Telltale Games has apparently (I just discovered them three months ago.) made a name for themselves publishing something akin to a new generation of what (I’m dating myself here) folks my age grew up knowing as Choose Your Own Adventure books. I gather I’m late to the party, but Wolf Among Us is my discovery of this genre of video gaming: the player-steered, adaptive story. The writing in Wolf Among Us is so tight, the characters such perfect twists on the fairy tales they’re based on, that what blemishes do exist are swiftly forgotten as we’re carried along.
In The Wolf Among Us you play as the Big Bad Wolf, noir detective. Fairy tale characters have come out of whatever stories they lived in and moved to New York City. Everyone hates you, because everyone hates wolves in fairy tales, but you’re Big and Bad and this is how you’re expected to keep the peace as Sheriff. Then, as things do in Noir, it starts getting bad, and true-to-genre, it starts with the death of a woman.
Despite the otherwise formulaic approach, Wolf Among Us is a modern piece of storytelling, with modern sensibilities. It’s solidly noir – there’s hookers and violence, corruption everywhere, stoolies, brutal fistfights in bars – but it also features a cast of characters, especially women, who are fully fleshed out well beyond their stereotypes. Your freeloading housemate, one of the three little pigs, is using your past misdeeds to manipulate you into covering for him – against the laws you’re sworn to uphold no less. The obvious object of romantic interest is fleshed out into a woman of intelligence, grit, and cunning – even if she’s a little inexperienced at the leadership role she’s unexpectedly forced into.
The most interesting character, of course, is the one we play. Bigby Wolf is shaped, profoundly, by the choices we make as the player. Our choices don’t change the story of the game, as PC Gamer noted back in July, but they profoundly change the theme and tone of the story. In just the first few minutes, with the murder that kicks the game off, we have the ability to construct the victim – through our choices in interacting with her – into a criminal, a would-be friend, or just another street urchin. We’ll investigate the murder either way, at the least it’s our job, but the stakes involved are very much an emergent property of the way we chose to interact with her.
In this, Telltale has found a way to give the player a believable sense of total control, without having to write thousands of possible forks in the story itself. In the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood each path would lead to entirely different stories that often looked nothing like the other, except in how they opened. Telltale’s reliance on a very basic piece of a genre fiction – noir detective investigates murder – means a formulaic story whose basic facts don’t change. That’s okay. Our ability to change the stakes, and the relationships between characters means we’re able to approach that basic building block and craft all kinds of stories within that space.
It is not a perfect piece, however. The basic gameplay has a number of mis-steps that actually detract from that meaningful experience of making choices and actually thinking about the character in front of us. There’s basically two kinds of non-dialogue scenes in Wolf Among Us: action sequences, and investigation scenes. The former is a series of quicktime events which provide challenge and excellent, visceral pacing. The investigation scenes give us what feels like it should be a staple of a detective story: sifting through evidence, discovering clues, and drawing inferences.
The problem with the action sequences is that it’s impossible to tell what’s a sequence that you must correctly pass or you ‘lose’ the game, and what’s a sequence where failure will simply branch the story. I remember being surprised when, at one point, I wasn’t fast enough to get my (sluggish) mouse cursor over the target, and was promptly shown my first GAME OVER. This was well into the third episode and until encountering it I hadn’t considered the possibility that losing the game was even on the table (how do you /lose/ a story?). Having a branch of the story where Bigby gets his ass handed to him would’ve been a welcome alternative. The rest of gameplay feels like we’re working with the game to build a noir graphic novel, and that feeling was absolutely delightful. To have gameplay win/lose conditions driven into that was disruptive. I promptly forgave it, because we went merrily back to the storytelling experience, but I hope that Telltale’s other titles (or future titles) do away with this make-or-break bit. The storytelling is good enough that we’ve established the stakes for the character. Use the action scenes the same way you use dialogue, instead.
The problem with the investigation scenes is that they tend to break the pacing and generally feel like they’re little more than (very simple) ‘click all the things’ exhibits. Having a puzzle to sort out is fine, it’s a detective story. But these scenes tend to either be too simple, have information delivered to us without obvious tie-in to what we’re doing, or the dialogue options where we would tie it together are not clear enough. For example, in at least one place asking another character to explain their reasoning is actually a choice wherein your character becomes evasive – and their opinion of you is forever altered by that unintentional evasion. Actually I just wanted to understand the person on the other side of the conversation a little better – isn’t that a detective-y thing to do?
Overall, however, the pacing moves us along an engaging story, the choices we make are obviously meaningful, and the clumsiness we sometimes exhibit is not so jarring that it takes us out of the story. The characters, no matter how you play yours, are all engaging and believable as whole people. Even to the point of humanizing the bad guys; for once the sham-of-an-excuse the bad guy uses to try and justify their evil is supported by actual evidence that there’s at least a shred of truth to it.
The Wolf Among Us has sold me on Telltale as a storyteller. I’ll be picking up The Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands pretty quickly here, and presumably you’ll be hearing about them from me. The Wolf Among Us is a solid enough piece of storytelling that I recommend it to anyone who can handle a decidedly R+ rated (and often very NSFW) piece of storytelling. This game has earned a place on my list of favorites.