I really enjoyed the third episode of the Wolf Among Us. The engrossing atmosphere was as strong as ever, the writing sharp and the narrative continued to go to decent places. I admit that the arc of the episode was somewhat predictable, but this predictable nature allowed for a number of well handled scenarios.
A common complaint, and one found in our review, is that episode three didn't branch and that you were not making proper choices. The game had you merely choosing dialogue options, that ultimately had the same end point. The conclusion drawn from this is, that it is lacking in the gameplay department and that this linear focus is a bad thing.
I wish to debate this. The Wolf Among Us seems to be taking a different approach to something like the Walking Dead. The latter game makes constant claim to be shaped by your decisions, but The Wolf Among Us clearly isn't doing this. It's not a branching series that develops over time, it's a single story split into chunks.
In reality the Wolf Among Us is a visual novel and this is totally OK. It doesn't make it less of a game and it doesn't mean that it did not need to be a game. I'm a person who often brings up the debate of, did a product need to be a game (storytelling wise), or would it have served fine as a film? Interactivity is really important and games should harness it, a game's story should benefit from interactivity rather than just being short films slapped around gameplay.
With something like the Walking Dead (or at least what it aims to be), the benefit of interactivity is obvious. It wants you to impact the story - to make decisions that change it - and therefore the game format is needed. It is up for debate whether they capitalised on this, but that isn't something to talk about here. For now we will take that as read and move onto the case of The Wolf Among Us.
Episode three really hammered home that we are going down a linear path. We are in a world where characters have their own motivations and therefore act accordingly. The player is not involved as such, they have guidance over Bigby, but are constrained by the character himself. The conversation options are not things that the player would say or think, they are things Bigby would potentially say or think. Characters remaining true to themselves is a sign of good writing and is something I think TellTale do very well in this series. However, it also hammers home that you are along for a ride, not a decision maker.
This explains why certain things occur to the player and not Bigby. In the review it was mentioned that working out things ahead of time causes frustration. It is very obvious that there is a larger picture in play, but Bigby doesn't see this until much later. The review criticised this for being out of tune with the player and for the cardinal sin of not being true to the character. Bigby is supposed to be a good detective; this is bad detective work. I, on the other hand, see this as a good thing. I also see it as very true to the character. The character here is TellTale's Bigby (the only Bigby I know) and, as he has been set up, this logic makes sense to that character.
A driving force for Bigby (in fact the driving force) in this series is his relationship with Snow. He is blinded by it and will pursue her interests wherever possible. He doesn't see the larger picture because his real motivation isn't the larger picture, it is Snow. The smaller case relates to Snow directly and he wants to track down the person because of how they treated Snow, not because of the case at hand. He justifies this differently, but his internal logic tells us the truth. It's the correct path to take Bigby down and by making him be a step behind the audience, we get dramatic irony.
We know Bigby is overtly focusing on something that is misguided and that involves us more in the narrative. We want him to see reason, yet he does not. Our knowledge helps us to see the truth of the situation, it is a way of explaining the character without over exposition. It's not Bigby coming out and saying, 'I am motivated by Snow', that would be clumsy. It is a way of allowing the player to see this, by having the player see Bigby go down the wrong path. I think it's smart character writing and a strength of the episode.
Back to interactivity though. Though it's a linear experience, the game benefits from interactivity hugely. Having you move the player through the world immerses you further in it, in a game that is so reliant on atmosphere and mood this is very beneficial. Beyond this though, interactivity just helps with the storytelling. It makes it more involving. You can roleplay your Bigby within certain parameters, allowing you to invest further in the story while still retaining the benefits of a strict linear narrative. A linear narrative is tighter and more meticulous than an open arc, after all. It allows the core narrative to be stronger and more complex, and just more consistent. With detective fiction, you want this. Interactivity isn't here to change the story, it is here to help in the story telling.
Also, the interactivity makes you more aware of actions. It allows you to better understand the character, you have control over how he reacts so you start to comprehend how he would or should do things. Another important factor is the gaze of others, making a decision under the view of another character gives a feeling that non interactive media cannot. The decision may be meaningless, but it alters that singular moment. Snow not being happy may be ultimately irrelevant, but because the game is so well written you care about the characters. You don't want to upset her (or perhaps you see this as a necessary evil) and this shapes your experience with the world.
The interactive nature of the Wolf Among Us is limited. But this limited take is still very interesting. It allows it to tell a tight story, but it keeps you invested. By making this visual novel interactive it gives you a stake in it. In the grand scheme no single interaction matters, but every interaction matters at the time and the focus of this game is the narrative. This narrative is built up of single moments and the single moments shape your experience. You don't change the story, but you change how you feel about the story. Your reaction to it can shift.
This game isn't light on gameplay, it's all gameplay and it's all important. It's a linear visual novel, but this isn't a bad thing. It's continuing to tell a great story very well and interactivity - though restricted - only adds to this.