Review

The Wolf Among Us: Episode One

Grimm Fandango

The Wolf Among Us picks up where the design of Telltale’s The Walking Dead left off.

By Drew Toal • October 16, 2013

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode One

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode One

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.)

The Wolf Among Us: Episode One

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.

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Mac (coming soon)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Price: $5 for single episode—PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; $25 for full season—PC, Mac
Rating: M

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  • http://www.theoverprivileged.com/ greenspanDan

    boo! i got psyched for a feature on Grim Fandango! what is this? some kind of punching .. monkey .. car.. werewolf … thing? i don’t care about this. :(

    • Perkins

      Pull your head out of the Nostalgic asshole it’s stuck in and kindly open your mind, sir.

      • Mercenary_Security_number_4

        ugh. the degradation of comment quality has begun.

        • SamPlays

          Embrace the future @Mercenary_Security_number_4:disqus. Besides we could use some more “lively” conversations around here. All this civilized discourse grows weary from time to time. Oh, and…

          DAWES

          *puts on sunglasses*

          YEEEEEEEAHHHHHHHH

          • marybalk325

            my Aunty Alice just got a 9 month old BMW 5 Series Hybrid from only workin part-time on a home pc… my link http://www.works77.com

          • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

            I’ve finally found a use for downvotes. Huzzah!

        • M North

          It invites a comparison between the two which isn’t strictly speaking problematic given that both games lead with conventions of noir, and beyond Tex Murphy no others immediately spring to mind (there will be some but I can’t be bothered to dwell on it).

          I think that, at least on a surface-level, I can see where GreenSpanDan is coming from. This thing looks like they’ve taken Buffy The Vampire Slayer and mixed it with The Maltese Falcon. It’s disappointing because I thought it sounded very exciting when TellTale were taking on a strictly noir-style game. I’ll probably give it a go when it’s on sale but the fantasy elements do put me off initially.

        • HobbesMkii

          Lookie that! We’ve fallen to downvoting already.

          • Spacemonkey Mafia

            I’ve resorted to cannibalism!

          • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

            LET’S GO STREEEAAAAAAKING!

          • Mr.ImMyOwnGrandfather

            Downvote. Wait….. can’t….bring …self to do……it…..

            My God, it’s like using the Metric System: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6T4OMBaoWM

          • SamPlays

            I find it interesting that down votes are anonymous but the identity of up voters is disclosed.

          • Aurora Boreanaz

            Of course you can’t do both. That would cancel each other out and be no different from not voting at all.

          • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

            Why don’t you tell that to Congress?

          • SamPlays

            There’s a huge difference between ambivalence and indifference. Besides, this whole liking comments thing is just a numbers game, isn’t it?

          • http://gameological.com/author/mattkodner/ Matt Kodner

            Downvote the logic!!

          • HobbesMkii

            It’s so we can only shame you for the things you feel positively about, not the things you feel negatively about.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Seriously, Teti, Gerardi, Soupy, AV Club Overlord of Cheese and Gently-Used Wallpaper – whoever’s in charge – please just get rid of downvotes.

        • a_scintillating_comment

          Damn I missed it! Already deleted.

  • HobbesMkii

    This is odd. When does this occur? Prior to the events of the comic, I’m guessing, based on the characters and Telltale’s MO in the Walking Dead. But The Walking Dead had the luxury of inventing most of its characters wholesale. Most of the Fables characters listed here have some established histories (I wiki’d Ichabod Crane, for instance, because I didn’t remember him from the comics, and now I know why that is. Don’t do that if you don’t want potential spoilers), which creates some dramatic irony. Bigby and Snow White, for instance, feature prominently in the comics. It’s not like there’s any palpable threat to them.

    It’s like watching a period piece about some olden-times warrior and then realizing you know he died of pneumonia, and that all these threats the movie has introduced are really just paper tigers.

    • Pgoodso

      Presentation is everything, though. While I certainly hate spoilers, if a movie or game is ruined because of foreknowledge of a narrative twist, then it wasn’t that good to begin with.

      I mean, just because you know Lincoln is just gonna get shot in the head doesn’t mean the recent film is boring or drained of narrative consequence.

      • SamPlays

        Something that is well-crafted can withstand full disclosure of plot and character arcs. If anything, knowing the full story can actually help you appreciate the journey of getting to the end even more. However, “flimsier” entertainment can be entirely built upon a precarious plot twist for the sake of the twist. In which case, spoilers are bad because it ruins the entire point of the experience. In conclusion, I somewhat agree but Lincoln narratives that need to include vampire hunting are kind of pushing it. Unless Lincoln is actually a werewolf and John Wilkes Booth used a silver bullet to save America…

        *light bulb goes off*
        *flips through rolodex for M. Night Shyamalan*

        • Roswulf

          I disagree that there is an inherent hierarchy between narrative forms, like in-depth character studies, that are essentially unspoilable and narrative forms, like certain mysteries, that depend on the creator controlling the release of information. The latter isn’t flimsier or less well-crafted, it’s a different kind of story trying to inspire a different emotional response.

          I’ve argued in the past that Telltale’s Walking Dead succeeds because of its fanatical devotion to encouraging maximum player identification and empathy with the protagonist. I’d think that spoilers would undercut this goal, distancing the player through their knowledge of Lee’s future.

          • SamPlays

            I think you’re imposing a hierarchy that was never implied. In my opinion, any kind of narrative form is capable of being well-crafted and artful regardless of content, style or purpose. Value is derived in HOW something is written not WHAT it’s about. My argument is that well-written stories can be enjoyed regardless of whether you know the ending or not. These are the stories worth revisiting because they have interesting characters, settings, dialogue and action. Your enjoyment of these things remains even when you know the outcome. A story lacks craft when these things become spurious after everything is revealed. If the entire point of a story is to deliver a plot twist, it might be entertaining but it likely won’t fulfill your emotional and intellectual needs in any meaningful way. Understand that I’m not saying these things are mutually exclusive – lots of great stories include jaw-dropping reveals.

          • Roswulf

            I don’t understand how you claim not to be creating a hierarchy when you write that certain kinds of emotional engagement with a narrative “won’t fulfill your emotional and intellectual needs in any meaningful way.” I’m not willing to concede that some forms of engagement are more inherently meaningful than others. The silly joy created by Duck Soup is no less a meaningful artistic and emotional engagement than the sober ruminations prompted by Shoah, at least to me.

            I’d add that the reasons to avoid spoilers go well beyond plot twists. That’s perhaps the aspect of storytelling that games are most adept at playing with. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a specific example of an (in my opinion) well crafted story directly comparable to The Wolf Among Us in which my experience of the story would have been meaningfully harmed by spoilers, in that I wanted to know no more than Lee. And I don’t think I’m along in this- there were many players whose Walking Dead experience was retroactively damaged by the discovery that all roads lead to supporting character death. I’d imagine their experience would be further harmed by knowing their companions were doomed at the moment of decision.

          • SamPlays

            I feel like you’re trying to impose an argument that’s out of context from my original comment. You keep bringing up hierarchies in relation to different narrative forms and, now, levels of emotional engagement. I disagree that any given narrative form is better than another but I certainly think you can rank and rate your subjective experience with different types of stories (this translates to “personal taste”). These things are entirely beside the point. I said that a good story is one that holds up even when you know all of the details. I refer to narrative elements (i.e., character, setting, dialogue, action) that help determine whether or not you enjoy the story. I refer to poorly written (flimsy) work that is more concerned with plot twists – if it’s poorly written, it means those other narrative elements are underdeveloped or not present at all. Again, these things are not mutually exclusive – the most rewarding stories are often the ones that defy expectations and have the ability to surprise the audience (but that alone is insufficient to tell a good story).

            You Walking Dead example is interesting because you’re saying that hindsight “retroactively damaged” the experience even though the story is well-crafted. Personally, I think knowing certain characters are doomed regardless of your choices opens up a different experience that raises broad existential issues related to absurdity and despair. On a more practical level, it underlines the conflict between player agency (i.e., you control the story) versus authorship (i.e., game developers want to tell a specific, close-ended story). You wanted your choices to have meaningful (life or death) consequences but clearly the developers wanted to tell a different kind of story. In my experience with The Walking Dead, the game addressed the ethics of your decision-making. Regardless of the outcome, your decisions revealed your biases and motivations as a player, which are sometimes not so pleasant or socially acceptable. In this regard, I agree that spoilers can ruin the entertainment value of the game – there’s not much to enjoy knowing that your decisions make no difference. Whether or not Walking Dead tells a good story might be indicated by the likelihood of replaying the game.

          • Roswulf

            I think we’re talking past eachother, and I’m.doubtful we’ll get anywhere…BUT THIS IS THE INTERNET!

            I would agree that there are a set of values that increase the re-readability (or rewatchability or replayability) of a text. But I do not think that these are the only values, or better values than qualities that do not encourage reexamination. And these qualities go beyond plot twists to the generalized ability of the author to control the release of information to the audience.

            I would further add that whether the Walking Dead is a “good story” is a separate issue from whether it is a “good narrative game”, and that there are very specific reasons that The Walking Dead (and by extension the superficially similar Wolf Among Us) might be damaged by spoilers, associated with the particular relationship between Lee and player created by gameplay. At least in this case, I think game spoilers are qualitatively different from movie, book, or TV spoilers.

          • SamPlays

            I’d like to think we’re talking directly at each other and I’m more than comfortable having a potentially contrary view to a random internet persona about the role/impact of spoilers and the perseverance of well-crafted narratives. I’ll go back to @Pgoodso original comment and simply say that I agree with him/her: a good story holds up after it’s finished (or in this case, spoiled).

          • Pgoodso

            As I said, I hate spoilers, because spoilers by their very definition spoil a part of the narrative experience. But in the best films and games, foreknowledge leads to a different way to experience a work instead of forever making the work pointless. Indeed, while knowledge of the twists and turns of the Walking Dead games might remove the initial experience of surprise and/or horror at certain points (and that’s certainly a palpable loss), it might ultimately be no different than the experience of playing through a second time or loading a save to see what else may happen, or, at least, see exactly how things happen in the context of playing. If I can adapt Roger Ebert, it’s not what a game is about, it’s how it’s about it.

        • NakedSnake

          I’ve often thought about this myself. No offense to story (in all its forms), but rare indeed is the plot where I actually really care about not knowing what will happen next. Even with the end of Breaking Bad, I was somewhat concerned about finding out what happened in the last episode, but I was a whole hell of a lot more concerned about the final episode being bad. I was like “I wonder what happens”, but really, I was like “I hope that whatever happens is good and works well”. The specific plot points were ultimately irrelevant to me. I just hoped that it was well-executed.

          • SamPlays

            Breaking Bad is an example of great storytelling. I’m currently re-watching Season 3 and the show is just as mesmerizing even with full knowledge of how things end. The endgame was always fun to speculate but the show cared deeply about HOW it got there – realism aside (sorry, HF doesn’t chew through bathtubs), the show followed through on its internal logic and it never forgot past events. As a pure narrative, it’s amazing to see how tightly everything is interconnected, which is a testament to the creativity and sensibility of the writers considering. It’s a great facade of a “grand design” but Vince Gilligan asserts that a lot of the show was “made up” as they went along.

      • Newton Gimmick

        *SPOILERPLATE*

        Everyone dies eventually.

      • HobbesMkii

        Maybe. I’m thinking of Boardwalk Empire, where the fact that the historical gangsters are all quite young is a dead giveaway that nothing totally untoward will happen to them. Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Segal are not going to get killed by Joe Masseria–Al Capone is not gonna get killed by the Irish Mob–even though the show explicitly set up those implications and tried to build a lot of tension around it. Boardwalk is still enjoyable, but I’m never particularly tensed when those characters confront a threat the same way I am about the fictional characters (although, honestly, the fictional characters are a lot less interesting than their historical counterparts in the show).

        Because you’ve got canon in this game, you’ve essentially established that same narrative dissonance between canon characters and invented characters. It worked the same way in the Walking Dead. Glen is a canon character, so I knew from the start he’d be safe. Neither he, nor any other canon character lasted longer than a single episode. In some sense, it’s because, yes, they’re established canon characters, so they have other things to go do, but I think a large part of it was that Telltale didn’t know how to resolve the lack of tension that having those people in the group created, except to write them out.

        Because of the nature of the Walking Dead’s world, you could say, “here’s another group of humans having other stories, separate from our main group.” Because the comic implies they’re just one group of many. Fables is a long-form narrative in which Bigby is front and center (he and Snow White are perhaps the two most “main” characters in the comic), and Fabletown and the Farm are essentially the only theatres of narrative, outside of the Homelands. As a prequel, you cannot easily resolve that narrative dissonance by involving these touchstone characters, to whom not too much ill can befall, in the plot.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      From the Polygon review:

      “Though the The Wolf Among Us is a prequel to the comic series, a twist late in the episode seemed to turn Fables’ existing timeline and canon on its head. Provided there’s a good explanation later in the series, it’s a smart move that won’t allow Fables readers to get too comfortable.”

      • JamesJournal

        I know next to nothing about the comics. But from the very little I do know, there is no way the ending of episode one is canonical with the books.

        • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

          Think again. Telltale have worked with Bill Willingham (the comic’s creator/writer) to keep the game in-canon. See Hobbes’ comment above to what I presume is your point of contention.

          • JamesJournal

            I’m not invested in the game as canon, as I’ve never read the comics. But like, *SPOILERS* the thing with Snow can’t be canon based off me just seeing the cover of an Fable’s collection at B&N the other day.

          • http://twitter.com/occono Anthony O’ Brien

            Well, there is magic.

          • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

            It could be canon the way the Abrams Star Trek movies are canon. There could be some major multiverse/reality gymnastics or something.

    • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

      The game takes place roughly 10-20 years prior to the first arc of the comic. In that respect, it’s remarkable how little outside of their fashion sense has changed. Flycatcher is still sleeping on the job, Bufkin is still a lush, it’s just the 1980s now, as evidenced by the frequent violet lighting (Giuliani cleaned up of all the purples) and by Snow’s hair and ill-fitting blazer.

      Unlike The Walking Dead, since I’m familiar with Bigby’s personality in the books, I tried to make decisions that seemed like what he’d do. Less of a personalized experience, but still fun to see it play out.

  • The_Helmaroc_King

    It’s not The Walking Dead Season Two, but I’m glad to hear a positive review. I wasn’t sure if Telltale could keep up the tension without the threat of a zombie apocalypse, but a murder mystery with choice and consequence sounds plenty interesting.

    It also looks plenty gorgeous. The Walking Dead looked good, but everything was deliberately muted; these screens got color for days. The trailers make it sound pretty noir, too.

    • Labrat85

      It is also pretty funny at times. I do regret playing it before all 5 episodes were out though.

    • SamPlays

      YOU SHOULD PLAY HEAVY RAIN *WINKS KNOWINGLY*

      • SaviourMachine

        If you suppose a comparison between The Wolf Among Us and recent Beyond Two Souls in a sense that both are strongly cinematographic adventures, then this game owns Cage’s overwritten, overloaded game at least because there is a tangible connection between your actions. Beyond doesn’t have even that.

        • JamesJournal

          Dear lord is this better than Beyond 2 Souls!

      • WayofThePun

        I tried playing Heavy Rain, but I had to turn it off about two hours in. I just felt like it should have been called Terrible Life Simulator 2012 instead.

        • JamesJournal

          If you didn’t like Heavy Rain, Beyond 2 Souls will make you take every bad thing back you said about it

  • Newton Gimmick

    I should really play “The Walking Dead” soon.

    • boardgameguy

      I’m in the same boat. I keep hoping it will show up in a humble bundle.

      • rvb1023

        I believe it already did, that’s when I got my copy.

        • boardgameguy

          I need to start watching more closely

      • Newton Gimmick

        I just have so much else to play right now! New Phoenix Wright comes out later this month, GTAV is still shrink-wrapped…
        Not to mention all the movies I’ve been stockpiling in my DVR…

      • http://twitter.com/occono Anthony O’ Brien

        ….It was in a Humble Bundle :P

  • Hooded Justice

    Way to tease us with the last screenshot. I was hoping you were going to include a shot of Bibgy in his wolfed-out form.

  • DrFlimFlam

    The real downside of Steam sales is that I was in at Day One pricing on TWD for my zombie-fan wife, but a little patience could’ve had the whole thing for $5-10 based on the sale one goes in on.

    I’m sure I’ll check this one out. Once it goes on sale.

    • rvb1023

      I have never bought anything for Steam that wasn’t on sale first.

      • DrFlimFlam

        I paid either full price or a small discount (like 25%, which isn’t even a sale nowadays) for FTL. But yeah, otherwise….

  • NakedSnake

    Well, there goes my morning. Even though I have things to do, here I am watching my money increase for a game I will have forgotten about already by tomorrow.

  • Bobbles

    They should have called this “The night of the sh*teating c*ntgobbling p*ssb*tches, f*ck, f*ck, f*cking wh*res!” (censored for Disqus)

    If I started talking like some of this characters in this episode, people would think I was either mentally ill or trying way too hard.

  • http://gameversevault.com/ Germaximus

    Nice review. =)