Wot I Think: The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke & Mirrors

By Alec Meer on February 5th, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

Arriving some four months after October’s first installment of Telltale’s adventurish adaptation of fairy tales in the real world comic Fables, Smoke & Mirrors sees protagonist Bigby Wolf continue to investigate a series of murders. Given the cliffhanger ending of episode 2, you’ll forgive me if I’m plot-light in the below. I.e. no spoilers, but it does presume you’re fairly familiar with the game already.

Four months of waiting, for around 60-90 minutes of game (even less, if you’re a dialogue-skipping hurry-pants). Whatever the reason, it’s a big dent in Telltale’s recently-skyrocketed reputation, and one that makes it significantly harder to keep faith in the oft-broken promise of episodic gaming. I’m invested in Wolf Among Us’ story, some of its characters and especially its neon-brooding mood, but it’s only reviewer’s duty that keeps me from deciding to wait until the whole lot’s released rather than play episode by episode.

The wait was too long, for too little, though Smoke & Mirrors’ tone and characterisation does at least remind me why I cared in the first place. But its inevitable cliffhanger fails where the first episode’s succeeded, because this time around I feel like I’m being baited. (Also I’d already second-guessed it, but that’s because I make a habit of striving to do so rather than that it’s screamingly obvious. Never, ever watch a detective series in my company, I’ll drive you spare). It is so much harder to care, and no longer natural to feel that nagging need to know, when one is aware that answers may not be forthcoming for months and that you’re simply at the whims of someone’s misjudged schedule. If I want to pay another visit to the narrative Skinner box, there are any number of reliably monthly comics or weekly TV serials to turn my attention to instead. My point being that a schedule is coal to this kind of fiction’s engine, and not a matter of angry internet people acting over-entitled.

Perhaps Episode 2′s brevity reflects Telltale trying to get back on track, to get something out ASAP now whatever caused the delay has perhaps passed, in order that a regular schedule can be maintained. That helps, especially if it means episodes 3 and onwards aren’t quite so slight, but it still feels faintly insulting. I say that not purely from entitled grumpiness about the delay and the short running time, but also because Smoke & Mirrors is a lesser adventure game than the preceding episode. While the latter-day Telltale formula, with its focus on choosing dialogue options and navigating quicktime events, has long invited justified debate about interactivity and style over substance, this is even more of a reduction to barebones.

Despite nominally being in charge of the investigation into the murder of multiple Fables, you’re a complete passenger here, ferried without warning from location to location (six in total, three of which allow no movement whatsoever, two of which are recycled wholesale from episode one and only two of which consist of more than a single room) and repeatedly forced to end investigative lines moments after they’ve begun. Every event is distractingly brief, and every scene feels like ticking a few boxes rather than exploring or deducing. It has the manner of a game in a dreadful hurry, which creates an internal tension with the sombre, brooding mood. And while there are several, enjoyable opportunities to roleplay either Jekyll or Hyde, with likely supporting cast consequences further down the line, there is strong sense that the plot is railroading the player, playing anxiously for time until the next big pre-ordained revelation.

Furthermore, and I’m putting things very carefully here (the following is the sole paragraph that the overwhelmingly spoiler-averse should not read), there is a heightened sense that perhaps this game does fit into the established Fables canon after all – raising a question of if a known status quo will ultimately be re-established, and in which case just how seriously we should take some of Wolf Among Us’ more shocking reveals? A Revenge of the Sith-style exercise in putting all the chess pieces back into their starting positions would be deflating, given all the affecting tension in Wolf Among Us. This is why The Walking Dead games’ decision to use a completely different cast from the comic was so smart. Spoiler-averse types may safely resume reading now.

In context as part of a complete series – presuming later episodes are longer and involve a little more activity – I don’t expect Episode 2 to be too much of a problem. If we regard Wolf Among Us as police procedural – The Bridge with wolfmen and flying monkeys, say – then this is the necessary early-series episode that moves the detectives from identifying victims and on to establishing suspects. If it follows procedural procedure, next we’ll find out the colour of its various herrings. What’s included here is a necessary pivot point for such genre fiction, and as part of a complete package the Is This It? issue will hopefully go away.

Unless the following three episodes have the same problem, of course – there is a great danger that Wolf Among Us becomes far more about simply sticking with it for answers rather than because you’re able to meaningfully alter the course of events. While the police procedural’s quest for a fixed answer is innately a different formula to the Anyone Could Die Any Time ethos of survival fare such as The Walking Dead, there’s little that feels urgent here, and the sole scene that offers scope for any true deduction comes off so patronising that I wondered if the incorrect dialogue options only existed in order that one can elect to roleplay as a witless cretin if one so desired.

I’ll also note that there’s a relatively lengthy nudie dancey lady in there that, while perhaps not as brazenly salacious as it might have been, certainly didn’t have to linger (or even show) anywhere near as much as it does. Moreover, it’s bewildering/aggravating that clearly quite a lot of effort was put into that when the ‘game’ aspects have been treated like a red-headed stepchild. Perhaps that was a case of an artist and animator or two being free during the delay while other staff were not, but even aside from the male gaze issues here (which I perfer to reserve judgement on until the series is complete), there’s a broader question as to just what Smoke & Mirrors’ priorities are.

Length and simplicity grumbles aside, broadly we’re looking at a very similar offering to episode 1. You pursue leads, interview uncooperative witnesses by means fair or foul, and get repeatedly told that everyone thinks you’re a right prick (even if, like me, you’ve repeatedly demonstrated that you’re as much of a teddy bear as a chainsmoking part-lupine sheriff who’s surrounded by unrepentant arseholes could possibly be). Y’know: Chandler with magic and gore. And quick-time events, though there are fewer of those this time, unless you count the conversational time-limit. Bigby remains an appealing player-character, all barely-concealed aggression when he’s being nice and feral brutality when he’s not, and aside from the occasional still-atrocious attempt at cockney accents, it has assured vocal performances backed by characterful animations and an appropriately menacing soundtrack, while most of all intrigue seeps from its every pore. I want to be here: but I want more than simply being shown it.

I’m frustrated because I really like it, by which I mean the series (so far) as a whole rather than episode 2 specifically. It gives excellent tone, the writing’s sharp and generally finds a comfortable half-way house between noir stereotype and distinctive unusualness, and there’s just enough hinted at to allow the inquiring mind to start forming whodunnit theories. I want to see it soar with what it’s built up, not withdraw into a safe and hurried shell because – wild speculation warning – there are bigger fish in the Telltale popculture licenses net now. Wolf Among Us is too intriguing and too atmospheric to deserve such perfunctory treatment, and I sincerely hope this is just a one-off wobble.

It’s by no means whatsoever a disaster, and I remain determined that so far this is the most conceptually and narratively compelling Telltale series to date, but I’m disappointed that the all-too-aptly-named Smoke & Mirrors achieves nothing more than to hold my attention.

The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke & Mirrors is out now, though can only be purchased as part of a season pass.

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39 Comments »

  1. lautalocos says:

    60 minutes and 4 months of wait?
    that´s incredibly irresponsable from telltale games. i mean, im not the person that usually cares about how long a game lasts, but only one hour in 4 months? really?

    • Serpok says:

      This is pretty much equal to wait:read ratio comic books give you.

    • mouton says:

      Please, equating game-time with perceived effort put into the game is silly.

      • scatterbrainless says:

        It is slightly less silly when you consider Telltale’s recent formula tends to be far more based on narrative delivery than mechanical complexity. Having played episode two I have to say that I was deeply disappointed and almost disconcerted by the length; it felt like it was maybe one third that of the first episode. Still looks like the series as a whole will be wonderful, hopefully, but if anyone is on the fence about playing it episodically or waiting until it is released in full I would urge them to wait for the latter option.

        • kament says:

          Seems to me that Ep2 was not supposed to be that short, judging by the ending of Ep1. The scene where Bigby turns to Wolf completely? It was supposed to be in this one, amirite?

  2. Ginger Yellow says:

    . (Also I’d already second-guessed it, but that’s because I make a habit of striving to do so rather than that it’s screamingly obvious.

    It is screamingly obvious though. I was kind of disappointed when it turned out to be* exactly who I thought it would be halfway into the first episode.

    *Or at least that’s what they want us to think.

    My main disappointment with the episode isn’t the length so much as that the cracks in the Telltale formula are visible even on the first playthrough in this one – you make a dialogue choice, but then it does something that clearly would have happened if you had chosen one of the other options. Or take the Georgie interrogation scene – there are five second pauses while it triggers either the violent or non-violent option on the same track to the end of the scene.

    • Lengle says:

      It’s the noticeable pauses that I struggle with in these games. It just cuts the immersion/enjoyment out for me. I know it’s very nit-picky, but its there and I find it really awkward.

  3. Low Life says:

    Yeah, I’m just gonna wait until all the episodes are released before I continue with this. Shame it went this way.

  4. Baines says:

    In regards to canon, I felt the Fables comics themselves adjusted canon to fit new stories Willingham wanted to tell anyway. Sometimes annoyingly so.

  5. matnym says:

    60 minutes is exaggerating a bit as it’s much closer to 90. It’s still pretty short and over all this episode was a bit underwhelming. Normally I have no problem with short games but compared to say, episode two of The Walking Dead, this one felt incomplete.

    • Surlywombat says:

      Indeed.

      There is something wrong with the pacing of this episode. I played through in around 90 minutes, while playing I noticed that the opening credits ran after around 15-20 mins.

  6. Philopoemen says:

    The police procedural thing started to grate on me in this short episode, I also felt that my way of doing things in this episode was limited to Bioware-style give-everyone-my-money-and-sing-kumbyah niceness or being a complete prat. it lacked the nuance of the first episode, which is probably a by-product of what feels like a rushjob.

    But i’ll stick with it because I like the Fables universe, even if the game is a bit darker than the comics.

    i sort of wish I’d waited until they released the whole season before starting though – took me a while to remember what I’d done in the first episode, and even then, the “they’ll remember that” bits didn’t seem to get remembered that well. Grendel was suprisingly accommodating given what happened last time…

  7. Orija says:

    I think we Episode 2 feels the way it does is because fans had already figured out who the killer was from Episode 1 itself, so Telltale had to redo and cut out a lot of shit and come with new hooks.

  8. Gibly says:

    In Walking Dead it was 3 hours per episode. And this is only 60-90mins for longer wait periods? Wonder what explanation the creators have for this.

    As for the first line stating there are people that skip dialogue. I can understand that in some games. But in an RPG and Adventure game that is one of the dumbest things you can do. You’re basically ignoring one of the fundamentals of these games.

    • MattM says:

      I often read the entire line but only listen to part of it.

      • WrenBoy says:

        I think far more people do this than admit to it. Its one of the reasons that using voice actors for every line of dialogue is often a bad idea.

        I think its mainly a bad idea for RPGs though where there is often 60+ hours of game. For a short 90 minute game done in the style of a TV show like this one its perfectly appropriate. At the same time I dont see why someone would blame people for skipping if they feel like it.

  9. darkwarrior says:

    Walking Dead is hour upon hour of violence and gore and inability to change anything – no problem. The Wolf Among Us Episode 2 has brief nudity, uh oh, that’s a problem.

    • kael13 says:

      I know! How dare they have male gaze in a noir piece where the main character is male!

      Anyway yes, otherwise I do feel this Episode was incredibly short and had a few weak plot points. Also the animation needed a bit of polish.

      SPOILERSSSS SPOILERY SPOILERSSS

      Beast turning up from nowhere felt forced. And I actually don’t think the killer is the killer – it’s a red herring.

      • bmt22033 says:

        I agree with you about Beast appearing out of nowhere. For as much as he was surprised to see a certain someone there, I think that person would have certainly wanted to know what *he* was doing there, too! ;-)

        • gombicek says:

          I think that Beast followed Bigby. He probably had his doubts and tailed Bigby. But yeah Beauty should have fired some questions at him too. Like I work here but what ARE YOU doing here?

      • The Random One says:

        “I know! How dare they have male gaze in a noir piece where the main character is male!”

        Uh, the genre of the piece or the main character don’t matter. Male gaze refers to how the camera acts like a make looking at stuff, especially female characters, even though it is otherwise a neutral window into the events. You can have a story about a sexist jerk without male gaze, just like you can have a story about what is claimed to be STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS and have it full of male gaze. Bro, do you even film theory?

        Mind you, I don’t think you’re wrong necessarily – from the article’s description the scene feels more like needless indulgence. But you’re still going about it the wrong way.

    • Acorino says:

      context matters.

    • Nuno Miguel says:

      Also, those were some of the finest breasts I’ve seen in a game. Proportional and perky!

      Also, I wanted to ser those ever since I watched ‘Little Mermaid’ as a kid. Thanks Telltale!

    • gombicek says:

      Yeah it’s funny how it is ok to show violence and killing in movies, shows etc. But if you show some nudity it’s bad and harmfull to children morale and so on.

    • mistwolf says:

      I’m a pretty die-hard feminist and proponent of equality and non-discrimination (Trans poly lesbian etc etc) and while I think it is good to warn the unexpecting about the scene, I didn’t feel bothered by it beyond the ‘If someone was looking over my shoulder, what would they think?’ way. If anything, it was so incredibly awkward having her there, both IC and RL, that it felt apt. The location was what it was, the person involved was who he was, and she was… More than just draped over the scene. If anything, I think the game may go overboard on the ‘sex workers are all horribly desperate people being taken advantage of’ myth.

  10. Deano2099 says:

    While there certainly hasn’t been a delay this long before, it’s worth nothing that Telltale’s regular approach has always been to get the first game out, then delay the second episode until they’re confident the rest can come out on something approach a schedule. So if history is any indication, things should improve.

  11. pasports31 says:

    I was really disappointed by the episode overall. I’m still high on the series as a whole (Episode 1 was excellent, IMHO much better than the Walking Dead episode 1. Plus I find the premise very interesting, much more so than TWD), but I can’t believe it took them four months to spit this out.

  12. bmt22033 says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that the perpetrator is going to turn out to be who we think it is. Maybe that’s just me having more faith in Telltale than I should but the “obviousness” of the killer just seems a little…..*too* obvious.
    *** POTENTIAL SPOILER *** Given the use of black market glamour, I wonder if the person we *thought* we saw might not really be who we’re led to believe they were? Could it be that the scene with the “mirror smashing” was intentionally taken out of context to mislead us? I sure hope so. I’d like to think that there are more devious twists and turns ahead than where it *seems* like we’re going.

    • gombicek says:

      It’s quite clear that the person you are thinking about is not a killer. Also the smashing of the mirror was perfectly logical, after all he wants to get away as far as he can, without them being able to know his whereabouts the moment they return.

  13. f69 says:

    So boobs are a problem and not, oh I don’t know, torture and decapitation.

    • mistwolf says:

      TV and movies have, alas, always leaned towards ‘the only good prostitute is a dead prostitute’ mentality. I find the series to be pretty decent overall as far as things go.

    • Fuz says:

      Agree with you.

      It’s ridiculous to think that breasts could be “offensive” in any way. And what a shock, seeing breasts in a strip club!
      And there are acts of violence, torn arms and decapitated heads… but let’s censor the breasts, they’re SO inappropriate. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

      What’s wrong with people?

  14. altum videtur says:

    Say what you will about GTA IV and its expansions (I think they were a disgraceful failure on many, many, many levels, and were seriously problematic both with regards to the treatment of female characters /though I did like Ilyena Faustin a fair bit/ and homosexuality /to this day I have no idea how to react to Florian Kravic or the corrupt mayor, though I did like Gay Tony, a man famously fabulous in universe yet whose character arc does not in any way depend on the fact or cheap jokes for that matter/), but that scene in The Lost and Damned with the politician schlong swinging free and true in the steam bath was probably the most culturally significant thing a videogame has done (since Saints Row IV’s super-inclusivity of literally anyone that isn’t deliberately close-minded)

  15. Elric22 says:

    I share from your deception. It’s somehow a good episode, but only this. It’s far from reaching the mind-blowing of the first episode of the series.
    What it’s uncommon in the Telltale’s games, because all episodic games that I played of them until today, the second episode is better than the first one, like in Tales of Monkey Island, Back to the Future, TWD, Sam e Max, etc…
    There was an evident remake of the episode, what explains the strange 4 months delay. I don’t have the slightest idea for what reason this happened, but I would like to see someday at least the sketch of the discarded second episode, only to compare and see if the story was going to a worse path.
    And I hope the game come back to the track on the third episode, because after finish the second, I’m not anxious to the third. A totally different situation of what happened after I finished the first one.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Saul says:

    Eh, I liked it. I enjoyed the faster pace, and felt less inclined to linger myself. Sure, it was a bit shorter than the first one, but I didn’t really notice until it was brought up by others. And the ending wasn’t quite as great, but I connected with the moral choices more, for whatever reason. I used the bottle near the start, and no-one let me forget it. Felt genuinely conflicted.

  17. kament says:

    Wait. You get to look down the Witching Well? Somehow I managed to miss out on that. Hmm.

  18. Fuz says:

    They probably rewrote everything after internet game detectives discovered (supposedly) the whole story, thanks to some semi-hidden details, just after episode 1 was released.
    If you don’t already know, go read on their forums the thread “The Killer: Hard Evidence Found” and you’ll understand what I mean.
    This would also explain the insane delay since episode 1 and the general rushed feeling of this episode 2.

    I kinda think that it’s stupid to rewrite everything just because of bunch of people discovered the truth too soon… but that theory does have its merits.

  19. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    You don’t need a heightened sense to figure that the game is canon. That’s because it is canon. Here you go.

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=33523

    2011, you know.

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