Is there anything that inspires more confidence nowadays than seeing “A Telltale Story” in a game’s opening credits? A few years ago, this sentence would’ve sounded ridiculous, but between The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, Telltale are fast becoming the high water mark for interactive storytelling.
The Wolf Among Us’ first episode, “Faith,” didn’t grab me (although it did grab Alex). To me, it suffered in comparison to The Walking Dead. That game had a complete season of goodwill and built-in higher stakes - Dead was a survival story, whereas Wolf is a police procedural. It takes enormous suspension of disbelief to jump into its story of fairytale characters living in New York; zombie apocalypses are basically instinct to us now. I admit comparing the two titles is unfair, but then again, we compare new films against their directors’ back catalogues, so how is it different with game studios?
Luckily, “Smoke and Mirrors” has converted me. Shorn of the need to introduce the game’s world and characters, it quickly gets to business developing and telling a story with them.
As we begin “Smoke and Mirrors”, Sheriff Bigby (Bad Wolf) is in the early stages of a murder investigation in the fairytale-character-populated New York borough of Fabletown. The Woodsman, Tweedle-dee and -dum, Mr Toad and Ichabod Crane are all involved in one way or another. Most pressingly, a shocking death at the end of the previous episode has rattled Bigby along with all of Fabletown.
What started as a grisly murder investigation in “Faith” blossoms into a sordid crime story in “Smoke and Mirrors”. Sex, drugs, murder, prostitution, the black market - all your favourite hobbies are present and accounted for. Few of this tale’s figures are free from sin. The morality curve takes a stomach-churning plunge from simple liars to the seediest of Fabletown’s grotesques. The community’s ineffectual government isn’t free from scrutiny: impotent, under-resourced and possibly corrupt, the extent to which it has allowed crime to carry on with impunity becomes clearer.
Best of all, the central murder mystery is genuinely intriguing. The killer’s modus operandi fits the universe perfectly, and magic comes into play in unexpected and delightful ways. I’m looking forward to seeing how deep its conspiracies run.
Save for a couple of disappointingly elementary crime-scene investigation puzzles, the episode’s backbone is formed by an elegant series of interrogations. These sequences presumably yield the same information regardless of how they’re conducted - perfect illustrations of Telltale’s illusory player choice - but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the choices you make affect the tone of the story and the reputation of Bigby. You’re complicit in the violence, or lack thereof - it’s up to your moral compass to decide your approach. The first two sequences lurch from beating information out of a thug to coaxing it out of a frightened child. It’s a powerful juxtaposition that cuts straight to Bigby’s core. A later scene is less successful, thanks to the unintentionally hilarious way your subject gravitates toward valuable, fragile objects when being interrogated by an angry wolf with a cricket bat.
That wolf is one of The Wolf Among Us’ greatest strengths. While his Telltale protagonist cousin Lee was only a little more than player proxy, Bigby is a distinct character with as many flaws as he has claws. Barring polydactyly, that’s twenty flaws. “Smoke and Mirrors” opens with Bigby’s inability to deal with Episode 1’s climactic murder front and centre. His grief and rage feeds the wolf…among…him. Bigby doesn’t trust anyone anymore. Cutting even deeper, he’s repeatedly called out for being a fuckup. He can’t get anything right. Children are afraid of him. He’s at constant risk of releasing the wolf that simmers under his glamoured surface. In many conversations, I chose to just sit there and brood. Much more so than in “Faith,” you are the Big Bad Wolf.
Bigby would be nothing without a world to live in. This episode takes us further into Fabletown lore. Elements hinted at in “Faith” are fleshed out, like the ominous magical Witching Well. We meet new characters - harmless douchebag Jack Horner, dodgy strip club owner Georgie, and wealthy former serial killer Bluebeard (voiced by The Walking Dead’s Dave Fennoy, relishing a role rather distinct from Lee). Beauty and Beast’s domestic drama develops some, with Beast’s anger issues emerging as an unpleasant mirror to Bigby’s own.
Telltale are pushing the TV-show angle hard with this series. It even has a consistent opening title sequence and theme tune. Its acting and writing are great; it has a strong visual sensibility; it even has several moments of effective and surprising editing. If it were a real TV show, it’d probably play on a channel like HBO, and not just because it’s got boobies in it.
Crucial to remember is that this episode is but one part of five, which justifies its short, focused runtime. To the "quantity equals quality" brigade, I say fie on thee! Time comes and goes; good storytelling is forever. In its two or so hours, “Smoke and Mirrors” took me from a cautious optimist to a full-blown fan. Its cliffhanger ending, almost certainly a ruse, inspires many questions, as all good cliffhangers should. Who’s hiding behind the pseudonym Mr Smith? What’s the connection between the murders and the increasingly-suspicious Ichabod Crane? Who are you? Who, who? Who, who?