The Wolf Among Us, From The Outside

by Jeff Cork on Oct 16, 2013 at 09:57 AM

Unlike a lot of the games I play at home, I kept thinking about my wife while I was playing The Walking Dead. Not because I wondered how we’d fare in a zombie apocalypse or thought she’d do a better job of taking care of Clementine, but because it seemed like the kind of game that she – someone who doesn’t play games – would enjoy. We both love the AMC show, and we share similar overall tastes in TV and movies.

Last week, Telltale Games released The Wolf Among Us, and I thought I’d test my hunch. She’s agreed to play through each of Wolf’s five episodes with me and then have a discussion about them afterward. She’s in charge of the controls and making all of the in-game decisions – which has already been an interesting (and slightly agonizing) experience. I’ll post updates after we finish each episode. Yes, she’s a tremendous sport.

Spoiler warning: I’ll be discussing the plot and other game details in each of these posts. 

My wife grew up playing games on her family’s Commodore 64 and Atari 2600, but she never considered herself much of a gamer. She did get into Animal Crossing on the GameCube, because she enjoyed the game’s social nature and peaceful atmosphere (“I don’t enjoy causing violence.”). 

When we started, I wasn’t sure what she’d think of Wolf’s heavily stylized design. Fortunately, it didn’t scare her away. “I thought it was cool looking,” she told me the next day. “I thought about it throughout – I remember staring randomly at the wolf guy’s face and thinking ‘I actually like that style.’”  

I was especially curious to see what she’d think about the game’s conversation system. She told me she grew up reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books (though she admitted that she’d cheat by working backwards), which isn’t that much of a departure from the way Telltale handles dialog. 

“My first impression was ‘Thank goodness, it looks like in this game I just get to answer questions.’ And I was really happy about that … and then it made me do things, and I didn’t like that part.” The first fight scene with the Woodman took her by surprise, and she failed the first attempt. And, like I probably would have done, she blamed the controller.

“Obviously, what they were asking you to do was simple, and I have no illusions that it was something complex that anyone who plays any day would be able to do in a heartbeat,” she said. “Not being as familiar with it, I didn’t enjoy that part as much. Also, I don’t want to put an ax in somebody’s head. I don’t mind seeing it, because I watch it in TV shows, but I don’t want to be the one doing it.”

This is the first adventure game she’s ever played. She quickly figured out how to sweep rooms for clues (made all the easier by the glowing “point of interest” icons). In one of the game’s scenes, Bigby fetches a glass of water. The action is streamlined compared to other games in the genre – players don’t have to find a glass, they just click on the faucet and Bigby takes it from there. I asked my wife if she thought a more puzzle-oriented approach would be interesting to her. The short answer? Nope.

“That would be totally tedious,” she said. “It does feel somewhat tedious to explore, so I’m glad that was simplified. I don’t think it’s overly tedious, but what was the point of the matchbox or whatever else was [in my inventory]?” At one point, I told her she should pry the bullet she’d just examined out of the wall. “It’s somewhat nerve-wracking, like I’m going to miss something or screw it up or choose to move ahead without getting something I’m going to need later, because I know enough from watching you play video games that that can happen.”

When The Walking Dead came out, the Game Informer staff spent a lot of time in the office talking about how much our decisions actually mattered in the end. I was surprised to see my wife latch onto that idea almost immediately. She certainly likes the idea that players are making potentially big choices, but she’s wary of how much choice is actually at play.

“This is the first one that seems like you’re creating the story based on what you’re deciding, and they did give you feedback,” she said. “‘Snow doesn’t trust you…’ Does it matter if she doesn’t trust you? She’s going to be dead in a little while. I think the decision of who to go after made an impact, either the two times you really chose to drive the story with if you’re going to go to the prince or Mr. Toad. Or when you chased after Tweedle Dee or whoever versus the Woodman, but I don’t know how that impacts the next round of the story. It seemed like the end of the story should end with Snow dying – I’m assuming that happens no matter what. But maybe not, maybe I’m completely wrong. How do you create a new story totally separate if she didn’t die? In that way, it feels a little bit like a cheat.”

The hardest part of the experience for me was relinquishing control and letting her steer the story. Sometimes she chose conversation options that I would have, while other times she went off in completely different directions. As it turns out, there was a method to what I saw as madness – she was shaping her own version of Bigby.

“I was trying to create a badass, but also with that – it’s your quintessential female thing, I’ll just say that,” she said. “You want him to be rough where he needs to be, and he’s going to be a bad guy but he’s going to have that caring, softer side, where underneath of course he’s doing it for the greater good. There’s a reason behind why he’s doing all of these despicable things, and so I made choices where he would do these things because I’ll see I don’t have a lot of other options. He can’t be weak, but he also needed to be a good person in some way. I didn’t want to make him so far out there where there’s nothing redeemable about him. I wouldn’t enjoy playing with a character like that. Thinking about how to create him in his decisions, it was about how I put a backstory in there, where he had all these issues, but he didn’t want to be the Big Bad Wolf. It’s just the hand he was dealt – which they talk about later.”

Most notably, she used the “…” conversation option, which was something I never used in The Walking Dead. It drove me insane. She had her reasons for that, too. “The silence stuff sometimes was a response to not having another option that I liked, because they didn’t give me that option.” That made me feel super dumb. Why didn’t I think of that?

I’ll be back after episode two with more of her thoughts and experiences with the game. I’ll do my best not to grab the controller.

Meanwhile, here are a few quick notes:

  • Her favorite moment: “The one flash of [Bigby’s] eyes earlier in the episode where it looked like he could change into a wolf – I didn't know that they could just change until that point (with the glamour stuff preventing it).”
  • Who does she think is behind the murders: “They keep talking about Bluebeard. I am also confused by Beauty and her leaving Beast for what seems like the same reason Faith did. Some ‘thing’ is controlling them. Sorry I don't have a better idea.”
  • Her thoughts on Colin the pig: “The pig was big and fat and would have broken the chair. But seriously – how did he open the door to get in?”