Let me preface this piece by saying this: The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead are BOTH wonderful games. I’ve played both, and they’re enthralling and captivating each in their own ways. The Wolf Among Us gives players a view into an intoxicating and pulpy world of fairy tales gone wrong in all the best ways. The Walking Dead allows players to navigate the apocalypse by their own moral guidelines while encountering interesting and well thought out characters throughout the game’s playtime. But there is a flaw in The Walking Dead that I believe fundamentally inhibits the player’s experience of the game. The Wolf Among Us however sidesteps this flaw and manages to be a more rewarding experience for it.
Before I get to that, we must acknowledge that these two games, like much of Telltale’s catalog, do not play like a traditional video game. They do not intend to deliver a conventional rehash of first or third person games, as is so often the case of the middling action/adventure genre. These games don’t exist to thrill you with their gameplay; rather, they intend to use a nearly minimal amount of gameplay to achieve their true end: to give their audience a truly remarkable and beautifully rendered story. Both stories in both games are dynamite, and their cel shaded graphics are equal parts unconventional (given the rather heavy stories both games tell) and mesmerizing. Seeing the cel shaded silhouette of Bigby Wolf flicking away his spent cigarette gives us an image that manages to contain a sense of artistic wonder while also maintaining a degree of noire that would make Raymond Chandler blush. On the same side of that coin, watching a cel shaded Lee icepick a zombie into oblivion is just as captivating as it is disturbing. Both games manage to suck their players in, but only one of them refuses to let go.
Now, with all that said, this is what I find to be The Walking Dead’s fatal flaw: it’s cheap. What I mean by that is that the type of emotional connection that The Walking Dead develops between both the characters and the players and between the characters themselves are so fragile and tenuous, that at any given moment they could be ripped away, and that’s a lazy and cheap way to get your players invested in the consequences of their decisions.
The Walking Dead’s big draw is making difficult decisions in very short amounts of time. That’s cheap. Telling someone to choose between a rock and a hard place in “x” amount of seconds will certainly get their attention, because they know that their consequences will be dramatic either way. Someone could lose a leg, someone may be tortured, or more likely, they’ll simply die. But after the fact, when the decision has already been made, then the player might think back on their choice and think of what might have been, had they chosen differently. And from that point on the player will constantly try to stay ahead of the game. They’ll think “okay so if I do ‘x’ then ‘y’ happens and if ‘y’ happens then ‘z’ will happen and I don’t want ‘z’ to happen so let me try to figure a way around this scenario (and more often than not, there isn’t a better scenario. Players just have to accept the bad things coming their way). This method of trapping the player into caring about these characters simply because we know that they could be ripped away at any time is cheap and lazy, and it completely sucks the viewer out of the immersive experience.
Some might argue that there is somewhat of a precedent with this type of trapping the audience into caring about the characters in Game of Thrones (which also happens to be an IP Telltale is adapting into game format). And they’re right…sort of. The difference between the two is that in The Walking Dead the PLAYER chooses how things unfold and how their actions affect the world around them. With Game of Thrones, we have no control over it. We must, as an audience, simply let the story take shape around us. We can take solace in our inability to affect the outcome, whereas with The Walking Dead, if we’re unsatisfied with our results, we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.
The Wolf Among Us manages to avoid this pitfall of trapping their audience into caring by making the consequences of their actions, not necessarily so severe. You’re certainly given the opportunities to kill characters or save them and so on, but not to such a degree that you’re constantly trying to outwit the game, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next; ironic, as the game, at its core, is a mystery. By not distracting the players by giving them too much power to affect the world around them, the immersion into Fabletown never evaporates throughout your playtime. Players are able to make decisions but aren’t constantly worried that the choice they were forced to make in the blink of an eye has completely ruined their game. They’re more intrigued and excited by what may happen, rather than dreading the outcome of their choice.
I do believe that The Walking Dead, in its gameplay sections, is technically superior and more ambitious, and both games are equally beautiful to look at (maybe the colors of The Wolf Among Us give it a slight edge in that category) but as stated earlier, these two games exist for no other reason to deliver a truly memorable story. That is why The Wolf Among Us is a superior game. Because it has a story to tell and it doesn’t let the player get in the way of that story the way The Walking Dead does.