I don’t love Robert Altman movies the way a lot of others do, but his 1973 noir, The Long Goodbye, very loosely based on the book by Raymond Chandler, is hands-down my favorite detective film. Strictly speaking, it’s sort of a detective film parody, but Elliott Gould’s anachronistic portrayal of the hard-bitten sleuth and thoughtful cat-food shopper Philip Marlowe is a wonderfully strange twist on expected genre conventions. The main character in Telltale’s most recent episodic game, The Wolf Among Us, has a lot in common with Marlowe. Bigby Wolf is a born loser—a smoker who lives by himself, enjoys the not-so-occasional bourbon, and investigates violent crimes. One notable difference is that, unlike Marlowe, he turns into a ferocious yellow-eyed werebeast when agitated.
Telltale, which made waves last year with its adaptation of the graphic-novel series The Walking Dead, has applied that formula to Bill Willingham’s Fable series. The premise is that the most hallowed storybook characters—Snow White, Beauty, The Beast, Tweedledum, his brother, and any others you can think of—have been expelled from their fantastical homeland by some malignant entity and relocated to New York City. They need to keep a low profile, for obvious reasons, so these Fables use magic to appear as normal New Yorkers. Bigby (known as the Big Bad Wolf in his former life) is the sheriff here, charged with keeping other Fables safe from humans and each other. He’s a man haunted by his past and trying to make amends.
For people unfamiliar with the books (like me), it takes a few minutes to get the lay of the Fable landscape. The Woodsman, for instance—a hero in Little Red Riding Hood—is an angry woman-beating maniac in The Wolf Among Us. Ichabod Crane is an alcoholic politician with the people skills of a bridge-dwelling troll, and Snow White checks in as his criminally underappreciated deputy.
In spite of their dysfunction, we’re told there is almost no Fable homicide to speak of. Part of this has to do with their otherworldly resilience (demonstrated in bloody, painful-looking fashion early on), but Bigby’s role as a stoic enforcer no doubt helps keep the peace. Soon enough, though, a grisly murder changes the equation, and Bigby finds himself embroiled in a deep and violent conspiracy. Like his Walking Dead counterpart Lee Everett, Bigby Wolf is in way over his head, and Telltale’s storytelling device doesn’t provide a ton of good options for extricating himself from a bad situation.
There isn’t a whole lot for the player to do. Bigby travels among a few set piece areas, where he usually has a few odds and ends to investigate. You don’t actively participate in very much of this, to the point where it can feel like you’re playing an on-screen choose-your-own-adventure book. You’re confronted with decisions—some seemingly mundane, others more life-or-death—and given an extremely limited amount of time to decide based on extremely incomplete information. Combining an egg timer with uninformed multiple-choice scenarios makes for a near-constant state of instant regret. As in The Walking Dead, you’re told that these decisions will dramatically affect how the game’s story plays out.
When the action happens, though, it can be pretty intense. Bigby tends to get into a few scrapes, because Fables play by their own rules (and no one likes a narc). The fighting is the only noticeable difference, if a minor one, from The Walking Dead, in that it’s a little more dynamic and fluid. In short controlled bursts, rough situations call for precisely moving the crosshairs and pressing the right combination of buttons to ensure Bigby lets these storybook rejects know who’s the sheriff in this town. A bar fight toward the end of the first episode is particularly vicious—dudes getting stabbed with pool cues and gouged with claws and thrown across the room—and I already regret one of the decisions I had to make in the aftermath. (All I could remember was getting burned for being merciful in The Walking Dead, and vowed not to make the same mistake here. Still, I’m not proud of what I had to do.)
A lot of the decisions you choose through Bigby are made in a vacuum. You know these things are going to come back and haunt you later in one way or another, but at this point in the game, there is really no way to make an educated guess as to which might end up being less catastrophic. You know as much as Bigby does, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Nothing you decide, though, can change how the episode concludes, which rivals anything in The Walking Dead for sheer dramatic trauma. At the end of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe flips the script on Chandler and does the unexpected. Forget anything you think you know about the world of fables. These poor damned souls are in Telltale’s hands now.