Telltale Games hit upon a winning formula for choice-driven play in 2012′s The Walking Dead, and now the studio is at it again with The Wolf Among Us, a prequel to Bill Willingham’s Fables comics. With episode one (out of five) set for release in late-September/early-October 2013, we’re finally getting a chance to take a look. Telltale gave us a peek at the first hour of the debut episode, so read on for a sense of what’s to come. Those who are unfamiliar with Fables might first want to check out our rundown of Willingham’s universe for additional explanation and context.
The dirty days of New York City. The Wolf Among Us is set 15 years before the events of the first Fables comic, which debuted in 2002, during what Telltale informs us is New York City’s “pre-Giuliani” era. This is a much dirtier Big Apple, a place where Disney sensibilities haven’t yet overrun Times Square, and where the Lower East Side is teeming with addicts rather than hipsters. You might not visit these locations in this particular story, but Telltale’s intent is for the city to play a starring role alongside familiar characters like Bigby Wolf and Snow White.
The Wolf and the Woodsman. The opening minutes of episode one follow Bigby as he heads to a Bronx tenement inhabited by New York City-dwelling Fables. There’s a report of a domestic disturbance of some sort, and the Big Bad Wolf-turned-Fabletown sheriff heads uptown to investigate. Mr. Toad is waiting for him just inside the building’s front door, clad in a bathrobe and spitting out an angry string of profanity-laden cockney slang about all the racket going on upstairs. The brief, humorous exchange sets up the confrontation that’s about to occur, while relating a few key facts about the Fables fiction.
Bigby heads upstairs to find a bald, bearded mountain of a man shouting and smacking around an apparent call girl. We learn from the dialogue that follows the sheriff’s arrival that this is the Woodsman, of Little Red Riding Hood fame. He’s no fan of Bigby’s, and the man-wolf’s presence only further enrages the angry storybook character. He’s refusing to pay the call girl for… uh… “services rendered” and she, in turn, refuses to leave until he does. Bigby intervenes only to find himself locked in a brutal fistfight that ends with a plummet to the sidewalk outside followed by a well-placed axe swing.
Murder most foul. Bigby’s confrontation with the Woodsman is just a bit of scene-setting. The Wolf Among Us narrative really kicks off when the sheriff returns to Fabletown proper and the Woodland Luxury Apartments where he, and other Fables with money dwell. We meet a number of familiar faces here – Snow White, Grimble, Bufkin, the Magic Mirror, Beauty and the Beast, and Colin, of the Three Little Pigs, as well as Ichabod Crane, of Sleepy Hollow fame. Crane is acting mayor of Fabletown at the start of the story, though it’s not clear where the actual mayor, Old King Cole, has gone.
We are introduced to Crane when a murder quite literally comes to Fabletown’s front door, with a young woman’s mutilated remains found on the steps leading into Woodland. Bigby and Snow inform the acting mayor and are immediately chewed out for their efforts. Crane is only too happy to throw blame around, and he seems to have no love for Bigby in particular. The demo ends as Crane storms out to indulge in his morning massage – it’s good to be the Fabletown mayor, apparently – while Bigby and Snow puzzle over the facts of the case.
Familiar, yet different. The Wolf Among Us evolves Telltale’s now-signature approach to adventure game design. Tales of Monkey Island begat Back to the Future begat Jurassic Park begat The Walking Dead. There’s a clear path of growth and UI/UX tweaks that you can chart as you move from one game to the next; The Wolf Among Us is simply the next logical step in that progression.
You see it immediately in Bigby’s showdown with the Woodsman. There is much more of an interactive feel to both the environment and the appearance of quick time event prompts. Grapple the Woodsman into a choke hold and you’re presented with an over-the-shoulder view of his apartment, dotted with multiple locations that you can choose to ram his head into. The QTE indicators are also much more stylized now; instead of a downward-facing arrow across the center of the screen, prompts appear in locations that the action naturally draws your eye to. When the Woodsman pulls back to deliver a punch, a Y button icon appears over his balled fist. These are minor touches to be sure, but they more effectively place you inside the scene.
It’s your choice. Just like The Walking Dead, player choice is once again the principal focus in The Wolf Among Us. You’ll still see familiar pop-ups alerting you when one character or another is going to remember a certain thing you said, but there are enhancements as well. Certain moments present a very straightforward set of choices: you can do one thing or some other thing, but you’ve got to choose one. You may be able to do the other one later, but the passage of time ensures that circumstances will likely have changed by then.
An example: the demo ends with one such choice moment, in which players must decide between one of two destinations for Bigby. On the one hand, he’s deduced the identity of the murder victim and needs to pay a call to her husband, both to let him know what happened and to gauge him as a possible suspect in the crime. You’ve already spied the soon-to-be grieving husband in the Magic Mirror, and he doesn’t seem to be in the best shape. On the other hand, there’s a call from Mr. Toad that the Woodsman’s apartment is being ransacked by an unidentified someone.
There’s still a larger, singular story at work with its own big beats that are going to happen one way or another, but your choices in moments like this one influence the specific path that Bigby follows. Telltale promises a much more robust rundown of players stats at the end of each episode as well. It’ll be similar to what we saw in The Walking Dead, though Wolf‘s use of more transparent choice-driven moments allows for a more elaborate stats rundown.
Motion comics. The Wolf Among Us looks like Willingham’s comics come to life. The influence of Lan Medina and Mark Buckingham’s imagery is felt immediately. You can see how this game was built on the same foundation that The Walking Dead was, but the colors pop more vividly, with less grunge and cleaner shading. The backgrounds look as though they could have been pulled directly from the pages of the comics, from Bigby’s dingy shoebox apartment to the sprawling clutter of Fabletown’s cavernous business office.
Hearing voices. Fans of the Fables comics will no doubt pause and reflect as they hear these familiar characters speak for the first time. Telltale’s casting (from what we saw) is fine, make no mistake. Bigby sounds like the gruff, hard-living detective that he is. Mr. Toad’s bubbling cockney fits perfectly. The voices undeniably work. Unlike The Walking Dead‘s main cast, however, these are characters that fans have gotten to know over 100+ comics. There’s definitely a moment of adjustment as you hear them speak for the first time and reconcile how they sound with how you thought they sounded as you read the comics.
It’s Fabletown. While the Fables comics don’t necessarily open on happy times for our beloved Fables, it seems that things were much worse 15 years earlier, during the events of The Wolf Among Us. Bigby’s early encounter with Mr. Toad establishes a lower class of NYC-dwelling Fables, beings that struggle to make rent and, for the non-humans that don’t want to live upstate on the Farm, can’t afford to pay for the magical “glamors” that keep their true identities hidden.
It’s an earlier time for our characters too, which means – for example – that the more tender side of Bigby that emerged in the later Fables issues remains untapped. You can see the foundations of future relationships even in the first hour of episode one, but it’s not in an overly wink-y manner. Willingham’s cast of complex characters translates well into Telltale’s adventure game framework; fans should be excited to see where Wolf‘s story takes them.
The Wolf Among Us appears to toe a careful line between servicing fans of the comics and introducing newcomers to an unusual fantasy-meets-reality world. Necessary exposition slides seamlessly into the opening hour, providing important information without overwhelming or boring the player. The Walking Dead was a monumentally promising new step for Telltale’s particular approach to story-based adventure games, and Wolf appears to be well prepared to carry those ideas to new heights.