There are limits to just how much critical analysis you can squeeze into a game review. People generally expect and deserve a relatively spoiler-free read, and while there are no hard and fast word limits, erring on the side of conciseness is generally a good idea.
Sometimes a game deserves more though, and The Wolf Among Us is one such title. In reviewing the five episodes that comprise the game, I’ve given out both my highest and lowest scores for NZGamer.com - to the surprise and disagreement of many readers, especially in the case of the final episode.
In the light of this, and of the way Telltale attempt to tackle a lot of themes with The Wolf Among Us that videogames tend to steer clear of, I thought it was fitting to address the series - as a whole - without the restrictions of a review. To look closer at just what the game gets right, what did doesn’t, and why it got the scores I gave it.
Before reading on, be warned: the game, and this article by extension, deals with some sensitive topics like sexual assault and systematic violence. It’s also rife with spoilers.
First, a brief recap of the background and plot of The Wolf Among Us. The game centres on Fabletown, a hidden community of Fables - displaced fairy tale and folklore characters - in New York City. The Mayor, Ichabod Crane, is the figurehead of the Fabletown government, but the Deputy Mayor, Snow White, is really the one who runs the show. Bigby Wolf, a reformed Big Bad Wolf, is the sheriff.
The discovery of the severed head of an unknown Fable sends Bigby and Snow on an investigation that ultimately leads to the uncovering of murky Fabletown underworld, ruled by The Crooked Man (“There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile…”) Operating outside the law, The Crooked Man offers a helping hand to those Fables who can’t turn to the government for support, but with a very high cost.
To start with, I want to look at some themes that The Wolf Among Us got absolutely spot on throughout the entirety of its run: class disparity and justice.
The idea of class division is one that’s ever present in the Fables comics upon which The Wolf Among Us is based, so it’s only fitting that the game give it the same kind of attention. It does this with great success.
From early on, The Wolf Among Us shows players that Fabletown is very much divided. There are those who live in The Woodlands, who - if not necessarily rich - are generally reasonably well off. These are your middle- and upper-class Fables. Then there are those who can’t afford an apartment in The Woodlands, and are forced to live elsewhere; typically in run-down apartments in the more shady areas of Fabletown.
As class always is, the divide between the Woodlands Fables and the rest is much more than just financial - it’s also social and systematic. The Fabletown Government operates out of The Woodlands, so those who live there are much closer - in a literal sense - to the structures upon which the community is based. They’re also the “more important” citizens of Fabletown, whose interests are put first when it comes to the running of the community. Not from any overt sense of favoritism, mind you, but simply because they wield more social influence.
A powerful image of this privilege is seen in parallel scenes in the first and last episodes, in which Bigby jumps a long queue of Fables waiting outside the Business Office in order to speak with Snow White. In the first episode, Fabletown is run by the more-or-less corrupt Ichabod Crane, and so this preferencing of Woodlanders could be seen as Crane’s fault. But in the finale, the scene is mirrored, almost exactly, despite Crane being out of the picture and Snow White, with her ideals of fairness and equality, now in charge. The problems are systematic, and require much more than just removing a figurehead to fix.
What The Wolf Among Us really does well is show us just how grim life is for the lower-class Fables. And note that I said show, not tell.
Much of the game is spent investigating various leads to try and find the killer, which inevitably brings Bigby into contact with many of these non-Woodlands Fables. Through his conversations with them, as well investigations of the living quarters and workplaces of these characters, the game paints the difficulty of life outside The Woodlands in a way that’s hard not to empathise with. The most potent example of this is in Episode 3, when Bigby speaks with Holly, a troll in mourning over the death of her sister. Though seemingly delirious from a combination of grief, wounds, and medicine, Holly speaks at her most lucid: “Do you even give a sh*t about us? The strays?”
This comes to a head in the final episode - one of the few things I felt it did really well - when The Crooked Man reveals just how many Fables had come to him for help. Sure, he may be a criminal, but he was still much more in tune with their needs and desires than their own government.
Most significant though? The fact that, despite this being a game driven by choices influencing the narrative, there’s nothing you can do. No series of choices will magically fix Fabletown; you can’t just pull people out of poverty. This is a problem that’s bigger than Bigby. Bigger than you.
THE COMPLEXITIES OF JUSTICE
The other strong point of the series’ finale, and of The Wolf Among Us as a whole, is the way it looks at the theme of justice. More specifically, the way it questions a black-and-white notion of justice that we like to believe in, and that is so often at the core of videogame narratives.
In early episodes, this idea is brought to life through Bigby and his struggles with his past. He may be reformed, but he’s still a Big Bad Wolf at heart, and these tendencies show up when he’s interrogating suspects. When you’ve got Tweedledee in custody, who appears to be connected to the murders and to know more than he’s letting on, how do you go about extracting that information? Do you try and talk it out of him, despite his obnoxious taunts and refusal to speak? or do you get physical, beating up a restrained man who is clearly involved and knows more than he claims? Is justice in the process, or the outcome?
In the finale, The Crooked Man is brought before the rest of Fabletown for a “trial” of sorts. There are plenty who want him dead, thrown down the bottomless Witching Well or worse. And, though he has all but admitted to being responsible for two murders - despite not being the one to carry them out - nobody has any proof. What do you do, then? Is justice sentencing a man without proof, when you know he’s guilty? Or is it letting a guilty man walk free because you can’t prove his crimes?
The most impactful show of just how flawed this idea of justice can be has nothing to do with The Crooked Man, though. It’s to do with a minor character, Mr. Toad, and his son, Toad Jr. You first meet these two at the start of the first episode; as the names suggest, Mr. Toad and Toad Jr. are humanoid toads. Called to a disturbance at the apartment block in which the Toads live, Bigby reminds them that they need to have glamours - magical spells that bestow an alternate appearance on the wearer, typically used to disguise non-human Fables as human. Toad can’t afford the required magic, but without it, he risks getting sent to The Farm, where Fables who can’t pass for human live.
Upon returning to his apartment, Bigby finds Colin, one of the three little pigs, waiting in his apartments. Colin is a frequent escapee from The Farm, and hides out with Bigby when he returns to the city; though he doesn’t seem to enjoy Colin’s company, Bigby tends to let him stay and tolerates his presence - perhaps as atonement for his past sins.
In Episode 4, Snow White starts making an effort to clean up Fabletown’s ruling body, and do everything by the book. Part of this means sending non-human Fables like Colin and the Toads to The Farm. In speaking with each of them separately, you’re given a choice in how to respond when Snow says they need to go. Colin ultimately seemed harmless, and was rather likeable, so I told him I would speak to Snow and sort something out. In speaking to Mr. Toad, however, who is brash, confrontational, and annoying, I told him he’d have to go. That’s the law, after all.
These two conversations were separate enough that I didn’t really make much of a connection between them until the final episode, when Mr. Toad brought it up. Sitting in the back of a ute with Toad Jr., ready to go to the farm, Mr. Toad said those words filled me with guilt: “What about your friend Colin, huh?”
What is justice, if it’s something reserved for those to whom we feel little or no connection?
As expertly as The Wolf Among Us dealt with the themes above, they were overshadowed by the series’ stumbling attempts to explore other ideas. In most cases, these were things that the earlier episodes did a good job of raising, but were forgotten about in the closing chapters (though others simply came down to poor execution).
BIGBY'S INTERNAL CONFLICT
This is perhaps the most jarring thematic departure for The Wolf Among Us’ finale, given how much effort was put into building it up as a central idea for the series in the earlier episodes, and how well it ties in to the game’s exploration of justice.
Bigby is a conflicted character. Formerly the Big Bad Wolf, he’s turned over a new leaf and now serves Fabletown as the sheriff. Only, he’s not completely reformed - he still has that Big Bad Wolf inside him, always threatening to come out, and while he is more or less a good guy now, he doesn’t always play by the rules in his pursuit of the truth.
Throughout the first three episodes, this is a constant source of turmoil for Bigby. He could very easily just give in to the wolf and play judge, jury, and executioner, but that’s a side of himself that he’s trying to move away from. That’s something easier said than done, though, as the wolf frequently rears its head and causes Bigby (depending on player actions) to get rough with suspects.
One of the single most memorable parts of the entire series is a brief quick time event in the first episode. After visiting the scene of a disturbance, Bigby is attacked by The Woodsman, a former hero who’s turned into a violent alcoholic after being displaced from the Homelands. At one point in the fight, Bigby and Woody’s arms are locked, and you have to mash a button to try and overpower your adversary. Only, you can’t succeed - The Woodsman’s too strong than Bigby’s human form, so you’re left helplessly mashing a button with no hope of success, but with failure not an option.
Suddenly, Bigby’s eyes turn yellow, and within a button press or two the gauge that you couldn’t get past halfway is full. The Woodsman is thrown aside. In that brief moment, you get a complete sense of just what it is that Bigby’s going through; a split second tells you more about this character than hours of exposition would.
Adding further weight to this conflict is Snow White, who serves as something of a moderator to Bigby’s behaviour. She is committed to a by-the-book ideal of justice, which often brings her into conflict with Bigby’s occasionally violent approach. But clever writing demonstrates the level of mutual respect between the two, and - more importantly - makes you, the player, care about what Snow thinks. Suddenly, when faced with the option of punching a suspect like Tweedledee, who makes a strong case for getting punched, or talking to them, you’re thinking twice before going down the violent path.
But this all gets lost in the final two episodes. Episode three ends with Bigby going into a full wolf form, out of desperation rather than any kind of violent urge. He’s been completely overpowered by the Tweedles and a new villain, Bloody Mary, and his transformation is more of an instinctual reaction. It’s also the only way he can get out of that situation alive.
From that point on, though, it’s pretty much fair game. He goes into wolf form at the drop of a hat in episodes four and five, with no consequences whatsoever, and the whole Big Bad Wolf angle becomes played as a spectacle, rather than a conflicted part of the character. At its most ridiculous, a scene in episode five sees wolf-Bigby running through the streets of New York, chasing The Crooked Man as he escapes in a car, destroying everything as he goes. But nobody - Fable of Mundy (the Fables’ name for non-magical people) - blinks. There are no repercussions for his actions; it’s just something that he does now.
The one point that episode five does question Bigby’s behaviour, its as an afterthought. In an act of mercy, Bigby kills Georgie Porgie - the person who actually carried out the killings - rather than let him bleed out in a slow, painful death (you can opt to leave him alone, too). Ignoring the mercy part, The Crooked Man tries to turn the spotlight on Bigby by pointing out this incident, and trying to label Bigby as a killer. (How The Crooked Man knows this, I don’t know, since Bigby is the only witness who is still alive, but I digress.) Everyone gasps, and… that’s the last of it. No consequences, no nothing. Bigby is just part wolf now, it’s just his schtick, with any element of introspection of commentary on the part of the writers gone out the window.
SNOW WHITE AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Episode two ends with a cliffhanger that suggest that Crane, Fabletown’s mayor, might be the murderer. In episode three, it becomes apparent that he’s not. Rather, he’s a creep who’s obsessed with Snow White, to the point of having a regular appointment with a sex worker magicked to look like Snow.
Upon finding this out, Snow is - quite understandably - very upset. Suddenly, a litany of weird interactions between her and Crane start to make sense, and take on a tone much more akin to what they are - sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment and assault are often used in games as a way of characterising villains. You show a guy raping, or attempting to rape, or yelling abuse at a woman, and you have a quick and easy way to paint “bad guy” on his forehead. But the woman being made the victim here is forgotten about, she’s simply part of a plot device used to show how evil the evil guy is.
But in The Wolf Among Us’ third episode, the focus is on Snow White as much as it is on Crane. Sure, it’s used to show that Crane is more of a pathetic creep than a villainous mastermind, but plenty of attention is also given to how the revelation impacted Snow, on how violated she feels. It begins to open up an important dialogue about the impacts of sexual harassment that games almost always gloss over.
But, before it’s had a chance to really be explored, that theme is abandoned. Snow is a non-factor in the last two episodes, and this newfound aspect of her character is completely forgotten. It’s almost as though the writers for the last two episodes came in with a blank slate, with no knowledge of what had happened before.
THE SEX WORKERS ARE VICTIMS TROPE
Much of The Wolf Among Us revolves around sex workers. The murder victims are sex workers, the killer is a pimp, the person who ultimately sentences The Crooked Man with a piece of false evidence is a sex worker.
And, while some of these characters get fleshed out a bit more than sex workers often do in games, the whole narrative still reeks of the “sex workers are unhappy / forced into unpleasant work because of life circumstances” trope that is both divorced from reality and incredibly harmful.
Sex work is a job, and like any job, people get into for different reasons. Sure, some are desperate for money or down on their luck, but there are also plenty of others who do sex work because they enjoy it, or because it fits in with their lifestyle, or for any other reason. I know plenty of sex workers - I don’t know any who are in that profession against their will.
The way sex work is portrayed in The Wolf Among Us, and in so many other stories, is harmful because it feeds a pervasive idea that sex work is somehow seedy or immoral. And it’s this idea that makes sex workers so heavily discriminated against. New Zealand, where sex work is legal, is one of the more progressive places in the world - in most countries it’s against the law. This immediately labels sex workers as criminals or outcasts, and puts them outside the arbitrary bounds of a good and moral society. More importantly, it means that sex work is unregulated; and it’s this lack of regulation that allows the kinds of horror stories about pimps taking advantage of workers to proliferate.
Sex work is just a job, like any other, but the way it’s portrayed in The Wolf Among Us reinforces the idea that it’s something shady, immoral, and only used as a last resort for people down on their luck. It dehumanises sex workers by denying them any sense of agency.
One of my harshest criticisms in my review of episode five was its focus on villains, whom I described as flat and uninteresting.
The worst offender of these is The Crooked Man himself. The first four episodes all build up to the big reveal of who exactly this person is, but what is shown is underwhelming. Despite getting at least an hour of dedicated screen time in the finale, The Crooked Man is shown to be little more than a mob boss who believes himself to be the saviour of the Fables that the government has forgotten. There’s no characterisation, no attention paid to the implications of his beliefs - just a repetition of them, ad nauseam.
This is depressing because, like Bigby’s conflict, this idea could have - and should have - tied in so well to the justice theme. The Crooked Man raises some valid points about Fables falling through the cracks and being forgotten about, but they’re the same points raised much more eloquently by Holly.
They’re also not explored in any meaningful way. Remember how I said the earlier episodes ‘showed’, instead of told? Well the finale is all telling, all exposition, with no attempt to involve the audience in the way the earlier episodes did. And this, right here, is the biggest failing of the episode, and of the series as a whole.
The Wolf Among Us was a series that showed a lot of promise, and endeavoured to tackle a lot of complex themes that videogames tend to stay away from. Some of these it got absolutely right, like its exploration of justice - and how flawed that notion can be - and the light it shines on divisions of class. But too many others fall through the cracks, and are left half-baked as the latter half of the series took a turn to focus on poorly written villains, with all the strengths of the early episodes lost in the process.