Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Price: $24.99 on Steam.
I first heard of The Wolf Among Us (TWAU) via a phone call.
It was about two years ago when I looked at my smart phone and arched my eyebrow at the sight of my brother’s name. He rarely calls. After kissing the cheese doodle powder from my fingertips, I touched the green telephone icon.
“Hello brother. You need to buy The Wolf Among Us. You need to buy it—immediately! It’s so @#$%ing awesome!”
“It’s the new game from the fine folks who did The Walking Dead. Buy it!”
Then he hung up.
Nearly two years later, the Steam sale was giving TWAU away for a steal. I recalled the awkward conversation with my brother. And here we are.
Fabletown is a borough of 1980s New York City in a fictional alternate universe where mythological and fairy tale characters really exist! After a mysterious event called “the Exile” forced these “Fables” to leave their “Homeland” to live among the “Mundies” (“mundanes”are regular folks like you and I) in the Big Apple, the Fables did their best to blend in to Mundie world. The Fables use magic to hide among the Mundies, have their own government, their own slice of town, and have elected the grungy Bigby Wolf (the Big B[ad] Wolf) as sheriff. Bigby’s main duty is to keep the peace so the Mundies don’t find out about the Fables. And if there’s a mystery needs solving, he’s your wolf-man.
Our story begins with a domestic disturbance, and thankfully everyone is wearing a shirt. Shortly after, Bigby and Snow White find a Fable’s severed head on Bigby’s front steps.
On the surface, TWAU is a crime drama surrounding a murder case that escalates into full-blown confrontation with Fabletown’s version of the mob. And if the story was simply a crime drama and simply about confronting organized criminal elements and getting justice for the dead, it still would have been worth players’ money and time. But this is a Telltale production.
TWAU builds off of a whole corpus of literature, namely, the Fables comics created by Bill Willingham and published by DC since 2002. As with The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands, there is a narrative and contextual framework present in TWAU that enriches the story beyond the confines of the events it narrates. References to “the Exile,” to key characters from Fables who aren’t in TWAU, and to the mythological origins of the Fables themselves persist. There is a shared history in TWAU that is yet unseen in another Telltale game and is rarely seen in storytelling at large. By the time it’s all said and done, the player feels that though the present conflict is resolved for now, the events in question are just a sliver of the time line of these characters’ lives. It is a rare and special treasure to enjoy fiction of such depth and scale.
While Bigby and Snow hunt down clues and interrogate suspects in the burgeoning murder case, Sheriff Wolf’s sordid past as “the Big Bad Wolf” hangs over him. Characters often antagonize or dare Bigby to turn into his true form, thus proving himself to be no better than in the old days, when he was swallowing grandmas, masquerading in drag, and huffing and puffing to blow down houses. Snow, often functioning as Bigby’s moral compass, cautions him not to give in to his baser instincts. Snow herself is not immune to the heckling and antagonizing of her fellow Fables, who know all about her ex husband cheating on her with her sister and running off to Europe.
Similarly, the characters you meet in TWAU have stories many players are familiar with: Tweedle Dee and Dum, Ichabod Crane, Grendel… While you have an idea of their mythological origins, what you don’t know is where they presently stand in Fables fiction. You’ll be surprised to see who ends up helping and hindering Bigby and Snow in their investigation. Of course, that’s very much dependent upon how you choose to have Bigby respond at crucial plot points. It’s not easy being sheriff.
Some of the most profound functions of storytelling as an artistic medium are how it provides reflections and commentaries on real life. The most interesting thing about TWAU is how it encapsulates the American immigrant experience. There is very much a Gangs of New York feel to TWAU. The “mob boss” villain Bigby confronts in the final chapter makes a convincing case that he is not a bad guy, but that he was merely looking out for the “greater good” of Fabletown, albeit with some unfortunate collateral damage. As members of a small society “exiled” in the Mundie world that is not their home, the Fables, much like late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American immigrants, can’t turn to the police or the government for help, so they instead turn to Fables’ equivalent of mafiosos who would provide justice, protection, or a loan—for a price. Many of the Fables struggle to make ends meet financially in the Mundie world, where they’re unable to make social connections or acquire gainful employment. Some Fables, like Bigby, have made a fresh start in America. Others fell into seedy lifestyles or developed butt grooves in local bar stools. The Fable government is underfunded, unable to meet the needs of a large and diverse immigrant community, and seems utterly powerless, apart from the patronage of a handful of wealthy Fables like Bluebeard, to help their community in exile.
There is also a profound sense of moral outrage at the murders of fellow Fables. Infighting is expected. Angry recollections of what things were like in the Homeland (“the Old Country”) are expected. But Fables just don’t murder other Fables. There is something especially morally repugnant about it due to the shared experience of suffering and exile that bind all Fables of diverse mythological origin.
Fables’ retelling of the American immigrant experience, though never explicitly acknowledged, is one of TWAU’s strongest and most fascinating undercurrents. If you decide to play it, keep this in mind as you guide Bigby through the seedy underbelly of Fabletown.
I want you to know I cracked my knuckles before typing this one out.
Disney in essence baptized many of the old European fairy tales. If you read through some of them (TRUTH: “If, like me, you read through a blog summarizing what they were like”), they’re quite violent and sexually-charged. This is the framework TWAU adopts. The characters are gritty and foul-mouthed. The violence is graphic and uncensored—blood, broken bones jutting out of skin, decapitated heads, (one character has his) guts spilling out. Crime scenes leave little to the imagination. Tobacco and alcohol are used liberally. A significant portion of the story transpires in a strip club where Bigby interacts with female Fables who are essentially sex slaves. At one point, the Little Mermaid dances topless at said strip club, and as with the rest: uncensored.
The imagery is not merely gruesome, but frightening. “Villain” fables like Bigby, Grendel, or Bloody Mary in their “true forms” look like something thought up by Stan Winston in the 80s, or at least an overzealous teenager on Halloween. When I first saw one of the villains morph into their true form, I went “Wah!” and reflexively threw my cheese doodles into the air.
Telltale isn’t messing around here, friends. “M” for “mature.” Player discretion advised. Cuidado. Etc.
TWAU alternates between low-stress scenes of exploration and narration, where Bigby examines the environment for clues or interviews characters for information before pushing the plot forward, and action sequences that will have you pressing Q rapidly, pointing and clicking to jab an anthropomorphic demon in the face with a coat rack, or responsively hitting up/down/left/right to avoid getting hit with a bar stool or a lead pipe. Your successes, failures, and choices will be noted in the top-left corner of the screen: “Character X will remember you did this,” or “Character Y didn’t like that.”
As with other Telltale games, TWAU is far more about story and characters choices than about skill. Unlike Tales from the Borderlands, which afforded players more options than The Walking Dead, TWAU is fairly linear and the choices are mostly relegated to how you choose to react in dialogue or action sequences—kill this guy or let him live? Help Character X or help Character Y? Everything you do comes back to bite or help you later, but ultimately the main plot isn’t going to change dramatically on the basis of your choices.
The distinctive 1980s Miami Vice/noir aesthetic is clear from the title screen onward; from start to finish, the dream is weaved.
Special accolades once more go to all voice actors, many of whom worked on other Telltale projects as well as on bigger games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Skyrim.
The music is appropriate for the genre and setting, with a pretty killer intro track to boot.
Crisp, cell-shaded graphics and excellent cinematography leave little wanting.
There’s just nothing to complain about.
The Wolf Among Us is a dark crime drama with a lot of intellect behind it. Be prepared for language, violence, gore, a little bit of nudity, and circumstances that don’t always leave clear black and white moral responses, so if this concerns you at all, don’t waste your money.
For those who aren’t deterred, TWAU is yet another stellar entry by Telltale Games in the growing Graphic Adventure genre. You will not be disappointed.
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The Bottom Line
The Wolf Among Us is a dark crime drama and mystery story with limited game play elements. Fans of great stories, the Fables comics, and those who enjoyed other Telltale Games productions will likely be satisfied. Grisly content brimming with coarse language, violence, substance use, and sexuality will be a turn-off to more sensitive players.