It is a mark in Wolf’s favor that the climactic centerpiece of Cry Wolf (and indeed the series) is not some bloody showdown, but a town hall meeting for the concerned citizens of Fabletown. Snow White gathers everyone together to put The Crooked Man on trial. It is this “final boss,” defeated with words, not fangs, that shows Wolf’s true skin. This story is about people and their relationships. Yet the scene itself in execution carries surprisingly little weight; it is impossible to see the metaphorical forest for all the dialog trees. What The Wolf Among Us seems to be about, and has explored to varying degrees of success in its five episodes, is Sheriff Bigby Wolf’s tenuous relationship with Fabletown. Yet Bigby’s character and the charming entropy of Fabletown culture are given a backseat in favor of long-winded pontification and fruitless accusations.
It is worth contrasting Wolf to its forebear, Telltale’s masterful first season of The Walking Dead. TWD’s choices were rarely a simple matter of survival or plot advancement simply because of Clementine’s presence: every decision Lee made took on added weight because of how it might impact her character. Executing a murderer isn’t simply right or wrong, especially when a young girl is watching. Bigby Wolf is a surrogate parent for Fabletown, but the stakes are lowered. For every brutal act of violence, the Fables whisper “that’s how he is” and every act of kindness is viewed with suspicion.
There are many things Cry Wolf does exceptionally well. The moody atmosphere and music remain as effective here as in past episodes. Fabletown’s sorted characters are all distinctly written, and Bigby’s brutal showdown with Bloody Mary in an old metalworks factory is mesmerizing. Players will undoubtedly debate the game’s decidedly Fincher-esque ambiguous final moments as well. Yet there is no palpable sense of payoff as in The Walking Dead.
Cry Wolf lacks a sense of inevitability. The Telltale Engine telegraphs social consequence to players throughout (in the form of notifications such as “She will remember that” during play) which lends a sense of weight to player decisions. Yet there never came a moment in which my decisions caught up to me, when I was caught helpless. I could play The Wolf Among Us as brutally or kindly as I wanted and the ending would be exactly the same. The Crooked Man may cite an additional grievance in his defense, and Bigby’s empty promises may prompt a passive aggressive comment from one of the Three Little Pigs, but there is no moment of visible consequence.
This is perhaps because The Wolf Among Us is strictly bound to canon. Bigby Wolf is a major recurring character in Willingham’s Fables series; players cannot determine his character in the same way they could flesh out Lee Everett in The Walking Dead. He is already in the books. Yet each of the Willingham Fables are “in the books” by Grimm, Anderson and the rest. The transition to postmodernism has infused them with a newfound vitality, a humanness that is at once illuminating and exhausting. Fabletown characters do not seem so much like obstacles (as it sometimes seemed in The Walking Dead) but more like real, hurting people.
As in real life, there are few real satisfactory “endings”: after the dust settles, the citizens of Fabletown are left with more confusion, more worry for what the next day will bring. Bigby and the Fables just keep living. Some, like Snow, look for purpose in justice or something greater, while others like Mr. Toad do whatever they need to get by. But who was really behind all the murders? Did anyone learn a lesson? Did the Big Bad Wolf prove himself?
Maybe, after centuries of survival, the good folk of Fabletown don’t give a shit.