PANEL TO PIXELS: The Wolf Among Us (2014 video game)

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Panel to Pixels
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**Panel to Pixels is a new column that will examine video game adaptation of comic books. I’ve discussed a game’s take on specific characters only a couple of times in the past. And really, I had always figured this blog would focus on film and television. However, after playing this game I felt the need to share it. And once the flood gates are open, you know how it goes…**

Comic books and video games have had a long history together. Sadly, that history has largely been marred with sloppy, second-rate productions that are more about cashing in on a licensed character than they are about making a decent game (Superman 64 immediately springs to mind). That said, there have been some shining examples of how good a comic book video game can be. The Arkham series has created a bankable franchise out of Batman and his ever-expanding rogues’ gallery and a game based on X-Men Origins: Wolverine ended up being far, far better than the film of the same name. Again, those are the rarities. Whenever a comic-based game is announced it’s always met with a healthy dose of skepticism, even if the company working on it has a proven track-record in designing top-notch licensed content.

Hell of a run…

Telltale Games is a studio that has made a name by creating episodic game content. Their games are essentially released chapter by chapter in order to tell a complex, character-driven story. They found great success with this strategy a few years ago with The Walking Dead (another good comic game). In early 2011, the company announced that they were releasing a game based on the popular Fables series published by Vertigo Comics. The comic follows fairy tale characters of legend as they are forced out of their story-book homelands and live in exile in our mundane world. The series has continued for 150 issues and spawned numerous spin-offs and tie-ins. It’s an imaginative story that brings a healthy dose of darkness back to these tales that have so often been co-opted by Disney. It sounds like a match made in heaven: a game studio known for creative, narrative-focused games adapts a story full of vibrant, nuanced characters. What could possibly go wrong?

Snow White, the softer side
of Fabletown Justice.

It turns out, not much (gotcha). The Wolf Among Us (wisely leaving out the Fables title, so as to attract new gamers unfamiliar with the comic) follows frequent comic series protagonist Bigby Wolf, former Big Bad antagonist of legend and current sheriff of Fabletown (the portion of New York that many of the imaginary creatures inhabit). The game opens with Bigby confronting his ancient enemy, The Woodsman, before settling into a noirish detective story. Like Telltale’s previous episodic content, the game plays like a modern-day point-and-click adventure game. For the most part, the player moves a cursor around the screen and uses it to decide what action to take (look at the magic mirror, talk to the magic mirror…). That’s combined with other, more action oriented moments that play out like quicktime events. In those instances, the player is required to hit a button or joystick at a precise moment to get a desired effect. For most modern games, these antiquated controls would feel clunky and obtrusive. But Telltale Games have managed to refine this gameplay mechanic quite naturally into the narrative. Granted, if this were a run-and-gun adventure game, it would feel completely out of place. Since the story focuses more on detective work and character interaction, it works wonderfully.

As mentioned earlier, Fables, the comic has been running for a very long time and has numerous spin-offs. To avoid any sort of confusion, the game is a prequel, taking place a good 20-or-so years before the first issue of the comic (and is actually a direct prequel to issue #22 of the main series). This means it’s a great starting point for new readers…or players…both. Before playing the game, I had read comparatively little of the series. I’d gotten through the first five issues, and that was back in 2003. Since completing the game, I’ve re-devoured the first volume and continued reading. Currently I’m finishing the 40th issue and eyeing one of the spin-offs. I guess that’s about as good an endorsement for a game as I can give, right?

Bloody hell, Mary.
Creepy man.

Since the world of Fables is populated by all manner of fictional folk, many familiar faces from the comics make appearances. Aside from Bigby, Snow White, a straight-laced bureaucrat, acts as his assistant. She’s the yin to Bigby’s yang and acts as his conscience in more than one instance. Their foil is the skeevy Ichabod Crane whose only ally is the sociopath Bluebeard. A few other tertiary characters make appearances (Bufkin the flying monkey is a nice addition that adds some levity) but a majority of the secondary roles are filled by new characters. The aforementioned Woodsman has never shown up in the comic before nor have many of the lowlife-Fables that run afoul of Bigby. The Tweedle twins (Dee and Dum) are new to the series as is Bloody Mary (who is a shockingly great villain) and the genius who sets the plot into motion, The Crooked Man. There are some other great additions as well but there’s simply not enough time to address them all.

“I thought YOU were gonna save him!”

One last character of note is one who isn’t terribly important in terms of the narrative, but is interesting to discuss. His name is Prince Lawrence. Within myth, he’s the love interest in the fable of the Donkeyskin Girl, which plays a fairly big role in the narrative and is a German folk-tale that I had zero knowledge of before this game. Anyway, Lawrence is the first character in a Telltale game whose fate is wholly dependent on the decisions that the player makes. One criticism the game publisher frequently gets is that decisions seem to not have much weight. In The Walking Dead, character deaths often happen regardless of what the player decides. You can choose to save someone, but they may just die in the next scene anyway. However, Prince Lawrence’s fate is entirely in the player’s hands (more than once). And he’s not the only one, a couple of other characters may die (or get maimed) depending on how it’s played. The importance of these decisions leads to greater introspection when making them. Which, in turn, adds weight to all of the decisions made. There’s no telling how deciding to go to the pawnshop before the butcher will affect the outcome of that section of the game, but it can be certain that there will be consequences.

If you’ve never played a Telltale game, this is a great place to start. If you’ve never read Fables, this is a great place to start. And if you’ve been reading the comic forever, this is a nice prequel to the series proper. Basically, you should definitely give this game a shot. It’s a very adult tone which doesn’t betray the source material (or the source material’s source material) and completely enhances it while also telling a singular, nuanced story. Well worth the few hours it’ll require.

“Forget it Bigby, it’s Fabletown.”

There has been talk of a second season (since the chapters of this and The Walking Dead are released episodically, the complete game is known as “a season”) but thus far, nothing has been confirmed. The ending leaves just enough open that it could continue this story or it could forge along with something completely different. There are very nearly limitless opportunities for these stories due to their nature, so just about any time period would make sense. My only idea is switching the protagonist. As much as I love detective stories and Bigby Wolf (who is fast becoming one of my favorite comic characters) I think it would be cool to control Jack of Fables. He’s seen briefly in the game where he skews somewhat toward the antagonistic side. This fits in with his comic persona of being a dimwitted screw-up, but he was interesting enough to carry his own spin-off series for 50 issues. I think it would be interesting to build a game around a protagonist who isn’t necessarily likable or reliable. I’d give it a shot. What do you say, Telltale?

“Don’t worry, Bigby. I’ve got this…”

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