By Alec Meer on October 15th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Two Smiths and one Meer gather to discuss the latest episodic adventure game from Telltale (they of the recent Walking Dead series). The Wolf Among Us is based on the comic series Fables, and concerns folk from fairytales carving out a noirish life in the big city. It also concerns MURDER MOST HORRID. You should perhaps read Adam’s thoughts yesterday for a more fulsome summary, but moreso you should have played the game, for this here article is awash in the dreaded SPOILERS.
Are you sitting comfortably, or at least in a way that won’t cause you back problems in later life? Then we’ll begin.
Alec: Greetings, red riding hoods.
Adam: Are you the wolf, the granny or the woodsman?
Graham: I am Granny Smith, obv.
Alec: Having played Wolf Among Us, I certainly don’t want to be deemed the woodsman. Not a fine fellow by any measure. I’ll start by asking if anyone ever read the comics, and what if any bearing that had on their take on the game?
Graham: I did not. I’d even forgotten it was based on a comic before I played it.
Adam: I’ve read the first few trade paperbacks and went back to doublecheck how similar the opening was. It’s almost exactly the same in terms of set up. Only the crime is different. And the end of the first episode raises different questions for someone who has read the comic.
Alec: yes, that much I established, which struck me as a smart move in terms of becoming an entirely standalone entity instead of fielding constant ‘but why isn’t this like this?’ gripes.
Adam: Yeah – something Telltale did with Walking Dead by creating new characters. That’d be harder here for obvious reasons.
Alec: It leads me on to the broader question of how much were you guys invested in the characters? For instance, when the shock death of that supporting cast member happened, did it hurt?
Adam: Err, do you guys mind if I do a comic spoiler that changes the first episode rather a lot?
Graham: Go for it.
Adam: Snow White is in the comics from day one. Not dead and as far as I can tell, never has been. So this leads back to the prequel shenanigans. That moment is part of the mystery about what really happened to Faith rather than a shock for anyone who has read even the first issue of the comic. I suspect they’ll reveal that very early in episode two and then the plot becomes about doppelgangers, glamours and illusions. Or something.
Graham: Is this game canon, or a sort of alternate re-telling prequel thing? Have Telltale or anyone said whether it’s meant to fit alongside the comics? Because that changes things quite a lot. That death at the end of ep 1 did hurt, for me, for a couple of reasons. One being simply that she’s one of the few characters in the first episode who is friendly and upfront. I wanted to see how that relationship played out. The other being that it caught me by surprise. I was expecting her to your Elizabeth-style sidekick for the whole series. I’d assumed that was the mechanic, so to speak.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the way it works in the comics. They’re a sort of investigating odd couple much of the time.
Alec: the question of who you’re going to be pleased to see in future episodes if she isn’t there is a big one. Everyone seems extremely obnoxious, with the exception of Beauty and Beast due to their brief appearances.
Graham: I feel quite warm towards Colin the Pig. If he was your new sidekick, I’d be OK with that. I get that he has issues with Bigby, but he has good reasons. And he’s a talking pig.
Alec: As opposed to Walking Dead, their obnoxiousness doesn’t tend to stem from their deadly situation and opinions thereof, but that’s the nature of being noir rather than survival to some extent.
Adam: Yeah. I think it’s also to do with their rather high opinions of themselves. They’re all, or mostly, aristocracy of some sort. Living in ruins compared to their former lives, but still convinced of their own importance. I hope they introduce Prince Charming. He’s a favourite of mine from the comics. The ultimate in priveleged airheaded wankers.
Alec: What do we think of Bigby as a protagonist? Or Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, as I like to call him
Graham: The reason I like noir, most of the time, is because the protagonists tend to be rough-and-tumble wasters. The sort better at taking punches than dishing them out, but who wins through dogged determination. Having a superpowered wolf in that lead role changes the power dynamic in a way that feels a little boring, especially in games. The writing was good enough though that I at least felt like I had options to shape him into something more interesting. I liked that silence was frequently an option, for example, and got into playing him as the strong-but-silent type.
Adam: I like him a lot. He is drawn more from noir archetypes than fables and fairytales though. With him and Snow White in particular, the past life seems almost incidental – gives room for gags and predefined relationships but do we really see any of their old selves written in the character? Apart from turning into a wolf on occasion, I mean. But that’s more like a Teen Wolf noir crossover than Big Bad Wolf in the big city.
Graham: Maybe he’ll cross-dress as an old lady in episode two.
Alec: The Granny Among Us
Graham: I guess at this point I don’t really know what makes him vulnerable. Don’t hard-boiled detectives normally have vices? Alcoholism, gambling…
Adam: Rage problems..
Alec: I’m not sure about him yet, he seems a little awkwardly caught between the stools of take no shit hard nut and wounded soul in search of redemption. Which is an established archetype in videogames, but I’m not sure that, particularly, the somewhat muted vocal performance is entirely selling it. Speaking of vocal performances, I wish someone would tell whoever it is doing fake English accents that he can’t.
Graham: I think I appreciated that the dialogue choices allowed me to decide how gold his heart-of-gold was.
Adam: The game will probably go into this at some point, but Bigby wasn’t just the wolf that blew down the pigs’ houses and ate the granny – he was a legendary monster, devouring entire armies and the like. For me, the comics always failed to square that with the essentially likeable gumshoe. Though I didn’t read very far.
Alec: Yeah, I found that in the extra features almanac thing. Also helps explains why a slightly hairy man can effortlessly take down Grendel.
Adam: I always thought Grendel would be bigger.
Alec: I think he just hunching cos that bar had a low ceiling.
Graham: Why has a mass murderer been made the sheriff?
Adam: Amnesty. Just like Bluebeard is allowed to live his life of luxury despite being a nasty serial killer. When they arrived in our world, the Fables had a society-wide amnesty – no mention of past crimes or misdeeds because they’d essentially been ripping each other apart for centuries. This is why the setup works well for small genre mysteries, which can enjoy the Fables aspect without exploring it too deeply. The lore falls apart under scrutiny. Or a glance.
Alec: the game kept offering me the option to accuse Bluebeard of shit even though I’d never met him – did I miss something?
Graham: You could look at his file or his name in a newspaper or something in your apartment.
Adam: Again, a weird echo of the first comic arc where he’s the suspect in a killing. And he used to cut his wives’ heads off in ye olde times. What about these BIG SLOW MOTION DECISIONS. They’re new.
Graham: The stuff in combat?
Adam: No, the “GO TO MR TOAD OR GO TO THE PRINCE CHAP WHOSE NAME I HAVE FORGOTTEN” And who to pursue at the end.
Graham: Oh! Those. I liked them in principle, but I’m not wild in general about games like this which flag up their decisions as THIS IS A BIG DECISION HEY LOOK IT’S THE GAME MECHANIC. Like, I get it. I get the conceit. I see what’s happening here, and it could be a bit more subtle. >
Graham: Like, Gordon didn’t present Batman with two giant billboards of whether to save Katie Holmes 2 in the Dark Knight or whatever.
Alec: It is signposting HERE IS A MORAL DILEMMA a whole lot more. The trouble is that the bulk of the actions and decisions in the game are choosing between dialogue options, but they have a couple of decisions which aren’t dialogue-based, so how to show them given there’s so little direct character control? But fundamentally, Telltale are still the only dev who are really getting away with quicktime events, so I’ll forgive ‘em.
Graham: I think it’s just a presentational thing, to make them less separate from the flow of the action. Agreed on the QTEs, though. What did you guys think of the lack of explicit puzzles overall, as compared to the first episode of The Walking Dead?
Alec: generally I didn’t mind, but there were a couple of instances where the on-screen text was all ‘YOU HAVE CLEVERLY DEDUCTED SOMETHING!’ and I was all “no, I just clicked on the only available icon.” Interactive storybook ok, being patronised not ok.
Adam: At its weakest in the Toad ‘interrogation’, I thought. Being patted on the head for doing the slightest thing. Maybe that’s how it is for Mr Wolf – if he doesn’t pee on the carpet, Snow White gives him a biscuit.
Adam: Or a granny.
Alec: ‘You can have one leg now, but you’re only getting the rest if you don’t bark at strangers.’
Graham: I was distracted during that interrogation, so almost had to resort to violence as the only remaining available option because I’d missed a couple of dialogue options. That actually made it a far tenser thing, that pull between what the story was driving me towards and what I wanted the character to be. That was a kind of challenge I hadn’t encountered before. But it was dependent on me being distracted by a bumblebee first.
Adam: Maybe Telltale games should come with a jar of bees. Release them into the room for added difficulty.
Alec: I think they could have made a bit more of Bigby’s feral impatience threatening to get the better of him in conversation. So at times you’ve really got to react incredibly quickly to stop him going off at the deep end. I’m being an armchair designer there, apologies.
Graham: I think there’s a real opportunity for these games to be a kind of improv theatre, you and the game forging a character together. The problem I have with puzzles is that they grind the story to a halt, but when there’s no challenge at all, I don’t like the sense that I’m just turning the pages in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.But that’s more to do with genre stuff than this particular game, which I thought was the best example Telltale have delivered yet. I didn’t get that far with TWD admittedly.
Adam: At the moment, I find Bigby’s transformations a good thing. Like, ‘here COMES THE PAIN’ because he’s in a bad situation and needs to kick some ass. I’m hoping, and expecting, that we’ll see the unpleasant side soon. The out of control feral monster coming through. I think it’s a much stronger first episode than Walking Dead had. But I prefer noir to zombie drama.
Graham: Bigby didn’t repeatedly trip up in every action scene. That alone.
Alec: He hadn’t just been in a car crash, in fairness.
Graham: He did crash into a car.
Alec: True! That Lee’s just a wimp. I liked the game a lot, though the not-English actor very nearly prevented that, and particularly I think it’s a very beautiful game. Lovely to see what a graphics card can do when it doesn’t have to worry about 60 frames a second of all out action.
Adam: I didn’t mind not-English actor after tuning my ears so I reckon I liked it even more. And it is very handsome.
Graham: I didn’t mind the not-English actor either. I will accept any degree of junk accent if it’s coming from a talking animal.
Adam: Yeah – they’re not from England! They’re from Fake Fairytale England. WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE ACCENTS IN FAKE FAIRTYTALE ENGLAND?
Alec: I’ve heard the same reasoning for the iffy accents on some of the Lannisters in Game of Thrones. ‘There is no England in Westeros!’ Which is a fair point.
Graham: There are other cel-shaded games, but the colour palette here makes it look like nothing else. How close is it to the comics, visually?
Adam: Honest answer – I couldn’t say exactly. It may be more like the later stuff – I remember the early ones being far more muted but I could be wrong.
Alec: it looks a lot like the Walking Dead game still, so I’d imagine it’s Telltale’s own hybrid art style to some degree.
Graham: Are you all looking forward to the next episode? I am some looking forward.
Adam: I am very looking forward.
Alec: I am quite looking forward, but a bit less so than I was ep2 of Walking Dead as I was more invested in the character dynamics there. Mostly though, I shake my head in happy disbelief that the studio behind those awful Sam and Max games has come so far.
Graham: I never even played episode 2 of Walking Dead, so I guess I am 100% more looking forward than that. But 80% less than Adam? I am new to this. How does this work without numbers?
Alec: You just spell out a score in acrostics, we’ve been doing that for years but no-one ever noticed
Adam: With this and Walking Dead, Telltale are making games that I can actually enjoy playing after spending a day playing other games. Normally I retreat from my computer in the evening because it’s full of complicated things. Wolf Among Us is a pleasantly unpleasant bedtime story.
Adam: Do we all reckon this is the shape of Telltale’s output for the forseeable future? They appear to have found a style.
Graham: I hope so. It’s a far better template for everything they seem interested in than the early ’90s LucasArts thing they were trying and failing to ape from Sam and Max through Back to the Future through all those ghastly games.
Alec: I imagine so, but I hope they won’t be too risk averse.
Adam: I’d like to seem them taking risks in the properties they adapt. Just as long as they don’t do a bloody Watchmen prequel.
Alec: I’d like to see ‘em do their own thing entirely.
Graham: Me too.
Adam: Yes. Also.
Alec: Though given I didn’t know Fables I guess this was essentially that to me.
Adam: I think it works better as a new thing – maybe it’s a step toward that.
Alec: I’d *really* love to see is one without any fantasy elements. Essentially the Telltale Soap Opera.
Adam: I’d like to see them do a Columbo series.
Alec: Yes! Or Murder She Wrote.
Alec: Telltale are basically becoming the studio I always confuse them with, Traveller’s Tales. They’re basically refining just the one very successful formula, with licenses, and now we’re even basically doing ‘wouldn’t it be great if they did LEGO Aliens?’ Heavens, I said ‘basically’ three times there.
Adam: I think they were the same studio in an alternate dimension. We exist upon a tear in the fabric of reality.
Graham: Have you guys played Masq?
Alec: I have not played Masq.
Adam: Nor have I. Played Masq. OH NO. I have played Masq. Just googled it.
Graham: Masq is an indie game, and it’s free now, and it’s a soap opera told via black-and-white comic stills where you select dialogue options to branch the story. It’s basically the Telltale model, but without 3D graphics, QTEs or even puzzles, and with way, way more branching and choice. The story is a daytime soap thing about a fashion designer, murder and affairs. It’s boss.
Adam: You must tell the people about Masq, Graham. They deserve to know. If there’s one thing RPS readers love it is daytime soap things about fashion designers.. And affairs. They love a good affair.
Graham: In 15 minutes you can be divorced, in prison for murder, and bankrupt. It’s quite the little thing.
Adam: And so, Graham reviewed life. With added criticism of the ridiculous in app purchases.
Alec: Ah, I remember Masq now. I remember screenshots in a magazine. I remember magazines! I bet you don’t remember magazines, Graham.
Graham: I only remember all of your mothers.