supposedly forgotten when they asked him about it for the film version. Cry Wolf wraps things up. It gives you the killer (quite abruptly,) and lets you put away/kill the major threat to the town, but none of it goes smoothly and Fabletown still has plenty of institutional problems. Bigby ‘wins,’ but he wins in an ugly fashion.
Peter: I’m fine with that feeling, because it’s an appropriate noir discomfort.
Where I think the episode struggles is when it runs up against Telltale’s choice structure, which is starting to creak pretty heavily. The climactic scene (uh, assuming you brought him in) is the Crooked Man’s trial, where he pits his philosophy against yours. I think the intended theme, which has been running through all the episodes, is that he’s a necessary evil; the guy who’ll provide for the disenfranchised when the Fabletown government fails them. That could be a strong theme… were it not for the fact that you (and basically everybody else in the room) has witnessed first hand that the guy is a total monster. I wanted more nuance there, more of the genuine grey morality it seemed to be aiming for.
It gets closest to that with the Auntie Greenleaf angle (the glamour economy really does seem to be keeping a whole lot of Fables in poverty), but even if you set her tree on fire the game has to still come around to getting the town siding with Bigby, because that’s how the game ends.
A lot of the trial is a bit frustrating, because if you’ve done things pretty “by the book” (like I did), then you want to use a bunch of non-existent dialogue options like “okay then, let’s talk to the Butcher about business extortion… or how about we chat more with Prince Lawrence about how you treated his wife.” The game makes out you have little evidence, when in fact you have loads. It even glosses over the Crooked Man’s repeated attempts to have the player killed. At the other end of the scale, if you’ve been Psycho Bigby it doesn’t really matter and Crooked Man will still get convicted even though he (in that case) has a bit more of a point about unaccountable government officials.
Peter: That sense of dissatisfaction is less easy to deal with, but it’s down to Telltale’s adherence to the illusion of choice coming a bit unstuck. I do understand why they can’t have five different endings in a prequel for an established comic series, but that doesn’t prevent me from wishing they did.
That’s all a bit critical, isn’t it? Let me just temper that a bit by saying again that I loved the noir tone, music and direction (because this really is a directed game) of the series as a whole.
Tim: Weirdly, I actually found that final confrontation – the whole trial-that’s-half-lynch mob-and-is-trying-not-to-be-a-kangaroo-court thing – to be remarkably tense. Possibly just because I was trying to play “justly” and not simply hurl the villain down the Witching Well without approval, so I wanted to do it right, and a lot of the arguments he was making – while full of holes – were pretty well-crafted in terms of appealing to people. Which was a nice use of showing and not just telling, since by then we’d heard a lot about how persuasive and manipulative he was. But back to the point: I wasn’t just trying to “win”; I was trying to win my way.
Peter: I did find the trial quite interesting the first time through, because it convinced me that I might be able to botch it if prior actions came back to haunt me. But having seen other playthroughs, I’m fairly sure that’s impossible – and I know the game will end the same no matter what. Again, that’s kind of my own problem of being too familiar with Telltale’s structure and trying not to see where the strings are tugging.
Tim: The “nothing ends perfectly” thing is pretty common with the comics, too. I can’t go into too much in the way of details without spoiling those, and that’s something I really don’t want to do, but two of the major themes of the series are compromise, and hope versus reality. One of the major points is that the Fables have fled their homelands due to invasion by the mysterious Adversary, and even with a fresh start in another world, nothing matches the hopes people had. By the same token, everyone hopes that one day they’ll be able to rally an army and retake the homelands, but…
Someone once told me that Fabletown is kind of a metaphor for Israel, but I dunno how true that is.
Anyway: yes, there are inevitably problems with this being an interactive story (because it’s clearly not an adventure game) that can’t actually have that much branching because it still has to tie into the established canon of the comics. The most egregious thing with this is Snow White’s “death” at the end of the very first episode, which was taken seriously by absolutely nobody who had ever read any of the comics. I knew who the serial killer wasn’t going to be, simply because of which characters pop up there. The only major decisions you had were ones that absolutely wouldn’t affect the comics, and that made them feel a little bit weaker, because you knew they weren’t actually major decisions. In the grand scheme of things, they were miniscule. If you could kill a character, then you knew he had no further role to play in this story, and he wouldn’t pop up in the comics.
Tim: The flipside of this is that, within the game’s confines, it did most of this stuff pretty well. Even (relatively) minor decisions like whether to kill the Tweedle or not actually felt like they had a bit of weight, which was most likely down to your interpretation of the character and where you wanted Bigby to fit into this world. Either way it meant the Tweedles weren’t going to have a big role in upcoming episodes, but that’s mostly because we’ve been through Telltale’s interactive stories so often that we’re not so much seeing behind the curtain, as desperately trying to look away from everything that’s pretty much on full display. Still, if even options with such obvious mechanical ramifications feel like they have some weight… well, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s a well-assembled world with well-crafted characters.
Speaking of which, I did think they handled Bigby really well. I haven’t tried playing him as a full psycho, but even the more brutal options the game offered were entirely in-keeping with his character. He generally tries to be nice, and good, and keep his monstrous power under control – but when he loses his temper, he’s more than happy to break legs and pull off arms. The options weren’t really between “good Bigby” and “bad Bigby”, and more about whether you thought he’d had enough of whatever shit was going on. Even with episode five’s choice between killing the villain or bringing him back for trial, I could actually see Bigby going for either option under those circumstances. Giving a degree of choice but having all of it feel in-keeping with an established character is a bit of a masterstroke, to my mind.
Peter: I very much agree on the matter of characters and the moment-to-moment choices. Whether or not you send Colin back to the farm isn’t going to have a big narrative impact, but there’s no fucking way I was going to do that. That’s a symptom of the game drawing the Bigby-Colin relationship so well with that scene in the first episode. I felt bad enough that crotchety, miserable Mr. Toad was going to get carted off, despite my best efforts. Telltale did a great job creating a path for the player who wanted to experience the ‘noir detective who really tries to do the right thing but is conspired against at every turn’. As you say, you can also very easily turn that into ‘detective who is frankly just sick of this shit.’
Lots of great opportunities for smoking, too. If you lit up at the end of episode four and let Faithissa walk away in the finale while you had a contemplative cigarette, you have passed the noir test. Again, those shots were examples great direction. It’s not often you want to bring the language of film into game reviews, but The Wolf Among Us has loads of scenes where Telltale have put a lot of thought into where the virtual camera is situated.
Tim: I really love the smoking mechanic. Not only is it in-keeping with noir and very in-keeping with Bigby (there is a reason, in the comics, as to why he smokes so much), it just adds so much in so many little ways. Yes, smoking is bad for you and so on and so forth, but there’s something very definite about calmly lighting a cigarette in response to whatever’s going on. Particularly at the end of episode four, where you finally meet up with the rogues gallery of bad guys, and can respond by just lighting up. It’s practically a mechanic on its own.
Actually, I once wrote a noir-ish murder mystery text adventure in which smoking was a mechanic. Specifically, it was the hint system: you started the game with a pack of cigarettes, and at almost any point you could opt to light one up and spend a few minutes calmly recollecting the case. I wanted to get smoking in because it very much fit with the theme, but only if it had an actual point – and not to reveal sodding alarm lasers – so that provided a nice marriage between theme and mechanics. I bring this up because The Wolf Among Us does things similarly, in that – while smoking is really just a conversation option – it’s one that has a lot of unspoken weight. It’s an excellent marriage of theme and mechanic, although I do find it a bit odd that Bigby will usually take one puff and then extinguish it.
Peter: Enough about your fledgling game development career, Tim! Since I’ve mentioned Nerissaith above: I kind of felt that was a twist too far. Learning that she lied at the trial was an excellent revelation, and contributes to the overall tone of people trying, and failing, to do things in a just way. The body-switch stuff… I don’t know. It was alright, but didn’t seem all that necessary.
Tim: I didn’t really think of it in that way at the time, and I’m not nearly so much of a noir enthusiast as you, but the Nerissa/Faith thing now strikes me as something that was actually quite noir by itself. (Can I use “noir” as an adjective? Excellent.) It’s one final sting in the tail that changes the meaning of most of the past events, and points her out as the damsel in distress who actually wasn’t a damsel in distress, and was orchestrating a lot more than you might’ve thought. It’s just a shame that it’s done with a twist that, frankly, feels a bit silly.
I’m also not quite sure when the glamour was supposed to have happened. Had Faith already been murdered prior to the start of the game, and the “Faith” you meet in the first episode is the glamoured Nerissa? Or is it that Faith was alive the entire way through, and it was actually Nerissa who was murdered? Does it matter? Probably not. Like I said, it feels a bit silly.
Peter: I suppose it’s pretty noir for one of the main women to have a surprising secret. But anyway, I think the surviving woman has to be Faith/Donkeyskin Girl, if only because otherwise Bufkin’s voiceover flashback bit about her using her disguise to fool people doesn’t make much sense. Same with the “still running tests on Faith’s body” line. I think Faith nabbed the photo for leverage, Nerissa got scared and told Georgie, Faith and Nerissa argue (there’s a photo of this happening at the Smelting Factory), Faith somehow convinces Nerissa to switch bodies so she doesn’t take the heat (this bit is quite flimsy, I know,) the heat is really bad and “Faith” (actually Nerissa) is killed. Then real Faith (as Nerissa) does a bunch of stuff to nudge Bigby towards taking down the Crooked Man and Georgie. I think. Maybe. Probably.
Tim: That makes a degree of sense, and I honestly cannot be arsed analysing it hard enough to figure out an alternate explanation. The only thing I’ll say is that it’s almost certainly a glamour rather than a full-on bodyswap, because it being an illusion is far more Fables than the alternative. And, y’know, a huge part of the story is about glamours, in terms of both legal and illegal trade – there’s Mr. Toad, and Auntie Greenleaf, and the glamoured prostitutes, and Colin, and so on.
Peter: Yes, sorry, by body-switch I do mean a glamouring process.
Tim: So let’s just say that Nerissa was killed, and then Faith glamoured up the head and dumped it on the steps. But, uh… wait, shouldn’t Georgie have known who he killed? So someone would’ve had to have been glamoured before being killed, but… Okay, this is getting confusing and ridiculous. Which is the big problem with that twist, right until someone in the comments explains it in a simple way that makes me feel like an idiot for not seeing it sooner.
Peter: They glamour before Nerissa is killed. Faith is annoyed at her for selling out and convinces her to glamour-switch to take (Faith’s) blame for nabbing the photograph in her place. This goes a bit wrong. Georgie kills ‘Faith’ (actually Nerissa) but the head/body stay glamoured because nobody has dicked around with the tube thing (like with Lily’s body in episode 2.) And, and… okay, yeah, I think we’ve theorised enough there.
Tim: It’s also sort of annoying, because I really liked what was done with Nerissa. They took from the original – and much darker – The Little Mermaid story, insofar as every step she took on her fake human legs was excruciatingly painful. Factoring that in with the fact that she’s a pole-dancer makes an already unpleasant thing even worse. If all of your interactions with her were actually Faith, that… spoils it a little, I guess. It’s kind of interesting that they went that route, too, because – as far as I’ve read, at least, which is the first 100 or so issues – Fables never really dealt with the shady underside of Fabletown. There was discontent from the less prestigious and so on, but there weren’t really Fable strip clubs or prostitutes, so that added a little more depth to the world, and also hinted at how much things have changed between the game and the start of the comics.
Tim: Barring the first couple of episodes, I’ve only gone through the game once, so the strings pulling the characters perhaps aren’t as visible to me. It’s one of those games which, I think, works best if you only play it once; playing it more shows you the bits you missed, but it also shows you how the magic trick is done and spoils it a little in the process. From what you’ve said, yeah, I’d find the trial considerably less interesting a second time through simply because there’d be no tension or threat, both of which were absolutely present the first time.
Peter: That’s definitely the case for me; almost all the instances of “ooh, what happens if you do that instead?” have proved to be a little bit disappointing. They work much better just left alone as “what ifs” than actually going back and trying them, in almost all cases. As a one-shot, the series is much stronger. That’s Telltale’s great strength really, making you roleplay the character as you see fit (and having all those options broadly work) in a somewhat set narrative – not genuine branching paths.
Tim: That said: the first time through, at least, that trial is one of the best closings to a game like this I’ve seen in a long time. It’s tense, it focuses very much on morality and Doing Things Right versus the greater good, and it’s not a sodding QTE boss fight. Not that I minded the Bloody Mary showdown because I’ve been waiting since episode one for Bigby to go Full Wolf, but the trial was a really fitting thematic close. You’d “won” already, but “winning” wasn’t necessarily your objective. Getting the desired outcome, and doing it legitimately, might well have been. It’s ostensibly a game about finding a murderer, but a lot of it deals with disenfranchisement, government, mistrust of government, the rich-poor divide, foolishness with money, and the murky areas of morality, amongst a lot of other things.
But, much as I think that the Telltale system works well for telling interactive stories (not least because those stories are masterfully crafted), I also agree with you that the Telltale Mechanics are wearing a little bit thin, and the curtain is becoming a wee bit transparent. I’d like to see them change things up a little in future, but I have no idea how.
Peter: Not to hammer home the point of looking too closely at Telltale games ruining them a bit, but … I’m now kind of going to. Although I quite enjoyed that Bloody Mary QTE fight as well, from the part where the multi-Marys appear to the conclusion of that fight you do not actually need to interact with the game at all, except for the one bit where they’re all on top slashing at you and you transform into the full wolf. That’s the only place that will send you to a fail-state ‘reload the last checkpoint’ screen. Everywhere else you can press absolutely nothing and the scene will play out the same (Bigby still knocks Marys off himself, and all over he place, chomps her, etc.) It’s rather a shame.
In contrast to that, they sometimes manage to include some of the most horrible and tactile button-mashing/quick-time events I’ve ever seen. Ripping off Grendel’s arm or trying to re-set your own broken bone? Jesus Christ. When used sparingly, that kind of thing is very effective.
Tim: QTEs aside, it actually contains some of the most horrible moments in games full stop. The arm wound itself, at the end of episode three, is goddamn horrible.
Peter: My dream Telltale scenario would probably be them ditching the episodic format for one project and structuring it around the sort of branching outcomes found in games like Alpha Protocol. Maintain the terrific characterisation and dialogue, and the stylistic direction, but apply it to a game where your choices really can lead to radically different consequences. I don’t mind if the game is only three or four hours in length, as long as I have to play it at least three times to see most of the outcomes. There is precisely zero chance of that happening, I know.
Tim: I would love that. Let’s hope someone from Telltale reads this and goes “gee, that’s a really good idea; let’s do that after we finish with Borderlands and Game of Thrones and everything else we’ve got going on.” But yes, they seem to be sticking with the episodic model for now and it seems to be working out for them, so… probably not going to happen anytime soon. Also, well done on mentioning Alpha Protocol in yet another unrelated article.
Peter: Thanks! It was sort of relevant here, at least.
I think I’ve slightly played the “bad cop” role in this whole discussion, picking holes at The Wolf Among Us (or Telltale’s mechanics, at least) and focusing on what left me dissatisfied. Overall I did find the series excellent, and it runs Grim Fandango pretty hard for “most noir game.” That’s a word we keep using but it’s entirely appropriate. There were aspects I found a little flawed, but I’d give the game my wholehearted recommendation. Play it, then go read some Chandler.
Tim: I think that’s fine, honestly – it’s certainly flawed, but it’s mostly flawed through mechanics rather than anything else, and the whole experience is something genuinely special. I think I feel for The Wolf Among Us what most people feel about The Walking Dead‘s first season, insofar as I can forgive it pretty much every fault it has because of the way it perfectly blends characters, setting, atmosphere, and plot.
Mechanics aside, my only real disappointments are in terms of what Fables did and didn’t appear. I’m a little miffed at the lack of Frau Totenkinder because she is my favouritest Fables character, and it would’ve been nice to see Cinderella – although there are some nice little nods and asides to her and her activities in there, so I can’t complain too much. I’m genuinely pretty pleased with the “new” Fables crafted in this, like the Crooked Man and Bloody Mary, and I’m also pleased with the way it actually ties into (and explains) some things mentioned in the comics, like exactly what Crane did to get deposed from Fabletown leadership. Which, I suppose, means that it’s a really good tie-in game, but it’s also a really good introduction to the Fables series by itself. I’m not sure I could really ask for more.