The Wolf Among Us
The Wolf Among Us fails to establish its setting making the story less plausible
In world building, it is not the epic Elder Scrolls or The Lord of the Rings series nor is it from the strange mind of Quentin Dupieux, Nicholas Refn or Darren Aronofsky. It does have a fascinating setup: fairy tale characters escape and live in the real world. Strangely familiar, this setup has already been done by a film including Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones: Men In Black. In a world where aliens are living and disguised as humans, what would that look like?
How the game adapts fables instead of simply referencing them is worthy of discussion. In the first place, why use an existing story character and expectation as basis? With that in mind, consider its use in RWBY, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Punch-Drunk Love and Kingdom Hearts. Ranging from being direct to sublime, expanding or using on existing stories provide more material to work on.
A sad answer is bringing hype around the character as with Batman and Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Iron Man and Captain America in Captain America: Civil War or Darth Vader in Rogue One where the list would never end if I continue. It does help marketing when big names or expectations are present. Reuse, reduce and recycle.
With these numerous references and scales, I believe this game does a good job without being trapped in the fables. Despite having several backstories and settings, it is not excused in establishing its own setting. This article is not a rant but more of an analysis on how important the setting is fundamental to the character's action within the story.
The basic story is a murder mystery where Big Bad Wolf is the protagonist while Snow White is the lawful partner. This is not a film noir but a story about the moral ambiguity and responsibility of being a civil servant. In comparison, The Walking Dead also presents the same theme and message but focuses more on the meaning and value of paternity. Whereas the setting of that game is within a realistic natural world, this game uses a fictional city and world that needs to be explained to the audience.
This is a problem of using a fictional world: allocating time in explaining the basics of the world. If done correctly and creatively, it immerses the audience and opportunities in story telling. Phrases such as "once upon a time" or "in a world where" is a testament of this value. What explanation does the game owe us?
Starting with the mechanics, the crux of allowing mythical beings to coexist with human beings is the disguise magic or item known as glamour. This allows trolls, frogs and Beast to walk with the crowd. If mythical beings walk outside without disguise, it is breaking the law in this town that our protagonist must apprehend.
What complicates this is that it is both expensive and a common good. Imagine if electricity, water or taxes is more expensive then you understand how poverty plays into our mythical beings pockets. If you want to be an honest fable, you have to pay up. Aside from the typical magic, this is the basic world building presented early on.
Everything else seems to be presented in a typical noir city with basic services such as bars, taxis and clubs. It is a city that appears fine on the outside where many stories are working on as in Harry Potter. By using this setting, it is assumed that usual physics and logic is held in this universe. Normal unless stated otherwise.
The story already has several plot holes but I want to focus on how a lack of world building undermines the story.
As basic as it is, it is not explained that well. The story fails to answer these questions:
- How much is glamour?
- In this fictional world, how expensive is it? How does it compare with ordinary goods? The characters keep saying it is expensive but it isn't shown or emphasized. Without basis or comparison, it undermines its theme of poverty.
- How long does it work?
- Following up, how often does it need to be refreshed? Even if characters stay indoors the whole time, it is required by law to pay for it thus the question of frequency and duration should be answered. Aside playing into the twist of the story, it compounds with the previous question and theme as well as playing into cheap and illegal quality glamour.
- How does disguises work?
- When using glamour, what disguise do you get? Can you switch disguises after choosing? Rather, can you switch to the disguise of others? This question plays into the early issue of Snow being killed. If characters have no true face or identity, no character can be thought as dead without checking for glamour that many ending theories hinge on. Mission Impossible anyone?
If glamour does plays into empathizing with their living condition, then it deserves some attention and answer.
The true actors and highlight of the story. As important they are, they fail to answer these questions:
- Why are live in this town?
- I do know it is answered by the opening narration and probably answered within notes but not emphasized within the play itself. If fables hate living there, why not go somewhere else or why not go back? Rather, why not fight back? Rather, what I want the game to go back to the fabled universe and show why going back is not possible.
- Can Fables die?
- How are fables made? Are fables born and die every minute or are fables fixed? What does it mean to kill a fable? During the numerous action scene, how durable are they? The lack of explanation undermine how those scenes are believable. All I see is a bunch of quick time events, not a fight for life. Their longevity is also in question when they have been doing their job for hundreds of years. Do they even age if they are immortal? The game does not explain the life cycle of a fable.
- Why a fable goverment?
- What does it mean to govern fables? Who or what decides who the leaders are? If nobody wants the wolf to be sheriff, why is that in the first place? Most of the cast whines so much where no reason is truly given. Rather, did the wolf choose or not? The game merely assumes a government without clear reason or responsibility.
These unanswered questions keep pestering the actions of the characters. Why do our character do what they do if the setting they are in has no reason?
The jail of the game where fables who break the law go. Here are some questions about it:
- What id bad about it?
- Is it really a bad place? The game merely says it is but not shown. Isn't better to go there if free food and lodging is waiting?
- Why is there such a space?
- If a place can be designated for fables, why are they stuck with the responsibility of blending in? Rather, is this an representation of immigrants? If so, the game does not show choice.
All I need is the story to visit this place to see if the farm is for animals or fables. Without it, I see no reason having no glamour would be unreasonable.
The greatest offender is the protagonist himself. Another set of questions:
- Why does he get a final form?
- I understand glamour hiding the true form but our protagonist whips out a final form that decimates the enemy out of nowhere. Where was the foreshadowing?
- How strong is he?
- Whereas getting hit in a quick time event is enough to knock the hero out. This is a problem with quick time events that is a problem of having it in the first place.
- Why silver?
- Rather, how much canon are we taking? This reminds me more of vampires mythos instead of red caped girls.
- Why the wolf?
- I believe this is part of its popularity and wolf-sheep related jokes. Admittedly, choosing a role reversal for a victim-villain story is a good choice; however, it implies the caped girl be a villain in this story? In this world, she is dead, thus the possibility is lost.
I do not comprehend who our protagonist is and he is capable of. All I see is a substitute film noir detective for the player, not a fleshed out villain turned civil servant.
Adding all the previous points, why adapt the characters if they are not truly used? To be fair, the game does not assume you know the myriad of tales to play which is acceptable; however, what is the point if their baggage is not used neither is the world truly built for them to live? The question is what does the setup truly achieve? Instead, I opt for a sci-fi setting and little is lost. Think about it if Men in Black can tell the same story if you make the protagonist a wolf.
Nothing is wrong with using this style as with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance yet it uses its characters more for their plot than just references and indulges in using the quirks of the characters. In comparison, this game is disappointing in both regards neither fleshing out the existing story nor playing of their unique strengths. As a singe adaption, I appreciate if it was more in the style of the game The Path or film Jin-Roh where the fable is either the setting or the theme.
If the setting is merely dressing, then it is a sheep in wolf's clothing. If the story is about moral ambiguity, then how does bringing immigrant fables support this. Is making stories irrelevant talking about equality or identity in the face of moral choices? Is making fables leave their homes talking about identity and fate despite environment as with BoJack Horseman? Such fascinating ideas or questions that might be stretching it too far but the ideas for the setup are there to reap.
I remain hopeful but I see no evidence where the setup is crucial to the story. The game has to lose pacing and immersion if such questions lose suspension of disbelief, for me quite frequently. Maybe, the use of a fantasy noir style seems to be just an aesthetic. I adore the style and nothing is wrong with just being slick; however, it feels more hollow as a story. If it is style, then let is shine.
If you need more evidence, think about the following plot points if the question about the setting were answered:
- Who is Nerissa?
- If glamour was explained, how many theories about Faith can be answered? I understand it emphasizes the moral ambiguity of choosing to go after her but the choice comes out of left field for the player who has to understand that Nerissa might be Faith or someone else entirely. In short, I feel the twist is unwarranted and complicates matters more than it has to.
- Who is the Crooked Man?
- Is he a fable? The witch during the trial hinted that he might be. This is important to understand why the villain is the villain. I understand he is from Mother Goose but no emphasis was placed on his origin in to other fables. Empathy to his plight or motive and empathy to his fellow fables would give the villain more depth and nuance.
- How much do fables know of other fables?
- Do they all know each other and their stories? What is their community? What is their web of relationship? This answers the motive of each character as well as pacing. Everyone knows the sheriff yet as if knows nobody and some form of introduction slows the story down. Rather, the sheriff is not as sharp or street smart which begs my faith.
- What magic?
- When the sheriff is caught by the human police, why is their magic to wipe out memory like the flash? Wouldn't that imply witness may be unreliable? What about the magic mirror? Wouldn't that imply loss of privacy? Rather, how much observation magic is present in the first place? Does magic even cost anything? How about the Crooked Man's door magic? Why is he the only one employing such protective magic? The use of magic feels more Deus Ex than actual mechanics tied in the story. Without explaining it, it feels more Deus Ex than an element of the setting.
I don't need a full explanation but enough to keep my suspension of disbelief. It just feels that the game could be written more tightly and efficiently to make the story more believable.
Again, I commend the game for its effort but its elements seem superfluous to what story it is trying to say neither is it integral to the game. I weakly recommend playing it but it is still fun as a casual experience.