On the Perfection of Choosing Your Own Hardboiled Detective in The Wolf Among Us and the Weirdness of Ogling His Boss

WTF is The Wolf Among Us?

The Wolf Among Us is a choice-based, episodic game released by Telltale. It’s based on some comics or something that I haven’t read, and the slightly weird premise is that various fairytale characters have taken up residence in New York and magically disguised themselves to live among us. The central character is Bigby Wolf, sheriff of this strange little society, and a human-looking version of the The Big Bad Wolf.

In season one of The Wolf Among Us, Bigby tries to solve a series of murders while wrestling with what kind of person he wants to be, and how much of his dark side he needs to tap into to weed out corruption in Fabletown. He’s partnered up with assistant to the deputy mayor, Snow White, and, while they obviously care about each other, they also have fundamentally different worldviews that lead to tension later on.

Gameplay alternates between super, super violent quicktime events and time-pressured conversational choices in which players pretty much solve the mystery no matter what they do. The bigger point, though, is that players get to figure out who Bigby is and how to navigate the shifting lights and shades of grey inside his noir-ish hardboiled detective world.

The Wolf Among Us works a lot better than Game of Thrones, because it’s focussed on the past

The main reason I played The Wolf Among Us was because I wanted something to compare with Game of Thrones, and I hate zombies. Next to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us is probably Telltale’s best-received game.

The structure and design of the two games is very, very similar, but The Wolf Among Us works a lot better because the big story revelations are focussed on the past. Bigby is investigating a series of murders and, just as in real life, nothing he says or does is going to change who the murderer was or how or why the murders happened. His job is just to find out WTF is going on.

No matter how Bigby chooses to investigate the murders, or whom he questions, or how he questions them, or which sites he investigates at any point in his search, he ultimately uncovers the same core set of facts – and that’s appropriate. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, because there’s rarely any promise that Bigby’s going to achieve anything except learning about something that already happened. What we’re promised instead is that we get to decide what kind of person he wants to be, and how he wants to manage his role as sheriff of Fabletown – and the game largely delivers on that front.

There’s a monologue toward the end of the game where one of the secondary characters tells Bigby about what kind of person he is and what kind of choices he made, and the monologue is not about saying, “Wow, you really solved that murder well.” It’s about whether his choices showed integrity and compassion and good judgement and other little nuances the player does have some control over deciding. The entire ending sequence of the game is not about the consequences of your actions up to that point – your actions have pretty much no effect on what happens in the big picture. Instead, it’s about making a series of symbolic gestures that demonstrate what kind of world you think these characters should live in, and what you’ve taken away from your time with the story. It feels satisfying, even before the amazeballs conclusion.

About the amazeballs conclusion

Without spoiling anything major – in the very last seconds of the game, the same secondary character I mentioned above approaches Bigby and confesses that he or she was lying about everything he or she said earlier in the game, and did it as an underhanded, noir-ish way of getting some justice in ChinaFabletown. Hearing this, Bigby suddenly flashes back to a bunch of things that didn’t quite add up about the case and comes to some sort of realization that’s just outside the player’s grasp. You then have the choice of whether to chase after this character or let them walk away and, whatever you choose, that’s when the credits roll.

I kind of wish The Wolf Among Us hadn’t been greenlit for a second season, because this was one of the most perfect and perfectly on-theme endings I’ve ever seen.

The stuff with Snow White was less perfect

In no particular order, here are some things that bothered me about Snow White:

  • I felt like the only reason I ever had to listen to her was because she was Bigby’s love interest
    • Like, with other characters, there’s some suggestion that they won’t cooperate with you if you make them angry or, like, your negative actions toward them could have some repercussions down the line, but, even once Show is Acting Mayor and Bigby’s boss, it always feels like completely ignoring her requests is no big deal
    • Midway through the game, when I started to really disagree with her, there was a moment when I thought, “I don’t care if you ever sleep with him; I’m telling you you’re wrong”
      • There’s, like, a whole separate discussion about the way “romancing” women is set up in videogames and how you have to, like, game out the “right” thing to say to them so they’ll want to sleep with you because the goal is to get them to do that and not to, like, truthfully represent who you are while you both get to know each other and decide whether or not you’re mutually attracted on that basis
        • And also videogame women are shallow monsters who use an extremely rigid algorithm to determine who they’re attracted to and are incapable of having mixed or ambivalent feelings about anyone
  • There’s a fake-out at the end of the first episode where it looks like Snow got fridged to make things personal for Bigby; it then turns out that – yay – some woman he doesn’t know personally was murdered instead
    • The game actually draws attention to this when the dead woman’s friends are all like, “Right. Of course it’s not one of the main characters who died; it’s someone you don’t care about.”
    • There’s also a scene where they do an exam on the body while it’s still bewitched to look like Snow, and it’s intentionally uncomfortable, but it also invites us to look at Snow in a sexual way that doesn’t feel entirely appropriate
      • Like, the corpse has a g-string sticking up over her waistband and, for some reason, that is one of the things you can click on
  • Mild spoilers, but it turns out that there’s a pervert stalking Snow, secretly photographing her, and hiring prostitutes to dress up like her and pretend they ate a poisoned apple – the game seems to believe that we will infer from this that the pervert is necessarily the murderer, even though there’s very little reason to assume that
    • It’s weird because of that inference, but also because it once again makes the investigation about Snow when it didn’t have to be and invites us to think about her in a sexual way
    • And, I mean, the inference is weird just because it’s dumb and it doesn’t make sense – like, this is where the spoilers come in, but it’s a seriously weak attempt at misdirection – but it’s also weird because it’s like we’re supposed to be blinded by the fact that this guy besmirched her honour or something and lose all our reasoning capacity because of it
  • Even after Snow becomes the Acting Mayor, nobody ever listens to what she says and instead they leave all the decisions up to Bigby
    • Even if you choose to tell them to listen to Snow, they back out of it somehow and still insist on leaving all the major decisions up to you. That’s more fun for the player, but I can’t help but notice that the only woman with any authority in this story about murdered women can’t exercise any of her authority ever, at all
      • And, also, the victims look like her and you’re supposed to think about her having sex all the time

In conclusion

I enjoyed The Wolf Among Us, and I tore through all the episodes over a single weekend because I couldn’t wait to see what happened – it’s extremely suspenseful story-telling. The backward-looking investigative format works a lot better for choice-based games where your choices won’t ever change what happens, and the ending was basically perfect, but the stuff with Snow White was kind of messed-up.

Image: The Wolf Among Us; Telltale Games | March 18, 2016