This fall television season safely ranks amongst one of the best in recent history. Season premieres of American Horror Story and The Walking Dead have transcended regular program viewing to significant events, and the series finale of Breaking Bad proved so strong that people weeks later are still talking about it, including none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins, who called Bryan Cranston’s turn as Walter White “the best acting I have seen – ever.”
Prepare to feel that way about a video game.
Telltale Games has launched their latest episodic game, The Wolf Among Us, and the game is nothing short of exceptional. In fact, I believe my exact words were:
The Wolf Among Us takes the highly-lauded writing and mechanics of last year’s hit from Telltale, The Walking Dead, and replaces zombie apocalypse survivors with ousted fairy tale characters based on their adaptations from Bill Willingham’s comic book series Fables. In an original addition to storyline canon set twenty years prior to the comic book’s start, the plot focuses on Sheriff Bigby Wolf, a man with a spotty past – he ate people, including one girl called Red Riding Hood. A reasonable explanation exists though: his more common name is The Big Bad Wolf.
Wolf, along with several other characters from fairy tales, were run off from their Homeland, taking refuge on the seedier side of New York. Many of these “fables” have to take expensive doses of a magic spell known as “Glamour” in order to retain a human look; those who don’t open up discovery of the “fables” by the “mundies,” normal people who think fairy tale characters are just in childhood stories. But New York is not the singing trees and happy birds of the fables’ Homeland, and the gritty streets of Fabletown have left some former fables fallen from grace.
The game opens with Sheriff Wolf responding to a call from Mr. Toad, chided for not being disguised by Glamour and eschewing a human form for his regular anthropomorphic form. Wolf’s archrival, the Woodsman, who once earned renown for splitting Wolf open to save Red Riding Hood, now exists as a drunken lout who has lured a prostitute up to his slum apartment. Wolf rescues the girl, who promises to visit him at his apartment on the nicer side of town to give more information, though she is reluctant to give it at the time.
The girl returns, all right. Or part of her does, at least, as Wolf and Fabletown bureaucrat Snow White discover the girl’s severed head on the front steps of The Woodlands luxury apartments, home to several fables including Wolf.
The first episode introduces players to several familiar characters, twisted by the brutal reality of New York, including Toad, Beauty & Beast, whose marriage contains secrets yet to be revealed, Ichabod Crane, acting mayor of Fabletown, and Bupkin the Winged Monkey, Fabletown’s librarian who would much rather be drinking Crane’s wine than filing his books.
Much like Walking Dead before it, The Wolf Among Us takes every player’s decision into account, and Bigby’s fellow fables take notice of every lie, threat, offer of support, and question players ask, which promises to change how each player sees the subsequent episodes. Characters who get offed do not come back, and recipients of belligerent behavior are likely to reciprocate in kind. It’s up to players to decide if they’re going to be big, bad, or both.
Gameplay is similar to Walking Dead as well, alternating between conversation, investigation, and action. Wolf actually offers a bit more action than Dead in this sense, as fights and chases occur with more regularity. But this certainly couldn’t be classified as an action title, as the crux of gameplay revolves around Wolf’s investigation and his relationship with his fellow fables, most especially Snow White.
The art style combines Willingham’s original style and a style reminiscent of Aeon Flux to mash-up into a stylized version of detective noir, creating a New York that’s gritty and run-down, even in the best parts. Many of the voice actors from Walking Dead voice roles in Wolf, and the scripting pulls no punches. Most outstanding is that every character, from major characters like Wolf and White to minor characters such as Heidi, the bartender of the Trip Trap in Fabletown, have a fully-fleshed backstory and motivation. There’s no one-dimensional characters in The Wolf Among Us; everyone has a history and a reason to be trusted… and distrusted.
A sterling example of this lies in the character of Colin, better known as one of the Three Little Pigs. The anthropomorphic swine lives in an area of upper New York called the Farm, a home for fables that cannot maintain a human form, or more probably cannot afford the expensive doses of Glamour. Though we only see him briefly when he crashes in Bigby’s apartment (against the law of Fabletown, notably), we learn through exceptional storytelling that despite Bigby huffing and puffing and blowing his house down in the past, the two have formed an uneasy companionship after being displaced from the Homeland, with Colin giving Bigby advice on occasion.
I keep re-using the word “exceptional,” but the word perfectly encompasses The Wolf Among Us. We have been treated to some great games in the past couple of years, not the least of which is Wolf‘s predecessor, The Walking Dead. This list also includes some exemplary games from the past few years such as the highly-touted Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, and Beyond: Two Souls. All three are examples of superb craft in the video game industry; The Wolf Among Us launches itself up amongst them during the first ten minutes. I dare say it exceeds them by the end of the episode.
I cannot be more clear on this: With the first episode of Telltale Games’ new series available on Xbox LIVE, PlayStation Network, and Steam, if you consider yourself a fan of video gaming or great storytelling in any form of media, The Wolf Among Us is required material. You must play this game.
Then afterward, when the release date is announced for Episode 2, put in for a vacation day. It will be an event.
The Wolf Among Us – 5 out of 5 stars
Episode 1: Faith released 10/11/13 (10/15/13 on PSN)
Episodic graphic adventure
Developed and published by Telltale Games
Available on Steam, Xbox LIVE, and PlayStation Network