Review: The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2
By Nick Olsen
is Telltale Games’ latest episodic adventure and follow up to the critically acclaimed The Walking Dead. The game is based on the Fables comic book series created by Bill Willingham, in which a group of fairy tale and folklore creatures reside in an area of Manhattan known as Fabletown and (mostly) take the form of humans to blend in. To take human form they must use a magical substance known as “glamour.” Any creature who is unable, or refuses to blend in is sent to “the Farm” in upstate New York as punishment. The creatures are policed by Bigby Wolf (the Big Bad Wolf), whom we play as.
Because the game is being released in episodes, the review will be updated with each release. A copy of The Wolf Among Us was provided for review. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers. Here’s our review of Episode 1: Faith.
Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors
The advantage of releasing games in episodes it that it allows developers to experiment more with their storytelling, and Telltale takes advantage of this right out of the gate in Smoke and Mirrors, the second episode of The Wolf Among Us. Being an encapsulated, stand-alone episode allowed Telltale to drop a major plot twist right at the beginning, a tactic normally reserved for end-game sequences, and it provides one of the most surprising moments I’ve experienced in a game recently.
When we left Bigby Wolf at the end of Episode 1, he was in a state of shock, staring at the decapitated head of his beloved Snow White. As Episode 2 opens, Bigby is being interrogated by the “mundy” (humans, not of the fable realm) police about his potential involvement in the gruesome murder. With the help of Ichabod Crane he escapes custody and begins an interrogation of his own in the basement of Fabletown’s City Hall, accompanied by Crane and Bluebeard as they try to pry loose answers about Snow White’s (and Faith’s) murderer. But mid way through the interrogation, Snow White enters the room demanding answers of her own about the methods being employed by Bigby in his interrogation. To suddenly see Snow White, a character whose head we saw separated from her body with our own eyes, is certainly a shock to Bigby, but even more so to the player.
What unfolds from this point forward is a gruesome tale about the expansive seedy underbelly of Fabletown which has a way of sucking Fables in regardless of their societal standing. We meet Georgie Porgie, proprietor of the Pudding and Pie, a strip club and brothel which services the “entertainment” needs of fables with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” anonymity. We’re introduced to an “entertainer” working on her topless dance routine for Georgie, who turns out to be The Little Mermaid. She reveals that after exchanging her tail for legs to pursue her prince, she was scorned for another woman and left destitute; unable to return to the sea she instead turned to dancing and prostitution in Fabletown. Hearkening back to a moment in Episode 1, we again run into Beauty (of Beauty and the Beast) – the player had to decide whether to tell Beast whether we has seen Beauty – and it’s revealed that she has been working the front desk of the hotel which serves as the meeting place for prostitutes and their clients, as a way to make ends meet, and she’s been hiding it from Beast.
The more characters we meet in Fabletown, the more obvious it is that everyone has some dark secret or a tie to the rampant and destructive underworld. Unfortunately for a troll named Lily – the sister of Holly, the owner of the Trip Trap bar – she’s become the latest victim of this growing fable depravity. A recovering drug addict who turned to prostitution, much to the dismay of her sister, she winds up as the victim of a brutal murder (when disguised as Snow White via a black market “glamour”). It’s her head, in fact, that was left for us at the end of Episode 1.
The investigation of Lily’s murder reveals an abject brutalization beyond what many players may be accustomed to in video games, which is saying something considering the reputation the medium has for being hyper-violent. Beyond this though, it continues the disturbing trend established in Episode 1 of hyper-violence targeted towards female characters. If you’ll recall, Episode 1 opens with with the Woodsman beating Faith, followed quickly by the decapitations of Faith and Snow White (actually Lily). In fact, the only death of a male fable (so far) occurs in Episode 1, but it comes by the character’s own hand. The examination of the crime scene where Lily’s murder occurs reveals just how violent and disturbing the act itself was and how much hatred is felt towards women by the murderer.
And yet Telltale keeps the player-initiated violence isolated between Bigby and other male fables (Bigby vs. The Woodsman, Bigby vs. Grendel, Bigby vs. Beast, etc.), a tactical decision to remove the player from female-targeted violence. Bigby is no stranger to violence and depending on the player’s decisions can be quick to employ violence as a solution to almost any problem, except as a resolution to any direct conflict with a female fable. But even for a character known for his brutality, and feared throughout Fabletown for his actions as The Big Bad Wolf of lore (eating Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and trying to do the same to Red, etc.), this decision doesn’t feel strange or out of character in Bigby’s role as the sheriff of Fabletown (interestingly, we’ve yet to receive an explanation of why he was given the position). This decision is a good one, as the game already focuses heavily on violence towards women; encouraging players to directly engage in violent acts toward female characters would have put far too much emphasis on these acts, becoming an unnecessary distraction from the story.
With shocking moments like the reveal that Snow White is alive, touching moments like helping Holly deal with the loss of her sister, dramatic moments like when Beast discovers where Beauty has been working, and impactful moments when players must decide how Bigby will handle a given situation, Telltale reaffirms their status as one of the video game industry’s great story tellers. For the roughly 90 minutes that Episode 2 lasts I found myself deeply enraptured with the world of Fabletown. I became quickly invested in Bigby’s efforts to protect his fellow fables from further murders, and I was deeply disturbed by the constant revelations of how great of lengths the variety of fables had gone to just to make ends meet.
Of course all of this great storytelling comes at the expense of deep gameplay. Yes, Telltale continues to provide the illusion of player decisions having deep impact on the story, but in reality, to this point there’s limited impact felt when choosing different action for Bigby. Eventually the story drives itself, arriving at it’s intended outcomes no matter the player’s decisions, and that’s OK as the quality of the story and it’s enveloping of the player does provide an impressively powerful effect: when I chose the unnecessarily violent options for Bigby, the looks of anguish on the other fable’s faces, as well as their comments about the brutality, caused pangs of guilt for me as the player. With The Wolf Among Us, player actions may have little actual impact on the story outcomes, but they’re still powerful moments for the player, a truly remarkable feat for a video game, let alone one that only lasts for 90 minutes per episode.
With three episodes yet to come, we’ve only received partial answers to the questions we posed at the end of Episode 1:
“… will the level of violence against female characters continue to exceed that of the male characters, and what effect will that have?”
“… what effect will placing the onus of actions squarely on the player have in the story and will it impact the decisions people make in the game?”
So far we’ve got a resounding “yes” to the imbalanced level of violence, but we’re still waiting to judge what impact it will fully have. And for player actions, the growing sense of guilt when having Bigby take the excessively violent route, there stands a very good chance that it will cause me to re-think this particular strategy in future instances. Of course in the increasingly disturbed world of Fabletown, violence maybe the only way to catch our murderer. We’ll have to wait for Episode 3 (and beyond) to find out for sure.