Urban fantasy has grown in popularity over the past decade. The popularity of franchises like The Dresden Files, Supernatural, Once Upon a Time and Grimm have gathered a large audience interested in seeing how magic, myth and legend would work in a modern setting. While authors and producers had dabbled in the genre since the mid-1980s, it didn’t come into prominence until the early 2000s. One work which greatly pushed urban fantasy into the public eye was the comic series Fables. Created by Bill Willingham, Fables focuses on the classic characters of fairy tales and folklore after they were driven from their homeland by a malevolent force known as The Adversary. With their own world lost, they traveled to the human realm, establishing a small community in Manhattan they call Fabletown. There they begin new lives while keeping the truth of their existence a secret from regular humans, which they refer to as “mundanes” or “mundies”. The comics have been praised for their sharp writing, captivating artwork, and unique reinterpretations of fictional entities like Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf. In 2011 Telltale Games announced they were developing an episodic adventure game based on the comics, The Wolf Among Us, which was released in five installments between October 2013 and July 2014. As they did with The Walking Dead, Telltale delivered an incredible work that was faithful to its source material while adding its own original, impressive touches.

Fabletown looks after its own. To minimize interaction with the mundies, the fairy tale community refuses any help from the NYPD, instead relying on their own one-man police force to uphold the law – Sheriff Bigby Wolf. Formerly the Big Bad Wolf, Bigby claims to have reformed like so many other Fables with violent pasts and now seeks to make amends for his past crimes. But old wounds are hard to forget. Many Fables believe he’s simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing, putting on an act until he has an opportunity to wreak havoc again. Others accuse him of doing more harm than good when he needs to get physical while enforcing the law. On the surface Bigby tries to shrug off the criticism, but inside he wonders if he really is making a positive difference. The doubt hits harder when the severed head of a woman he’d previously saved from assault is left near the door of his apartment. A second female Fable is found decapitated soon after, sparking fear that a serial killer is at large. In his hunt for the murderer, Bigby wanders into the darker corners of Fabletown, uncovering sinister secrets he and his superiors never knew existed. Something wicked is brewing, and if Bigby can’t stop it, no Fable will live happily ever after.

 

For those unfamiliar with the Fables series, The Wolf Among Us serves as an effective introduction to its mythology. Players get an immediate feel for the world and the people who populate it thanks to a solid establishment of their personalities, problems, and roles in the community. Traits and demeanors are made clear through their interactions with others, not through heavy exposition. It’s clear that the Fables are struggling to adapt to their new lives among normal humans, with several like Ichabod Crane lamenting over the simpler times they had in their homeland, where each of their stories had a set beginning, middle, and end without any unnecessary complications. Every new character or location encountered also unlocks an entry in a glossary which provides further information. Players that have been following the comics will go in with a better idea of what to expect, but they’ll still find some moments of intrigue as they see what these characters were like before the official series started. However, any truly shocking twists might not be as effective on players better versed with Fables’ lore, since any characters assumed to be dead that later appear in the comics clearly must survive.

 

As a detective story, The Wolf Among Us evokes both hardboiled film noir and gritty police procedurals. The murder which kicks off the plot happens very shortly after the introduction with a victim that Bigby had met previously, creating a strong sense of intrigue. Was she targeted because of her connection to Bigby, or is someone threatening all of Fabletown? As the investigation progresses players are exposed to the darker side of the fairy tale world. Those in power are either inept or corrupt, and almost everyone has some secret to hide. During the investigation several odd motifs are encountered, most notably why every prostitute working in Fabletown wears a ribbon around her neck and why they respond to most questions by simply saying “My lips are sealed.” It’s easy to figure out the significance of the ribbons in connection with the murders, but the cause of the repeated phrase came as quite a surprise to me. Even the ending is reminiscent to that of The Usual Suspects c truly shocking twist it delivers.

 

Fables who are especially desperate to keep their dirty laundry a secret won’t hesitate to get violent, resulting in several bloody fight scenes. Admittedly there are moments when the game tries too hard to indulge in adult-oriented material, mostly with fights that drag on too long and unexpected full-frontal nudity in Episode 2, but they don’t ruin the experience. Overall it’s one of the more effective and engaging subversions of classic fairy tales because it doesn’t simply take these classic stories and make them dark or morbid. It places characters we know into scenarios we can relate to that they’re unfamiliar with and showing us how they cope with the situation.

 

Fables has never shied away from using fantasy and fairy tales as allegories for current social and political issues. Willingham has attracted controversy for using his series to promote several of his conservative views, including his opposition to abortion and support of Israel (he’s gone on record as saying that the plight of the Fables fighting to retake their homeland is a metaphor for the nation of Israel.) While Willingham had no hand in writing the game’s script, he did supervise the process to ensure it met with his approval. Unsurprisingly, some political commentary crept into the final game, either from Telltale’s staff or Willingham himself, though it never becomes overwhelming or excessively heavy-handed.

 

The central theme which drives a significant portion of the narrative is that of social and economic inequality in Fabletown. Only a lucky few Fables have the luxury of living in the prestigious apartment complex at The Woodlands where they’re the first to receive government assistance. Everyone else falls through the cracks, left to fend for themselves. If they have any grievances or requests for aid, they’re either ignored or left waiting for weeks, even months. Fabletown’s government is severely understaffed, yet many in this small cluster of bureaucrats more concerned with satisfying their own interests than serving the people. Disillusioned by the lack of help through official channels, several Fables seek out less than desirable methods of making ends meet, usually through prostitution, theft, or selling black market magic. When their activities are exposed, the same government that refused to provide support won’t hesitate to punish them or treat them like dirt without bothering to try and understand why. Strife and resentment grow, but the root of the problems are glossed over, as is seen far too often in many communities with gross economic disparity.

 

One reoccurring plot element which served as a parallel for several social issues was the concept of glamours, magical artifacts that allow non-human Fables to adopt a human guise. Glamours are necessary to move among the mundies without drawing undue attention. If a Fable refuses to use one, or simply can’t afford to keep replacing them, then he or she is forcibly sent to an upstate annex known as “The Farm”, which is really nothing more than a prison that tries to distract its residents from their lack of freedom by offering superficial luxuries. Yet as Mr. Toad points out to Bigby, the cost of glamours keeps rising even though their effectiveness has diminished. As with all of the middle and lower class’ problems though, they’re just told to find a way to make things work or suffer the consequences without any government assistance. Not only do the glamours reflect society’s rejection and ostracizing of those who don’t conform to preset standards of beauty, but they also stand in for the growing problems with health insurance; reduced coverage in spite of increased payments, and penalties for those who don’t purchase them much like with the Affordable Care Act.

 

Bigby Wolf fits into the standard depiction of a gruff, no-nonsense private eye who is abrasive to almost everyone he encounters and won’t hesitate to get physical if the situation calls for it. Normally this would result in a flat, uninteresting character, but voice actor Adam Harrington is able to give the sheriff significant depth. Depending on the player’s choices, Bigby can be intimidating, gentle, or ruthless as he pursues the case, though at several points it feels like the game is guiding players to make him act kind. I chose this option because I felt it best suited the character – determined to see justice was served while working to atone for his past crimes as the Wolf. In this playthrough I could see genuine sincerity and determination in Bigby, but when he needed to fight, the rage was unrestrained. If he ever gives into his rage he will revert to his savage lupine form, which does happen at several points in the game, though players have no input over when it happens to symbolize how he can’t control his transformations. It also appears that Bigby isn’t that well versed in human law enforcement protocol as he made several glaring mistakes: handling evidence without gloves, cuffing a suspect’s hands in front of them rather than behind the back, and turning his back on someone with a loaded weapon.

 

Aiding Bigby in his investigation is Snow White, Fabletown’s Assistant Director of Operations. Portrayed by Erin Yvette, she has perhaps the most realistic range of emotions of any character in the game. Instead of being restricted to simply one or two demeanors that remain constant, she reacts like most people would to the various situations she encounters. Snow is shocked and horrified when the first murder occurs, bitterly disgusted by the government’s failings, sympathetic to those suffering, and shows fierce determination to fix the various wrongs in Fabletown. While she begins the game as an engaging character, her arc transforms her into someone thoroughly unlikable. Upset at how inept the government is run, she decides that the only way to bring order is to strictly enforce their laws, even those that end up hurting Fables like the decree that non-humans must go to The Farm. This could be considered political commentary as well, if Snow is meant to represent politicians who promise hope and change for the better, but once in power become just another part of the system and abandon those who supported them.

 

The Wolf Among Us has a large supporting cast, so for the sake of brevity I’ll only discuss those who left the strongest impressions on me. Ichabod Crane, the Deputy Mayor for Fabletown, is loathsome from the moment he’s introduced, condescending to everyone around him as he flaunts his authority to do whatever he pleases. Bluebeard is just as repulsive, relishing in any opportunity to inflict pain on others for his own sadistic pleasure. Most of the Fables encountered have their own flaws, yet not as severe as Crane’s or Bluebeard’s. Beauty and the Beast have become yuppies living in splendor despite the heavy debts they’ve incurred while putting up a front of marital bliss to hide the tension between them. Bufkin the flying monkey provides amusing comic relief by blurting out inappropriate comments at the wrong time and drunken antics. The trickster Jack Horner was sadly underused, but in the few scenes he was featured in he made an impact with his cavalier conman attitude.

 

Regarding the antagonists, The Crooked Man presents himself as refined and affable, his crippled body making him appear weak, but if provoked he can be as brutal as any able person. He runs Fabletown’s underworld, operating several profitable schemes that those in the Business Office were either unaware of or paid to look the other way. In his crooked mind he considers his actions justified since his enterprises provided steady work and pay for Fables that couldn’t get government assistance. Of course, he isn’t above forcing people to work in harsh conditions or calling hits on those who oppose him. None of his subordinates really grabbed my attention except for Bloody Mary. She’s as vicious as Bluebeard, but far more psychotic. Mary’s violent insanity can be so over-the-top that it frequently drifts into the realm of black comedy.

 

Telltale’s licensed games have always been heavily story driven, and The Wolf Among Us is no exception. Most of the gameplay is focused on conversing or interacting with other Fables to drive the plot forward. Several options are provided with different behavioral reactions from Bigby. Players can choose to be considerate and understanding or aggressive and violent depending on what they consider the best course of action is for a specific situation. Silence is also a valid response if there’s a situation where the player doesn’t know what to say or who to side with, though not saying anything can be interpreted by others as indifference or refusal to help. A timer adds to the tension by requiring players to quickly choose what they want to say or do before they no longer have a chance to respond and the decision is made for them.

 

While on the surface the dialogue choices appear to offer nothing more than excuses to portray Bigby as unrealistically noble or a sadistic jerk who revels in hurting people just for the hell of it, they have much deeper consequences. Everyone Bigby encounters will remember what happened between them – whether the Sheriff was willing to offer help, if he gave into violence and cruelty, or if he kowtowed to the powers that be. How he treats others ultimately affects how they’ll respond to him as the story progresses. Witnesses may be more willing to share leads if Bigby treated them well before, or they’ll avoid him out of fear if they saw him revel in his more monstrous nature. There are also situations without “correct” responses where players need to decide if pragmatism or morality has greater precedence. Bigby could offer assistance to a Fable that’s unable to get aid through proper channels, but that will make him look bad to his superiors in the Business Office. A suspect may refuse to talk if subjected to brutal interrogation techniques, though empty threats and playing nice could also make them keep quiet if they feel the Sheriff is all talk. The final chapter is heavily affected by many of the choices made when Bigby has to convince the public to take his side in a trial, and players learn just how great an impact their decisions had throughout the game.

 

There are hardly any conventional puzzles aside from a brief section in Episode 2 where spinning discs need to be aligned to make an image. I did run across a few instances where I thought I’d found a puzzle item to add to my inventory, such as a set of Tarot cards, but they were ultimately irrelevant. It’s a shame because they could have been used for a complex code instead of being wasted. Instead, to reflect Bigby’s profession as a cop, most of the puzzles are centered around gathering evidence and selecting the right dialogue options. Episode 1 requires Bigby to investigate a crime scene and out a witness’ lies by determining where the physical evidence and their account differ. In addition, choosing which of two areas to search first plays a key role in whether a character lives or dies. The final part of the second episode involves profiling the murderer based on what was left behind at the location the most recent victim was killed. Both are great concepts that help players further immerse themselves in the role of a lone detective, but they’re never used again after the chapters they’re introduced in. And again it falls into the trap most mystery-oriented games do where even if the player is wrong, they’ll still be guided to the solution simply to keep the plot moving. Investigations are weakest in the third and fourth episodes where Bigby must choose the order in which he’ll investigate several areas pertaining to the crime. Nothing significant comes of his decisions other than the characters he interacts with or some missing evidence, but in the end it all leads to the same destination.

 

Quick time action sequences like those in The Walking Dead are interspersed throughout each episode. When fighting or chasing enemies, players need to rely on the WASD keys to move in the basic directions to avoid getting hit or making a wrong turn. Occasionally they’ll need to rapidly tap the Q key to build up an immense amount of strength, or click the mouse in a specified area to strike Bigby’s opponent with an object. These sections create incredibly intense sensations not only because of how visceral each impact feels (even without vibrational feedback), but because there’s no way to know which attacks will be fatal. It forces players to focus and respond quickly since any hit taken could potentially end the game. The system provides for some impressive battles against formidable foes like Grendel, the Beast, and the Jersey Devil, but they fall into the same repetitive patterns of dodging and clicking to land a hit. A battle against Bloody Mary offers some variety when she summons multiple copies of herself to overwhelm Bigby, though I felt it could have been made better if while fighting the duplicates, players had to destroy any reflective surfaces around them to reduce Mary’s power.

 

The visuals are similar to the cel-shaded comic book style seen in The Walking Dead, but much more stylized and vibrant with a larger color palette. Character expressions, even from non-humans, appear natural. Night scenes pop from the contrast of neon colors and well-placed shadows. The only aesthetic that’s lacking are fully animated transformation sequences for Bigby and other monstrous Fables in human guise. The transitions are either instantaneous or happen when the camera cuts away from the character as he or she changes, which felt like a lazy design choice. I didn’t really find the soundtrack that memorable, even though it had a large selection of songs. Jared Emerson-Johnson composed many scores that reflected the multiple facets of the story: synthetic-heavy 80’s inspired rock that you’d hear in detective shows of the era, heavy somber pieces for the more dramatic scenes, even woodwinds and chimes to capture the fantastic elements. But for some reason, they just never really clicked with me.

 

The Wolf Among Us is another excellent example of how games are moving forward as a method for telling deeply layered interactive stories. Telltale has once again shown that they know how to properly handle adaptations of other media, though it isn’t as strong as The Walking Dead. It’s a perfect game for those who are long-time fans of the Fables series who want to know more about the characters in earlier times and for people less familiar with the comics as a solid starting point. With all the potential plots that could be set in Fabletown, I truly hope we get a second season.

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