The Bestest Best Adventure Of 2014: The Wolf Among Us

Adventure games have been experiencing a resurgence this past year, but our favourite was by a developer that’s hit a creative peak of their own after grinding away at the genre persistently for years. It’s The Wolf Among Us.

Adam: Wolf-a-Mongoose, as my computer just autocorrected, pips a couple of other contenders to the post in this category thanks to its new-noir style. If the quality of Tales From the Borderlands keeps up after a surprisingly strong start, it might be Telltale’s best series since the first Walking Dead, but in the battle of Clem and Bigby, the wolf is king.

Despite reservations as to the longevity of the formula, I think Telltale have been producing solid episodic entertainment consistently and with enough variation in theme and character to remain interesting for a while longer. Is anyone in gaming making better use of licensed properties? The Lego games perhaps but their template makes even less distinction between one setting and the next.

Whenever I write about Telltale, my mind wanders to other fictions that I’d like to see them tackle. Dr Who is a perpetual favourite in comment sections and it’d be a good fit, and I’ve expressed my desire for a Poirot adventure series several times. But it’s the unexpected license that has impressed most this year. Borderlands could have been a cringeworthy collection of gags and characters zanier than Billy Zane’s family reunions, but instead it saw Telltale returning to comedy with assurance, and escaping the cruel and increasingly predictable shocks of The Walking Dead.

With their Fables adaptation they explored new ground, squeezing a gorgeous neon-saturated noir out of Bill Willingham’s fairy tales of New York. The detective work loses its way before the finale but the characters and dialogue are convincingly crafted caricatures and there’s an enjoyable liveliness in the weaving of folklore across the loom of a grim noir mystery.

The art and writing are Wolfamongous’ teeth and claws – the thick lines and exaggerated expressions find a good match in the gloom and glamours of the city, and the action sequences are weighty, pushing plot and characters forward rather than simply filling time.

There’s a distinct lack of actual puzzles but that’s the Telltale way now. These are interactive dramas, requiring a player to define the specifics of their protagonists’ characters and offering scenes and situations to unpick. As a purist’s adventure, the brilliant conclusion to the Blackwell series was probably the high point of the year, but as an example of Telltale’s willingness and ability to pursue fresh narrative genres and settings, these new Fables are a treat.

As is often the case with episodic television, there are occasional dips in quality across Telltale’s work, often depending on a specific episode’s writer’s treatment of the characters and setting – as an example, Pierre Shorette’s work here is far superior to his writing on the weak middle section of Walking Dead season two – but the studio’s strengths are usually enough to plaster over the flaws.

With The Wolf Among Us, the art team are at the heart of the success, along with Jared Emerson-Johnson, whose musical contributions were hugely important to The Walking Dead’s most effective moments. While I’d like to have more agency within it, it carved a place in my memory and, despite Its Grimm and gruesome qualities, showed that Telltale aren’t entirely dedicated to the misery mine of zombie land.

Graham: Masq is one of my favourite games precisely because it’s an adventure game without any of the ‘adventure’ bits. No puzzles, no inventory, just dialogue, hard choices and exciting consequences. Telltale’s previous series, The Walking Dead, seemed so close to reaching that, but was hindered by occasionally forcing the player to find an item or complete an ill-suited stealth section.

I liked The Wolf Among Us more because it takes another step away from LucasArts and another towards Masq. There are fewer puzzles, the action sequences are more brief, and that leaves you better able to focus on what Telltale do well.

In this instance, for the first time, I think what Telltale do well extends to the look of the game. Telltale’s engine is presumably designed to scale well and run on slower machines, but its lighting produces faces that look like they’re made from skinless aubergines and have a flashlight held beneath them. For Wolf’s noir tone, its purple streets, its children’s fantasy-gone-wrong characters, that works. It’s moody and, I think, has colours I simply haven’t seen much in games before. There’s still lots I dislike about the series – certain accents, every action scene – but it was the only adventure game this year that didn’t chase me away by feeling old-fashioned, and it’s the first Telltale adventure I’ve liked.

John: If, like me, Telltale’s slo-mo read-along-adventures leave you bewildered and cold, I wanted to drop in a few suggestions for other potentially bestest adventures from 2014.

Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell series finished this year with The Blackwell Epiphany, which Richard Cobbett adored. It’s been a lovely series, and you can see the significant arc in Gilbert’s skill and writing as the episodes progress. A fitting finish.

The Journey Down Chapter 2 finally appeared, and was marvellous. The strange tale of trying to find the forbidden Underland in a bid to uncover the secrets of a mysterious book is delivered in superb style. I wrote about it here.

And of course there was part three of last year’s best adventure, and indeed best game, Kentucky Route Zero. Adam celebrated its peculiarity here.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

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45 Comments

  1. Shakes999 says:

    Loved the season, even my buddy who hates games is hopelessly hooked.

    In before people complaining about graphics (which are fine) and missing the forest for the trees.

  2. malkav11 says:

    As much as I love recent Telltale games, I feel that identifying them as adventure games is not really accurate. When you remove all the “adventure bits”, surely that means it isn’t one anymore, and you need some sort of new terminology.

    • Pazguato says:

      Agreed.

    • MetaSynapse says:

      Talk-’em-ups, perhaps?

    • Emeraude says:

      Visual Novel. It’s a term that’s already in use, and it fits.

      Personally the games don’t do it for me. Interesting uses of what I call feint-collisions, but ultimately far too little significant interactivity/branchings/C&Q or whatever the latest trendy terminology happens to be.

      • malkav11 says:

        Visual novels are something entirely different. I just had this argument somewhere else. You don’t read Telltale games, you have tons of interactive conversations mixed with cutscenes and QTEs. You very much do read visual novels, hence the name.

        Interactive movie, maybe, or conversate-em-up.

        • Emeraude says:

          Is an audio book still a book ? Is a comic book ?

          More seriously, from a pure game design perspective, I don’t see anything that would be significantly different between this and a Visual Novel. So that’s the category in which I’ll fit it.

          • malkav11 says:

            “Is an audio book still a book ? Is a comic book ?”
            An audio book contains the same content as the book but differs enough in format and presentation to require distinguishing. A comic is not a book, it is a different medium. But a more apt analogy here would be whether a movie is a book, and of course it is not. Telltale’s games are in full motion and present very much like movies. Visual novels are novels with pictures and music.

            “More seriously, from a pure game design perspective, I don’t see anything that would be significantly different between this and a Visual Novel. So that’s the category in which I’ll fit it.”

            Have you actually played any visual novels?

          • Emeraude says:

            A comic is not a book

            I guess we’ll have to disagree on that one.
            But then given the US comic book industry felt so insecure in that matter it had to create the “graphic novel” moniker… might be a cultural perception gap.

            Have you actually played any visual novels?

            I do have. And again, structurally, from a game design standpoint, I don’t see anything significantly different.

            In both cases you have content that is meant to be ingested fairly sequentially (as opposed to the granularity of a game focusing on exploration), with spasmodic input from the player that may or may not trigger a content variation or branching on the content delivery.

            Works the same, slightly different presentation with barely significant impact from an overall design perspective (apart from making things more tedious upon replay maybe, since you can read faster than you can listen to a conversation).

          • malkav11 says:

            I entirely disagree with you, but if you’ve played both and still hold that opinion I see no point in pursuing this argument further. The differences are obvious and major to me. Apparently not to you.

            Re: the comics are not books thing: ask comic writers who have also written novels. Neil Gaiman, for example. They’ll tell you it’s an entirely different medium with its own needs and different things work or don’t work between the two. This isn’t to suggest that one is inferior to the other, or that it’s impossible to be good at both or adapt one to the other, with some work. But they’re not the same thing. Similarly, you don’t necessarily get great results from tapping a successful novelist or screenwriter to do games writing, or having a novelist do their own screenplay adaptation of their novel. Different media, different needs.

          • Emeraude says:

            I guess one issue is that you’re arguing that a novel isn’t a comic while I’m arguing that a comic is a a book.

            Similarly we’re probably not thinking on the same level for the games.

          • malkav11 says:

            If you mean a book as in a bound collection of paper pages with markings on them (in analog versions, at least), then I guess they share that format. I’m not sure why that would be important.

          • Emeraude says:

            It’s a matter of base format.

            A visual novel is a game genre descriptor. Again, from a purely game design standpoint, the fact that the content on display happens to be audio or video or text changes nothing. There’s nothing you can do with one you can’t do with the other in that particular design set up.

            Certainly, adding graphics and audio is going to change the way you write your script. But from a game design standpoint, it’s not going to change anymore than adding color to a movie doesn’t make a new genre from what it was in black and white.

            A text adventure game is still an adventure game, archaic that it may seems. It’s still build around the same design/mechanical assumptions. Those Telltale games, as games behave like visual novels.

            No point in creating a new term to describe a game type if it’s perfectly analogous, as a game, in the way it is build, to one we already have.

            Seems to me like you’re focusing on the “novel” part of “visual novel”, but it’s really an insignificant byproduct of historical evolution from a naming-convention standpoint.

      • Synesthesia says:

        This sounds about right.

    • mukuste says:

      It seems they have all the adventure bits, just not the puzzle bits…

    • demicanadian says:

      I’m not sure what Quantic Dreams call their games, but Talltale adventures are exactly what QD tried to create for years, but always failed miserably (with much financial win, but it’s another story).

    • noodlecake says:

      But experiencing the story is an adventure, surely? I dunno. They scrapped everything that wasn’t fun about adventure games and kept everything that was. I enjoyed The Longest Journey, and TLJ2, but I enjoyed Dreamfall more because there were less irritating puzzles getting in the way of me enjoying the world and the characters. I’m feeling the same with Dragin Age: Inquisition. The combat is horrendously dull, the abilities and levelling up is rubbish, yet you have to do that for hours and hours to be drip fed some interesting conversations. If they just made Dragon Age game in the style of a Telltale game, maybe allowing for some exploration aspects too, then I think they’d be on to a winner. That, or actually make the experience of levelling up and combat deep and interesting.

      I loved The Wolf Among Us anyway. I think I might have given the edge to Tales from the Borderlands though, but there’s only been one chapter so it wouldn’t be fair.

      • malkav11 says:

        It’s not the part that makes an adventure game an adventure game, no, or every game that has a story would be in the adventure genre.

    • Juan Carlo says:

      Ditto. Telltale games, or at least the new ones, do not fit into the adventure genre at all.

      Blackwell Epiphany should have had it.

      Naming a Telltale game “Adventure Game of the Year” at this point is a bit like the Grammies awarding Jethro Tull “Best Heavy Metal Album.”

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      This. Exactly this.
      I really like the games, there is however ZERO of the aspects that made classic point and click games also classed as adventure games. No exploring around looking for stuff, no trying to find things, just a linear set of scenes one after the other with absolutely zero ability for the player to do any adventuring at all.

  3. Philomelle says:

    I had it gifted to me during the Thanksgiving sale and I am… unfortunately struggling to enjoy it, mostly because of my familiarity with the original work. While a lot of the writing is good (the dialogue is definitely better than early issues of Fables), but some characters have their personalities pretty much completely changed just to make more room for situations where Bigby is the tormented hero.

    I mean, when I hear “Fables” and “Snow White” in the same sentence, I expect this and this, not whatever the hell that damsel standing in the background and furrowing her eyebrows with disappointment was.

    Granted, I’m only two episodes in, so I’m quietly hoping it will improve in that regard.

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      Oakreef says:

      See kids this is why you shouldn’t hotlink.

      • Philomelle says:

        Fixed the links! Sadly didn’t have the time to set up my own earlier, needed to leave immediately after the post.

        My criticisms of the story remain though, in that TWAU very frequently changes character personalities and breaches the comics’ (and its own) narrative logic in order to create more excuses for Bigby’s manpain.

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          Arnvidr says:

          It’s supposed to be a prequel, no? As much as I remember of the first comics, it seems to set up the characters fairly well. The story in the game “changes them” I guess.

          • Philomelle says:

            No, the characters don’t behave anything like their behavior in the game even during the comic issues set before the game. In fact, one moment is particularly gross because…

            Okay, I’m going to get a little deeper in. Spoilers as well as discussion of disturbing topics below this line.

            Snow White is a survivor of sexual abuse. Her background is based more off the original story of Snow White, where the dwarfs don’t keep her because they love her so much but because she agrees to do all the work around the house while they frolic in the mountains, a situation which eventually escalates very badly. In fact, one of the very first thing Snow does upon marrying Prince Charming is ask him for swordsmanship lessons, at which point she wanders off into the woods for a week and comes back strangely satisfied. All that happens centuries before the game.

            Sexual abuse and harassment are major triggers for Snow. The scene that introduces her in the comics has Beauty and the Beast kicked out of the office because Beauty makes a crude comment regarding the dwarfs. Little Boy Blue notices Snow rising out of the seat and immediately escorts the couple out, at which point he informs Beauty that she is tremendously lucky to have survived those words. So when the reveal with Crane’s sexual habits in the game happens and Snow does pretty much nothing about it, it’s both out of character (Snow would hang him by his own entrails off) and disgustingly tasteless (because it essentially causes a survivor of sexual abuse to have little agency in a case where she’s being sexually harassed) .

            And then you have scenes like the one in the bar toward the end of Episode 1. By comic book canon, it’s illegal to hinder or discriminate against someone based on their pre-Amnesty deeds, Amnesty being around the time when Fables first arrived into the human world. It’s why people like Bluebeard and Grendel still walk unhindered despite being serial murderers. But literally everyone ever takes a piss on Bigby for being the Big Bad Wolf despite it being fully within his rights to arrest all their asses for breaking the rules.

            I could keep listing the examples, but the point is that TWAU almost constantly breaks character personalities and narrative logic of Fables in order to create situations where Bigby has it very hard while also being the one in the center of decisions/spotlight. The entire story and its rules are restructured so they can more easily revolve around Bigby’s manpain and how hard he has it, being the Big Bad Wolf while trying to be the good guy. That Snow, a survivor of sexual abuse, might have issues with someone embezzling money from her office in order to transform a prostitute into a copy of her is promptly forgotten because it doesn’t focus on how hard Bigby has it.

            The game has good dialogue, but the overarching writing is terrible for those reasons.

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            cpt_freakout says:

            Philomelle, I completely get you. I did things the other way around: I played the game first and then read the comics. I was very pleased with the game, but after reading the comics I realized just how much of the story the game breaks in order to make its own points about life in Fabletown and its characters. However, that’s not necessarily bad, at least if you think of TWAU in terms of adaptations rather than a straight up translation from one medium to another. It’s like watching The Hobbit movies – purists hate them, but it’s just one more take on the book, and perhaps they are indeed bad adaptations, but as a series of movies they work fine, and are pretty enjoyable. I think the same happens with TWAU, inasmuch the writers decided to pretty much ignore the entire run of Fables in favor of riffing on ‘familiar themes’, and the result, while shitty at Fables, is pretty good when considered without it. (I guess another example is the Watchmen movie: it’s an amazing adaptation up until the ending of the story, and yet as a movie it’s too long and there’s almost no weight to certain characters.)

            I do completely agree, though, that Snow could’ve been much more than just a damsel, but there’s still hope that might be… corrected, in season 2, if there ever is one.

  4. islipaway says:

    I really couldn’t get along with this one. One minute I was ripping a dudes arm off and the next I was a saving a frog kid.
    If the choices you made earlier on impacted the choices you were able to make as the story progressed It would work better, rather than just choosing which version of Bigby you want to be in the particular scene.

    It probably doesn’t help I find the idea of fairy tale characters in reality to be ever more groan inducing than zombies though.

  5. Spider Jerusalem says:

    Heartily enjoyed the first episode, but my interest declined in direct proportion to the quality/coherence of the storytelling as the game wore on. Ended up abandoning it midway through the fifth, figuring I’d seen the best it had to offer.

  6. povu says:

    I almost forgot that The Blackwell Epiphany weas released this year. Great ending to a long running series.

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      Bluerps says:

      Yes! If I had to pick a best adventure of 2014, I’d go with that one.

  7. BreadBitten says:

    It’s ironic that the most “grown up” game this year is one about fairy tale characters. Game of the year as far as I’m concerned…

  8. Laurentius says:

    I liked how it started, the first two episodes were great , then it somehow lost energy for me, lost its detective story part, and turned into something diffrent but ultimatley weaker, two last episodes ending somehow flat for me.

    • pepperfez says:

      That’s roughly how I felt about the comic, so maybe they’ve got the feel just right?

  9. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    I loved this, possibly my personal bestest best game of 2014 (at least until you guys mention some other game I’ve forgotten about up till now). The puzzles, such as they are, still felt like they needed enough interaction from me to make me feel clever, especially compared to the walking dead’s tendency to go “I don’t want to do that right now” until I found the one thing that my character did feel like doing. And the atmosphere and characters were superb, especially with the secondary plot of how much of a monster I wanted to be.

    (The trial thingy at the end was stupid and anticlimactic though.)

  10. technoir says:

    *spoilers for Wolfamongus and Walking Dead’s first season below*

    I was so sure I’d love this one to bits, but the lack of meaningful dialogue options beyond choosing whether or not to be a raging asshole and the awful vestigial investigation scenes just broke it for me. I still liked parts of it (the third episode is great) but as a whole it kinda falls flat.

    There’s just no sense of ownership over your actions. I’m not asking for big plot branches, I’d simply like the game to acknowledge the way I’m choosing to interpret Bigby. For example, the courtroom scene in the finale would have been a perfect chance to reflect your choices back at you by having the characters side with or against you depending on your earlier interactions with them. Instead the whole thing is fully on rails with only one or two casual mentions of your misdeeds, which was quite jarring since I had been roleplaying as a great big jerk. Everyone bashes Walking Dead for being too scripted, but at least in its finale the characters would actually choose not to help you if you had been a git.

    All this praise for Wolfamongus makes me feel like I’m missing something, especially since I loved the first Walking Dead season and liked the second one despite it suffering from some of the flaws described above as well. Wolfamongus looks so pretty, and this whole interactive TV show formula has so much potential that I wanted to love it so badly, but I can’t.

  11. Stellar Duck says:

    I like this one well enough but I felt it took a dive after episode one. The remaining four episodes were decent but never close to episode one in quality. They felt disjointed and somewhat hap hazard and I didn’t get on as well with them. Which is a great shame as I consider the first outing one of the best things of the year. :(

  12. Eddard_Stark says:

    Bestest interactive animation you mean? Hardly a game there, let alone an adventure. And that’s coming from someone who *liked it for what it was*.

    • airmikee says:

      I agree it’s more like an interactive movie than a traditional game, but interactive movies are a sub-genre of adventure games.

  13. Unknown says:

    I still don’t know why everyone was so lukewarm towards Broken Age Act 1. I thought it was plenty charming. That gets Best Adventure Game from me, because Telltale is just really not my style and KRZ got an award last year.

    • Acorino says:

      I still don’t understand that either, especially the charge that Broken Age is somewhat sexist. This essay‘s argument rings more true to me. It considers Broken Age to be a reflection on white male privilege. Equating Mog Chothra with the patriarchy may be a bit of a stretch, though.
      In my estimation Broken Age would be the best adventure game of the year if it were already released in full. So instead I’ll pick Blackwell Epiphany

    • noodlecake says:

      “Excitingly, one of the protagonists, Vella, is a young woman of color. At first I was disappointed to see that the other protagonist, Shay, was another standard young white male.”

      I can’t really read past the first two lines of this. Somebody who goes around playing games and feeling less interested because one of the playable characters is male and white is pathetic. That automatically puts them in camp “bigoted asshole”. The idea that characters are defined by the colour of their skin, that all white males are the same is a pretty dangerous and unpleasant way to think.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        More social justice hypocrisy on show. Whilst constantly bleating on about people being equal regardless of gender and colour they are the ones who instantly think less of a game with a character who is a white male because……something….something…privilege…something.
        I don’t give a crap about the gender or colour of a character because I’m not a sexist or a racist. They make instant judgements based on these criteria, so you have to ask yourself, what does that make these people?

  14. bodydomelight says:

    Just finished this yesterday. So good. I am considering selling my soul to CCP Games to get them to hand over classic World Of Darkness to get the Telltale treatment. How good would that be?

    So good. You don’t understand how good that would be.

    It’d be SO good.

  15. Tiax says:

    “Whenever I write about Telltale, my mind wanders to other fictions that I’d like to see them tackle. Dr Who is a perpetual favourite in comment sections and it’d be a good fit”

    Omfg YES

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      I would love to see them do Dexter. Dexter would be fucking epic as a Telltale game. Wolf Among Us style forensic investigation combined with “Kill the person, Yes/No” decisions. He’s always sneaking around after dark etc so the whole “do you lie to this person (his wife, sister etc)” conversations would fit really well too and I think just the overall theme of the book/show would fit the Telltale style perfectly. Sadly the show has been over for a while now and Telltale seem to only want to focus on the most popular and current subject matter for the most part.