Telltale's The Wolf Among Us has always had a tricky task: Tell a story with a theoretically infinite number of famous characters, based on a comic series that not all of its players have read, and keep things reasonably focused and coherent. Give Fables fans what they want; give everyone a story that makes sense.
I thought episode one and episode two of Wolf were both cool enough, but something still felt unsatisfying about them. It was some combination of the low-key writing, the noir vibe, a couple of unreadable performances, and Telltale's lingering technical issues... the whole thing just hadn't quite gelled. Doubtless due in part to the fact that they had to set up more than a half-dozen characters and plotlines, the first two episodes felt lacking in a crucial energy that they needed to push things forward and make me really care.
Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of The Wolf Among Us, as well as very mild spoilers for episode three.
Episode three, "A Crooked Mile", goes a long way towards rectifying the lingering issues I'd had at the start of the season. The episode is a tightly wound race against time with a corker of a conclusion, but it gains most of its oomph by finally going back over its roster of established characters while taking time to begin to interrogate the inner lives of its two leads, Snow White and Bigby Wolf.
So far, Wolf has been hampered the need to tell a story that's relatable both to longtime Fables fans and to newcomers, all while making the whole thing fit within the confines of a season-long adventure game. In "A Crooked Mile," the foundation has been laid, and things finally begin to snap into focus.
Ichabod Crane's sick obsession with Snow has been exposed, and the obvious signs point to him being Faith and Lily's killer, too. (At least, he seems like the killer if you've never read a noir detective mystery, which apparently Bigby hasn't.) Episode three tells the story of Bigby and Snow's race to find Crane before he can make an escape, and to unmask and stop the killer fable once and for all.
At this point in the story, The Wolf Among Us has enough characters in play to fill out a football squad: There's Bigby and Snow, The Woodsman and Grendel, Dee and Dum Tweedle, Ichabod Crane, Holly and the Trip Trap Bar, Mr. Toad and his son Toad Jr., Bluebeard, Georgie Porgie and his brothel of sadness (featuring the Little Mermaid), Beauty and the Beast, Bufkin and the Magic Mirror, along with a number of welcome new cameos by characters from the comics and even a new villain or two.
The writers of "A Crooked Mile" have wisely decided to keep things focused on the already established central cast, and the plot of the episode has Bigby and Snow returning through many of the locations from the first two episodes. While the recycled locations doubtless save Telltale some time and money, they also help the story feel more graspable. The potential to call up every potential fairy-tale character from every fairy-tale world has long been the Fables comics' strength and their weakness, and with episode three, Wolf's writers have mostly capped the cast of characters. Time to get down to business.
With the players set, the board locked, and the game afoot, The Wolf Among Us finally allows itself the space to investigate its main characters: Snow White, who has had leadership thrust upon her and doubts her ability to rise to the task, and Bigby, the mysterious man they call the Big Bad Wolf.
Of course, those of us who have read the comics know all sorts of things about both of them, playable protagonist Bigby in particular — his history with Snow, his unusually intense family lineage, what he got up to during World War II — but those who are meeting him for the first time don't have all that backstory. Sure, Bigby seems kinda pissed most of the time and we can tell there's a terrible beast buried deep within him. But at several points in "A Crooked Mile," characters openly question Bigby's motivations and his essential nature and, in a nice touch, players are given a healthy amount of space to choose how to shape his responses.
Better still is Wolf's subtle exploration of the character of Snow White, and of the relationship between her and Bigby. "A Crooked Mile" repeatedly gives players the opportunity to act out Bigby's longstanding admiration and respect for Show, and some of the episode's most tense scenes revolve not around life-or-death action, but around the tension between Snow's authority as the acting head of Fabletown and Bigby's more impulsive desires.
The writing is generally strong throughout the episode — just about every surviving member in the season's sprawling cast is ushered on and offstage without things feeling rushed, and characters frequently indulge in that particular Fables sort of fatalism that, interestingly enough, works really well both for a noir mystery and for a tale about storybook characters. "You think I like being the old woman in these stories?" a witch asks, grimly reflecting on her existence as a fantasy archetype. "The men are heroes, the ladies are whores, and the old hags like me get to watch everyone they love die."
"A Crooked Mile" may end with a doozy of an action sequence, but by and large the episode doesn't feature that much action. It's better for it. Telltale's brand of crusty QTE-combat is at odds with Wolf's lovely art direction and otherwise low-simmer vibe, and the sooner the game studio can ditch their "Move the red circle over the other circle and press a button"-style fight sequences, the better. I enjoy Telltale's games for the characters and the atmosphere, the stories and the interesting moral quandaries. Do these games really benefit from periodic reflex-tests? "A Crooked Mile" suggests that no, they do not.
After two enjoyable yet faintly disappointing episodes, the first season of The Wolf Among Us has found its center. I'm hopeful that it can keep up this momentum through to the conclusion — I have my own theories about how it will all play out (as, I'm sure, do most of you), and I'm very much looking forward to seeing if I've guessed correctly.
Two episodes left, and a reckoning is coming to Fabletown. This should be good.