Aug 062014

After the tremendous success of The Walking Dead,  I suppose another comic book adaptation was in the cards for Telltale Games. These are a good match for their graphical style, and mature graphic novels have a deep bench of quality storytelling that the vast majority of the population hasn’t been exposed to. I might not have chosen Fables out of a hat, but in a way it seems like Telltale did. The Wolf Among Us uses the same approach as The Walking Dead, but the gameplay never feels like a good fit for the story. As a result, the game just isn’t compelling, despite its tragedies.

Like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us combines a little bit of inventory-oriented point-and-click adventuring with dialogue trees and QTE-driven combat. The inventory use is minimal, and many objects that Bigby grabs are never used, only becoming relevant many episodes later when their presence in the inventory is but a memory. The dialogue trees and the associated choices have two almost contradictory problems with their stakes. The immediate stakes of his choices are often obscure—peripheral characters can live or die depending on where Bigby goes and when. In the long term, the stakes of these choices are low, because they don’t prevent Bigby from solving the case or even interfere with the major plot points.

I praised The Walking Dead‘s choices because they didn’t have an impact on the ultimate outcome, not in spite of that, but that response grew out of the essential fatalism of The Walking Dead‘s setting, something Fables doesn’t share. The grim inevitability of failure, the keystone of Kirkman’s world, recontextualized the decisions as statements of preference and a means of establishing connection to character, rather than actual attempts to alter the flow of events. I never believed that Lee could save his friends, but I believed his efforts to try were valuable.

Bigby simply doesn’t face that dilemma. He should be able to save the people of Fabletown, because in almost every scene of the game he’s the most powerful character on the screen. Of course he has very little power to alter the social injustices of Fabletown, but The Wolf Among Us never really manages to sell this angle wholeheartedly. Instead that idea floats at the edge of the story, providing a note of threat to minor characters or inconvenience to Bigby when necessary but never actually taking center stage. Instead the game ends up focusing on a rather insipid crime lord.

The Wolf Among Us is ultimately built around a criminal case. This is an arena where Bigby absolutely should have the power to change things, and would, if he weren’t such a terrible cop. Unfortunately, since the game’s main character is one who is also major to the comics, the question of ultimate success seems a little moot. I don’t think it’s possible to reach the end of the game without catching and condemning the Crooked Man. Because of that, the choices Bigby makes have no real value in themselves, and no effect on the story. Sure, the townspeople like Bigby a little less if he makes certain choices, and some characters won’t be present if he’s sloppy. His choices flavor the story, but they don’t ultimately change the dish. That’s a poor fit for a powerful protagonist.

The choices could forge a connection with the game world, but that ultimately doesn’t work out either. The Walking Dead wanted to make friends with the player, so that it could pack a more powerful punch down the line. The Wolf Among Us, on the other hand, doesn’t really care about being friends. Bigby can’t befriend or even help most of the characters in the game, and nothing he does can convince the vast majority of the characters that he has a bona fide desire to help the people of Fabletown.

Some of the game’s choices could have been about this, but not the ones in the main flow. The reaction-QTE combat sequences, here rather frequent, could have been the critical point of expression, if the story’s stakes had been embodied in the gameplay. The key thing to understand is that what’s at stake in the fight scenes isn’t really whether Bigby will win. As the final battle of the game makes clear, there’s almost nothing in the world of Fables that can withstand his full strength. What Bigby wants out of the action sequences is not victory, so much—he must know there’s almost no way he can lose—but maintaining control. In this sense, reflex-based QTEs are precisely the wrong thing to be using: Bigby’s goal is to suppress his instincts. A precision-timing QTE or a mini-puzzle might have been a better fit. Moreover, success should minimize the resulting violence, while failure makes things bloody.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us largely clings to the narrow horizons of linking QTEs to operational, rather than dramatic, success (something that was also a problem for Heavy Rain). As a result, it turns violence into a choice Bigby makes, rather than a struggle against his inner nature. The Wolf Among Us doesn’t do enough to give those choices the weight they need to make the game compelling.

The Wolf Among Us adopts almost the exact same strategy towards proceduralizing a story as The Walking Dead did, but it doesn’t work because that strategy isn’t universally applicable. The result is reminiscent of the outcome in the old days when every movie would get adapted into a 2D platformer whether that was a good fit for the story or not. The Wolf Among Us looks great and plays reasonably well, but it never really feels in tune with the characters, their desires, or their story.

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