The lights are on
It’s been awhile since I’ve walked with Bigby Wolf. “Faith,” the first episode of Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, released in October, and in the interim I’d spent waiting for the next episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” I hadn’t forgotten what transpired. What did slip my mind, however, was the oppressive bleakness of the twisted fairytale world. On that end, “Smoke and Mirrors” pulls no punches. It’s not necessarily an even chapter, nor does it advance the game’s story exponentially (at least not until the final moments), but it takes its time, offering a more complex look into and darkly-lit, fascinating setting.
As with most mysteries, discussing this episode necessitates a bit of exposition, which may or may not be detrimental to anyone wanting to play the game without any foreknowledge of its content. After the dramatic confrontation in the dive bar at the end of the first episode, Bigby finds himself embroiled in another murder mystery brought, literally, to his doorstep. In standard noir fashion, intrigue leads to disturbing questions found in dark places.
And by dark, I mean something other than just poor lighting. Bigby finds himself in a morgue-like dungeon, an all-business-welcome strip club, and a seedy hotel used for prostitution—in addition to some disappointingly recycled locales from the first episode that add little to the world’s richness. Each location bears at least some type of clever, profane twist on fairytale or nursery rhyme subject matter (I’ll never think of Georgie Porgie “puddin’ and pie” in quite the same carefree light), yet it all fits organically in a perfect mixture of folkoric curiosity and neon sleaze. Any sense of charm and wonder has been smeared with the grime of the city, and the deeper I followed Bigby into the woods, the more I liked where the path led.
Bigby’s journey, though, is much more cerebral than physical. “Smoke and Mirrors” forgoes the bombastic fights and forward momentum of the previous episode in favor of more patient, introspective moments. It makes sense, given that the first part already established who the character was, to further explore and complicate Bigby, and in this regard the episode refuses to hold back. It opens with an interrogation than can go as rough or as restrained as the player wants, a physical manifestation of Bigby’s internal struggle. Other encounters continue this trend as the violent action sequences of the first episode give way to more inward-looking moments that reveal just as much about Bigby’s character as they do about the two murders that have set the investigation in motion.
Though the action has lessened, the drama remains taught as ever as each conversation carries significant narrative weight, and it was nice to see some of the moments of “Faith” come to fruition. The strange exchange with Beauty and Beast, for instance, becomes quite significant in the climax of this episode (while seeming a bit forced). Walking around crime scenes and directing conversations feel just as intense as any of the more action-oriented moments I’ve played. Decisions yield unpredictable outcomes, and I suspect that some of the more rash decisions I’ve made will have far-reaching ramifications in later episodes.
I, nevertheless, find the experience still a bit stymied by some of the hindrances of the first episodes. Some of the denizens of Fabletown unfavorably reminisce about Bigby’s past that I hadn’t experienced, and, as a result, I felt more divorced from some of the more important facets of Bigby’s character. It’s harder to remediate a protagonist’s reputation than it is to build one from nothing, as is the case of The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett. The game insists on a redemption narrative without adequate context, but I find Bigby’s relationship with his past actions far less engrossing than his procedural detective methods. I still don’t get why I should care about Bigby beyond the scope of the investigation, though I’m more than willing to be convinced.
If I do have one slightly larger complaint about this episode, it lies in the fact that it has no discernible arc. “Faith” begins and ends with a murder, and a logical progression of events draw it to a satisfying close with a solid cliffhanger that ties the isolated incidents to a larger plot. “Smoke and Mirrors” simply progresses from one point to the next and ends almost arbitrarily without any sense of episodic closure other than a credit scroll and a view of what’s to come. Perhaps I can blame this lack of coherence on the legacy of the pulp fiction that influenced it, but the feeling that I’d accomplished little left me more empty than intrigued.
Despite these niggling concerns, “Smoke and Mirrors” is still pulp noir at its digital best and a more disturbing chapter than the one before, combining a gruesome narrative with inventive characters and a setting that’s as dingy as it is retro-cool. The glowing lights of Fabletown cast long, dark shadows, and I can’t wait to see what other secrets they conceal. Let’s just hope the next episode crawls out of the alleys soon. Four months between releases is far too long, and, as the people of Fabletown have come to know, I’m not a pleasant person when I start to lose patience.
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