The thing that sucked me into Fables was how intimately familiar it was with the inner workings of the stories it drew from. There have been many contemporary stories with old-school fairy tale characters, but Fables had an eye for tiny details. It delighted in turning some tropes on their heads while preserving others for posterity (with varying degrees of success). Reading those comics was like falling along a Mobius strip, going from reimaginings to classic story and back again.
Until episode three, I didn’t realize that this was the thing I’d been missing from The Wolf Among Us. In all other ways, it felt like a Fables story. Same characters, similar-enough artwork, the correct balance of darkness, magic, and wry humor. But it was missing that secret ingredient — something that became apparent the minute it was mixed back in.
Mild spoilers for all three episodes of The Wolf Among Us, as well as for those who haven’t read the comics.
Up to this point, The Wolf Among Us has been a dyed-in-the-wool detective story. Angry men, dead women, grisly crime scenes, creepy sexual obsessions, desperate people doing desperate things. We know this kind of story well. Despite the things that gave me pause, the delivery felt carefully thought out, and I got the sense that there was some level of self-awareness in the storytelling. In my review of the second episode, I praised the inclusion of a brothel with actual narrative intent, which I saw as a reflection of the writers and designers being savvy about common tropes. But that was in the context of video game trends. Genre, oddly enough, was not my primary focus, not until a character uttered the following gem:
You think I like being the old woman in these stories? The men are heroes, the ladies are whores, and the old hags like me get to watch everyone they love die.
It’s a short line, stuck into the middle of a fast-paced argument. The other characters don’t acknowledge it. But I did. It changed the whole tone of the game for me.
The character in question is talking about fairy tales, and her ability to recognize her own archetype is nothing unusual in this universe. She’s a Fable, and Fables have no illusions about what they are. But apply that line to the detective genre, and it fits equally well. Apply it to the first two episodes of this game, and it fits equally well. You don’t hold a mirror like that up to your own story unless you’ve been planning a misdirect. You don’t show your hand unless you’ve got a card up your sleeve.
When I think back on the episodes that came before, I can see a pattern emerging. The first episode is the standard stuff of police procedurals — well done, but par for the course. The second episode shows more nuance, but we remain in familiar crime noir territory. The third starts doing that thing the comics do — coaxing you into a story you think you know, showing you how the whole thing works, then managing to surprise you anyway.
Things got a little nuts after that line. In the scenes that followed, the conclusions I’d made unraveled, and the clues I’d found explained nothing. All good detective stories need a twist, but this one was a real sucker punch. The stakes aren’t what I expected. The new bad guy’s not who I expected (and she’s terrifying). Bigby’s in over his head, and he doesn’t have a way to pull himself out. For a punch-first-and-ask-questions-later protagonist, he’s feeling remarkably powerless right now. (Which is not to say that I as a player felt powerless. On the contrary, I love it when heroes have shortcomings.)
I also continue to be impressed with Snow White’s character development, especially because I was so skeptical of her in the first episode. In some ways, she’s a more compelling character than Bigby. Perhaps it’s because Bigby’s a closed-off guy by nature, but Snow’s growth is easier for me to a get a feel for. With every episode, she becomes more confident, more determined, and less willing to put up with bullshit. She’s still nervous about taking over the business office, but she’s not going to let that stop her. When Bigby enters scenes where she’s already present, it’s clear she’s been busy working within the community, trying to forge connections, trying to do the job Ichabod Crane failed at. When they’re in scenes together, she feels like Bigby’s counterweight, just as she does in the comics. I am less inclined to throw punches and lose my cool while she’s there. And even when she’s not there, I find myself increasingly trying to temper my reactions, because I want to show her that I’m not the Big Bad everybody thinks I am. It’s funny — I know how their relationship evolves in the comics, so it’s not that I’m worried about the outcome. It’s more like I’m intuitively trying to weave this narrative into the one I already know. The illusion that I’m writing my own story is strong here.
The tricky part about reviewing an episodic game is that my impressions can be totally undone by the following installment (please reference: my original feelings about Snow White). Even so, I hope the next two episodes continue to follow the same genre-tweaking pattern I’m beginning to see in the first three. I want this game to become its own Mobius strip. I want my expectations challenged. I want to keep seeing interesting female characters (there’s a whole bunch of them now), and I want Bigby to have a glorious comeback. I think that’s what I’m getting, and it makes me very happy.