The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1 grabs us by the throat, shakes us out and leaves us begging for more. A superb detective story with shocking twists, complex characters and meaningful choices galore, brought to life in Willingham's daring and imaginative Fables setting. - The Wolf Among Us Review
I'll be honest. I've never really paid a great deal of attention to DC's output beyond Batman. I've always been rather more of a Marvel man myself, though in recent years I hate to say that I've found less time for comic books and graphic novels. As such, Bill Willington's Fables series sailed past me completely. But I'm so incredibly glad that I leapt into Telltale's latest episodic adventure series, based on the world and the characters that Willington created. I've found myself disappointed by a number of the games that masses of others have been telling me are "masterpieces" of late, and I'm still not done castigating Quantic Dream for Beyond just yet.
But that disappointment in particular is made more stark by the arrival of The Wolf Among Us, which shows that you don't need Hollywood actors or ludicrously expensive motion capture studios or the backing of a major publisher and platform holder to deliver a game that appeals to our hearts as well as our heads and places story -- good storytelling -- at the very forefront of things.
With that in mind, here are five ways in which I feel Telltale comprehensively schools Quantic Dream in the art of delivering an impactful, narrative-driven adventure title.
Do bear in mind that there may be minor spoilers within.
The evidence is there for all to see. Murder mysteries, detective procedurals, tales of intrigue -- these are all adventure game staples. You look at the likes of Broken Sword and L.A. Noire and Sam & Max and Heavy Rain. These are all games with unanswered questions at their core, and The Wolf Among Us is no different. I'm not saying, of course, that you can't have stories that don't fit into the crime genre, that would be ridiculous. But any stories of sleuthing are bound to be able to help counterbalance the lack of interaction and traditional action-oriented gameplay because the unanswered questions are what fuel you onwards. You want to unravel the mystery, find the killer, solve the puzzle.
Break The Wolf Among Us down in terms of structure, and that first episode is the setup for a wonderful whodunnit. By contrast, Beyond's opening scenes provide few questions for us to answer, and no real narrative purpose. Cage never bothers to answer the most fundamental question: why should we care?
Dramatic adventure games are only as good as their story. I say "dramatic" there because funny adventure titles can be wacky, zany, and have a plot that makes no sense whatsoever but still be insanely rewarding. The Wolf Among Us and Beyond, however, are both pretty serious tales and therefore require a couple of things in order to be successful. The strong narrative focus -- the questions that drive us onwards -- we've already covered that. But if you described the two games, the clarity of purpose in The Wolf Among Us would be readily evident. In the first half hour we can identify this game as a murder mystery set in a world where fairytale characters are real and live among us. In the same time for Beyond,we'd arguably come up with "a young woman struggles to come to terms with living her whole life in the company of an inseparable poltergeist". One has a clear end -- we find the killer; one does not.
The setting is key too. Fairytale characters that live hidden among us in New York City? As someone who grew up reading (and later studying) the Grimms and Carroll and Andersen, this is fascinating to me on one level. For any fans of the comics, particularly when word comes that the game is actually canonical, there's another hook. There'll be tales referenced in here that we've all heard, and the subversion of those tales is one of the things that kept me coming back.
At its best, Beyond let's us subvert ordinary coming-of-age situations for Jodie by allowing us to play with Aiden. It's just a shame that these are too often formulaic and ultimately meaningless given the narrative bottleneck whatever you decide to do, which leads us nicely into...
Telltale understand that the best way to strike an emotional chord in drama like this is to make the player feel like tragedy is avoidable, that whatever happens, it's somehow our fault. We're not given a choice about what tie Bigby should wear, instead the narrative provides us with decisions that matter, with consequences that are often immediately evident. What we do in The Wolf Among Us matters. People's lives are at stake. I made one decision halfway through based on the assumption that I couldn't save someone, before finding out an hour or so later that I really could have done.
It plays into the quick time events as well. Though still fairly execrable, pulling them off can mean the difference between a suspect being taken in or getting away, and when you care enough about a story to really want to take someone down, you buy into those elements a little more.
Beyond, by comparison, offers precious few ways in which we might have some say in the direction that the game's story takes, thereby relying heavily on the actual plot itself, which is riddled with holes and proves emotionally unsatisfying because the most interesting character/entity in the whole thing is reduced to the level of a one-dimensional device.
But that brings up another point. Far from making the game seem bitty and broken, Telltale have proven that the episodic model works fantastically. Not only does it impact the structure of the story in a positive way when done well -- ensuring that every part of the game needs to be engrossing, needs to serve the story, and needs to keep the player engaged. It makes for perfectly-contained bitesized gaming, too, allowing players to complete episodes in single sittings before going back and replaying to squeeze every last bit of information they want before the next episode arrives. It lets me do multiple playthroughs, role-playing Bigby in different ways, and developing multiple save files ready for the next chapter, so I can do multiple playthroughs almost simultaneously.
There's an economic benefit too. By the end of it, TWAU will be about the same length as Beyond, but it will have been far cheaper, clocking in at under £20, and you can pick and choose in sub-£4 installments, opting out at any time. You love it? You get great value for money. You hate it? You've only lost the equivalent of a pint.
Could Beyond have benefitted from being episodic in format? Well, it wouldn't have solved the major issues with the story or the lack of meaningful choices. In fact, it would probably have made things worse. But had it been a consideration from the very start, then it might have forced Quantic Dream to balance the game's story out a little more, it might have even helped that finale not seem like the massive derailing of plot and characterisation that it proved to be.
Games are expensive things, and so we want to get as much as we can from them, particularly here on Dealspwn. But value doesn't necessarily refer to a game's length or the number of different modes there are. So frequently we find bigger in opposition to better, with companies padding out games for no good reason. Replayability isn't something we look for in all games, but when it's warranted it can be very rewarding. This could be because of the element of choice, as in The Wolf Among Us: you want to see how each decision plays out. The first thing I said to myself when I finished my run-through last night was,"I've got to play that again. I have to know if I can change that!"
But sometimes, just as with films and books, and more linear narrative constructs, you play the game again because you love the story, or the way the mechanics handle, or the puzzles and trials that you face, or the characters involved, or simply because it means something to you personally.
For The Wolf Among Us, it's that feeling of what did I miss? What would have happened if I'd gone there or done this? And those things only matter because I've been taken in by the story and the characters and the world. I've bought into this fairy tale of New York and those questions are now important to me. With Beyond, there was only one real decision to which I wanted to see the flipside, and it came right at the end, by which time I was so disillusioned with the game that I just YouTubed it. By way of comparison, I've completed the entirety of The Walking Dead three times over now.
So there it is: five ways in which Telltale comprehensively bests Quantic Dream at their own game. But what do you think dear reader? What did you make of The Wolf Among Us? Let us know in the comments box below.