Last year, Telltale Games released a remarkable product. The Walking Dead was both a critical and commercial success, garnering praise both upon release and in end of year roundups. It was a game that used an episodic structure in a way that actually enhanced the game, made the player’s choices more meaningful than role playing games developed with budgets many orders of magnitude larger, and most definitely did better credit to The Walking Dead source material than other multimedia adaptations.
It was the best sort of breakout success. A game that exceeded not just the expectations for Telltale’s next licensed adventure game (they had been churning out such titles to no particular recognition for years) but also the expectations for what was possible within the genre and format.
That was 2012, though, and Telltale has released the first episode of their next project. The Wolf Among Us is another comic property licensed into an episodic adventure game. Zombies are out and fantastic creatures of fairytale are in. That, aside the two games seem to share an awful lot in common. Same developer, same genre, another comic property, same slick cel-shading that looks good on everything from Xbox to iOS… playtesting this seems as easy as running a checklist of feature comparisons making note of any particular additions or subtractions from the winning formula. It is to this game’s great credit that such a playtest would be absolutely inappropriate. That playtest would be able to tell you about changes in mechanics, graphics filters, the new audio… but those are the features that define iteration in games—Telltale has moved beyond that.
The one comparison it is fair to draw between The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead is that they are both stories. Legacy video game quirks like quick time prompts, menus, and clicking on everything that glows exist only in service of the narrative. There are no contortions to justify time spent between what just happened and what happens next. Because this game exists to be a vehicle for a story, it must be judged based on the quality of that story in the same way that an action game is judged for the quality of combat mechanics. That is why a comparison of features between Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us is meaningless. It’s like comparing sim-racing and kart-racing. Last year, Telltale released a dystopic horror fiction that effectively leveraged horror iconography, juxtaposition of innocence and death, and no win scenarios. The Wolf Among Us doesn’t do any of that and it doesn’t matter one bit.
That’s because The Wolf Among Us is a different beast entirely—it’s straight up noir.
So is it a good noir? Well, it’s certainly a faithful one. Episode one is by necessity mostly laying ground work for plot twists yet to come and because of that most of the characters get a scene or two even if they aren’t yet relevant to the murder mystery at hand (because of course it’s a murder mystery). All standard genre archetypes are present and accounted for—a jaded and cynical protagonist, an ineffective authority, a girl in need of protection, a crooked enforcer… if you’ve seen much of the genre at all you know these characters not only by their name in this universe but also by several others. Whether these pieces come together in ways that are ultimately satisfying without being derivative we won’t know for many episodes yet but all the usual suspects have been rounded up.
It is not too early to take stock of the cinematography on display though. The distinctive use of shadow that originally earned noir the name is used expertly throughout and contrasts wonderfully with the oversaturated purples and yellows that fill this New York City. The stark cel shading used here wasn’t available in the 1940’s when the form originated but proves to be perfectly suited. Streetlights carve perfect colored circles on the pavement, the protagonist’s perpetually unkempt clothes always look like they’ve been slept in (and by the end of the episode they have).
I enjoyed episode one of The Wolf Among Us immensely and will absolutely be following up on future episodes. I’m a fan of film noir and I’m overjoyed at the rare opportunity to experience a modern genre entry. Does my enthusiasm mean that you should be enthusiastic too? Only if you come from a place of similar passion, I’m afraid. To most this story is simply a mystery and the merits of that mystery will remain unproven for several episodes yet. To some others this is an opportunity to experience a story set in their beloved Fables universe, and sadly I do not read the comics so cannot comment on how franchise fans are or are not served. However, for a select few this story is the most promising adaptation of noir into video games since Hotel Dusk on the Nintendo DS. I speak to those people when I say that you can’t miss this game. I don’t expect The Maltese Falcon out of this, but it sure seems more promising than Key Largo!
Food for thought:
1. I struggled with “film noir” versus the more generic “noir” when writing this up. Can we please just get a lot more games like this so we can comfortably establish “game noir”? That would be great, thanks.
2. The totally meaningless features rundown that shouldn’t influence you at all: online decision tracking is back from Walking Dead, cel shading is slightly improved (may just be because of the more distinct color palette), quick time fighting is back and more forgiving about inputs, front end of game is WAY slicker now. Very cool title screen.
3. Yes, I made multiple decisions that I regretted (sometimes immediately). No, I did not allow myself to change any of them. That would be cheating.
4. Don’t even get on my case. I know what you’re about to say. I understand Key Largo is a classic… it does not deserve that rep. It’s okay at best.