Telltale's The Wolf Among Us makes me nervous. Not because, as Bigby Wolf, I'm under scrutiny from my fellow Fables and constantly tensed for a fight. I just don't want to piss off the girl I like.
Bigby charges his way through The Wolf Among Us, busting into taverns and apartments like a wrecking ball of angst and determination. Another character describes him as having "a hot head and a big heart," and she notes that this is a rather dangerous combination.
Other characters tell him to man up and fix things — or stop getting involved and go away — in varying degrees, and they may change their mind as the story progresses. Bigby juggles these conflicts alongside a potential romance with a pragmatic and willful version of Snow White that could very easily fail.
At the rate I'm going, failure is likely.
I'm interrogating someone who may have murdered a girl. I have three options: gently prod him for details, threaten him, or break his nose. I've been trying to coax information out of him for ten minutes now as the dialogue trees repeatedly cycle back to this decision. The controller is warm in my hands and my thumb nearly slides off the button; my palms are sweating.
I go with threatening him and this doesn't work. We're getting nowhere. The people in the room with me, Snow White among them, are getting anxious. Her brow is furrowed and she looks sad, disappointed. Disappointed in me? The man I am interrogating won't answer. I'm losing him and the confidence of my audience. I have no choice. I have to beat it out of him.
At the rate I'm going, failure is likely
I clock him in the jaw and almost immediately Snow is reprimanding me, scowling that pretty scowl that means I done fucked up. But then the subject relents, I get the information I need, and I proceed with my case — at the cost of Snow's anger. She glares at me with those perfect eyebrows of hers, turns and saunters away, not even remotely pleased I have found a lead.
This is hard!
Telltale has created this dynamic before. In The Walking Dead, players control Lee as he struggles to keep young Clementine safe in the ever-worsening zombie apocalypse. As we play, we are consciously aware of this orphaned little girl, dependent on us for her well being. But in order to survive we sometimes have to be cruel to others, and these actions don't pass her notice. "Clementine will remember" was a declaration that often felt like a threat.
Telltale's games are a balancing act — we view ourselves, the character we are controlling, through the eyes of the nearest female character. In The Walking Dead we want a little girl to trust us, and in The Wolf Among Us we want a woman we admire to love us. Our actions are dictated by the female character we are trying to protect, even if she doesn't always need it.
Bigby is offered increasingly difficult choices that place his humanity on the line as the episodes continue. How much of himself, of his human self, will Bigby have to give up to earn respect from his fellow Fables? To solve the crimes and set things straight? And as we struggle with Bigby to retain his humanity despite dealing with some truly despicable characters, we measure his success in keeping it against Snow's reactions. She is our moral compass, our barometer for how much of Bigby is left. We see ourselves through her eyes.
I play this game like an anxious new boyfriend in a freshly-minted relationship, horrified that any move at any time could disappoint Snow. My real-life significant other tells me constantly that he's afraid of screwing up and I usually laugh it off — but now I get it, and it sucks. I overthink every move, every choice, and more often than not I miss my window of opportunity to do something and end up selecting the silence option by default.
If I say nothing, she won't get mad. I don't agree with the actions she wants to take, but if I try and make it work out for everyone, maybe she will be okay with my decision. Nope, as it turns out, that's not good enough for her. She's scowling. She's yelling at me!
Broken people in a pretend world
This relationship elevates The Wolf Among Us past just being a game with dialogue trees that change the way your story unfolds. When a non-playable character is this invested in you, and vice-versa, it's hard not to care about them. And if we really care about what they think of us, it will affect how we act within the game. We become attached and begin calculating our every step, wanting this person's approval and praise. A smile from them begins to feel like unlocking an achievement.
I can't do this. Not while she's watching
In my own game, Snow fluctuates between being glad I'm there with her to showering me with disdain. I give her reasons to adore me and reasons to loathe me all within the span of 20 minutes. I am attempting to restore rights to Fabletown at the cost of her affection, business and pleasure all wrapped up into one anxiety-inducing ball. This isn't a role-playing game where enough experience points placed in our relationship will pay off, it feels much closer to a real relationship between two fully realized characters. The world around us constantly makes me choose between what will get results and what will keep Snow happy with me.
I have a hundred other Fables to worry about as well. But that smile of hers makes my heart slide down my ribcage like butter on hot toast and I want more than anything to help her nurture this fractured community back to health. And then suddenly I explode and someone pays.
In one scene, I have the choice to kill an enemy plaguing my world with grief or beating him within an inch of his life, letting him go and praying he doesn't return. Snow is watching me, over there, with her hands over her mouth. I can't do this. Not while she's watching. I just want her to like me. I'm not all bad...
Or am I, and this is all futile? Telltale has crafted situations that lead neither one way nor the other. I care about Snow, she cares about me, I think, and it should be clear that the game will never offer an ending where everyone is safe and happy. It's not about being a good person, it's about living with the gaze of someone you care about.