The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 is the right way to follow up an award-winning game
Wolf Among Us is a seedy game.
Its Upper West Side streets are quintessential New York City, grimy in all the right places. You’re more likely to find a murder scene than a clean glass in the neighborhood dive bar, and the fact that everyone there knows your name is more hindrance than comfort—a place where you can have a couple drinks before someone knocks your teeth out.
This is a red-light district with none of the glitz. It’s a prison made of hot pink neon. It’s the perfect place to stand under a streetlight and smoke a cigarette. It’s the perfect place to lie low, and try to start a new life away from prying eyes. It’s the perfect place to be big and bad.
It’s the perfect place for a sheriff.
Bite out of crime
Wolf Among Us is Telltale’s adaptation of Fables, a Vertigo comic series by Bill Willingham that chronicles the lives of fairy tale characters forced to live in modern-day New York City. The game is a prequel to the books, and is considered canon.
You play as one of the principle characters of the series, the Big Bad Wolf—or Bigby, as he’s now known. Bigby, serving as “Sheriff,” is the closest thing this ragtag group has to law enforcement. As the opening title crawl informs you, “Through the use of a magic spell called Glamour, [the Fables] have protected their secret community from the mundane world. Sheriff Bigby Wolf protects them from each other.”
And does a terrible job at it, truth be told.
I’ll admit, I was fairly skeptical going into the first episode of Wolf Among Us. This is the first game Telltale has released since The Walking Dead, last year’s canny reimagining of the adventure genre.
That pedigree inspires a few tough questions, beginning with whether or not the choice-based, character-driven systems at the heart of The Walking Dead can translate to a genre with lower stakes. Zombie outbreaks, as played-out as they are nowadays, are great fodder for high-stakes scenarios. There’s never enough food, never enough bullets, and the threat of attack is always on everyone’s mind. You’re throwing a group of strangers into a high-stress crucible and waiting for someone to crack.
Many of The Walking Dead game's most poignant moments were so minor, so mundane, but against the zombie backdrop they became life-and-death situations. Early on in The Walking Dead you’re forced to hand out food to the remaining survivors—except you only have enough food for half the group. You’re forced to make the call: do you feed the adults so they can keep working? Feed the kids because it’s the right thing to do? Feed yourself, you selfish monster?
The situation in Wolf Among Us could not seem more different. You live in an apartment. You uphold the law. You’re a man who commands respect, or at least fear. A hidden piece of you welcomes an attack; you might not look like the Big Bad Wolf anymore, but there’s still a killer inside.
Yet despite surface differences, Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead are fairly similar. You have an insular community of people who don’t necessarily fit in with the surrounding world and are suspicious of both outsiders and each other. Mostly each other, actually. You also have your flawed male lead, straddling the line between redemption and his old, violent ways.
These core similarities are why Telltale’s formula continues to work so well in Wolf Among Us.
When I use the term formula I don’t mean that to be reductive, or dismissive of Wolf Among Us in any way. You can reduce Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us down to similar tropes, but the fact remains that nobody writes characters in big-budget games the way Telltale does.
See, while zombies provided a good backdrop for tension, Telltale seems to understand that the characters are the true heart of its stories. And duh, what an obvious statement—yet if it’s so obvious, why aren’t more companies doing it? How is it that Lee, Clementine, Kenny, Katjaa, Bigby, The Woodsman, Snow White—how is it possible Telltale can spin a better story out of these characters in two hours than most companies accomplish in eight? Ten? Twenty? Sixty?
It’s the little moments that humanize these not-quite-human characters. My favorite is midway through the chapter (small spoilers ahead): Bigby and Snow White hop in a cab, following the cold trail of a killer. They’re quiet for a moment, and then both try to speak at once. They pause. A choice pops up: do you give Snow the chance to speak, or do you say your line?
I waited for Snow to speak; it just seemed like the kind of thing Bigby would do. My Bigby.
I had a similar realization early on in the game. I was leading Bigby upstairs to stop a fight between two characters. In the heat of their dispute, a payphone had fallen off the hook. I casually walked over to the phone and put it back on the hook. Fastidious. Professional.
Then I kicked the door in and laid down the law.
Hanging up the phone was, as far as I know, totally irrelevant. No message popped up saying “Mr. Toad will remember that.” I didn’t come back later to discover that hanging up the phone saved a life. I just did it because it seemed like the kind of thing Bigby would do.
These minor moments bring depth to the cast of Wolf Among Us. Depth, in turn, creates investment.
So, yeah, Wolf Among Us feels a lot like Walking Dead, and maybe in some far-flung future that will be cause to wring my hands and say, “Ugh, I can’t believe they’re still retreading this same old formula.”
For now, however, these hands are too busy applauding.