The term “Role-Playing Game” has evolved a lot over the years. I won’t claim to be an expert in this area (that’s actually Nerissa’s territory), but from my understanding, the original use applied mostly to tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, in which you as the player would actually take on a “role” of the character you had made and were representing. These characters had motives, a backstory, a distinct personality, history within the world/with other characters, etc.; all of which would influence your decisions and affect your judgement while you were playing the game. You weren’t playing as yourself, you were playing as a character, and making the decisions for the character based on that filter.
Video games, however, have greatly changed our perception of this term. Nowadays games like Call of Duty have what we call “RPG Elements”, which in a nutshell is usually things like getting XP, character customization, picking a class, etc. However, I don’t know many people who play Call of Duty (or any games that simply have “elements” of RPG’s) that worry about their character’s motivations. These elements are typically nothing more than vehicles to upgrade your character to kick more tail in multiplayer matches. Or the latest trend, for developers to get more money out of players thanks to microtransactions.
Ladies and gentleman, the source of all things evil.
Now, before someone stops me and talks about games that you know we at Wyvern here love like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I think of those as something different still. I didn’t used to, but a game I just played has changed that for me. We’ll get to that. I fully acknowledge those are “RPG’s”… but are they the same thing as what started the genre? Are they “role-playing games?” I don’t think so.
While yes, I’m playing as a character that I made… that’s just it. Most people that play those games don’t design their character before-hand; we make the character up as we go. The experiences we have while playing the game are what molds our personality and character. I know very few people that play epic RPGs and think things like “Well, I chose this color armor because I believe it represents the family-environment that So-And-So was raised in before she became a soldier for the Galactic Federation.” Or that pick a specific sword for their character because it reminds them of training sessions at home before the evil armies attacked. No, of course not. Because in those games what concerns us is aimlessly wandering around disgustingly huge world maps in search of side quests and treasure, or wondering if we should take up a certain witch’s offer to help her sire that world’s version of Damien in order to save our own skin, and the world.
Don’t you backtalk your mother, foul creature.
If you’d asked me before what I thought an role playing game should be, I would have pointed you to these games without fail. I say again, these are great examples of games that we label under the “genre” of RPG. They let you live and breath in the world, they let you affect the outcome, and by all accounts they do everything they should, and they do it well. But if you ask me now what I think a role-playing game should be… my opinion has changed; and it’s all thanks to a little tale involving a guy named Bigby Wolf.
I keep trying to hum this theme song, but instead I keep mixing it up with the themes from Archer and Jessica Jones.
The Wolf Among Us is based on the Fable comic series by Vertigo Comics. The basic premise is that characters from the stories and fairy tales we know are not only real, but have had to leave the land of fantasy and come exist, secretly, in our world. If that sounds a lot like the Once Upon a Time television program on ABC, it’s incredibly similar… if Once Upon a Time was produced by HBO. Because of this, I actually have two warnings: one before you continue this article, and one before you play the game. The first (for the article), which you should be used to if you’ve read anything from our Wyvern Wednesday posts before, is a full-on SPOILER WARNING GOING FORWARD for this post. Because it’s me, it’s who I am.
The second, however, is a warning in particular to any of you parents out there who see the fun, comic-book style art and hear names like “Snow White”, “Georgie Porgie”, and the “Big Bad Wolf” and think “Oh boy, this sounds like a great game for my kids!” It’s not. It is absolutely, 100% not. The Fables/Wolf Among Us world is dark. It is DARK. There’s at least three decapitations involved in a murder investigation in this game, it’s implied Snow was sexually assaulted by the dwarves a long time ago (which she understandably doesn’t like to talk about), forced prostitution is a critical plot point, and the language is more colorful than a flag demonstration at a Pride Parade. This is not a kid’s fairy tale.
But with that being said, the game, narrative, characters, and world-building are fantastic. It’s absolutely fantastic. The world feels fresh and exciting, there’s a new spin on famous characters around every corner, the game has a wonderful “whodunit” feeling to it, and perhaps most important in games like this, the moral choices that you (the player) have to make feel weighty and important…
… but not in the way you’d expect if you’d only played RPG’s like we talked about before. In games like that, your main character is essentially you. Your choices are affecting the world around you, you have almost a total control over the outcomes of conversations, and because of that you can pretty much always guarantee how those outcomes will affect the future game. If I’m nice to this party member, they’ll like me more. If I’m mean to this shopkeeper, that shop probably won’t give me great prices. These choices have direct consequences, and your character is essentially a blank slate that you get to mold into your own image… or whatever image you so choose.
The Wolf Among Us doesn’t do that. You play as Bigby Wolf, which, if you say it slow enough, you can quickly figure out is the Big Bad Wolf. The same Big Bad Wolf that blew down the Three Little Pig’s house. The same Big Bad Wolf that ate Little Red Riding Hood. Needless to say, he’s not winning many popular votes with the other fairy tale characters. And just to further complicate things, Bigby is now the Sheriff of Fabletown, so his popularity is lower than low. Characters don’t trust him, accusations fly at him about stuff that he did before you, the player, were ever responsible for his actions. He has a backstory. He’s his own character.
And that was immediately what struck me about this game. The character I’m controlling isn’t just an empty vessel to fill with my personality. Instead, I’m the little angel or devil on his shoulder; Bigby is channeling me, but he’s still Bigby. Now yes, I know that this is the standard formula for TellTale games and a few others (Life is Strange comes to mind), but this was my first outing with one, and it floored me how unique that felt. Suddenly my decisions weren’t based upon what I wanted, or what was best for me. I was thinking of Bigby. I was thinking of what he would have wanted, what would have been best for him. I was truly “playing” a role. I had parameters I wanted to follow.
But on the flip side, this also gave me a huge sense of empowerment and justification I have rarely felt in a game with moral choices. I have a tendency in games like this to be the absolute goody-two-shoes. I’m the one who bends over backwards to make everyone happy, to choose every extreme good moral choice I possibly can. Even if I don’t necessarily even agree with those choices, there’s a little programming glitch in my brain that always makes me be the most good “good guy” ever. I did not feel that controlling Bigby. What dictated my decisions was, yes, what was best for Bigby overall; but I also had the opportunity to play into his personality a bit. And the Big Bad Wolf has a temper… and that made this fun.
A prime example of this was about halfway through the game, when you kick down the door of the “Pudding & Pie”, Fabletown’s resident strip club and brothel. The owner/pimp of the establishment is Georgie Porgie, because if you’re utilizing fairy tale characters for your story how on earth could someone named Georgie Porgie not be a seedy lowlife. You’ve interacted with Georgie earlier in the game, and you have already had the opportunity to rough him up a bit. This dude totally deserves it too; he’s a murder suspect in the dual homicide of two of his girls, he’s abusive, and he has awful taste in tattoos. As much as I wanted to wrap this dude around his own stripper pole the first time I went to the club, for the sake of Bigby, I didn’t. Bigby is trying to establish himself as someone reliable, someone who has changed, someone the citizens of Fabletown can look up to. I respected that, and Georgie even wanted me to go hard on him, even going so far as to bait me. So, I resisted.
BUT SERIOUSLY. LOOK AT THIS TWIT.
And yet, and yet, during that second visit, the situation was very different. It’s been pretty obvious up to this point that Bigby and Snow White (who is the interim Deputy Mayor for the majority of the game) have a thing, and it’s portrayed beautifully. It’s also very obvious that part of Bigby’s self-improvement comes from the fact he wants to be someone worthy of Snow’s affections, or at least her respect. And I wanted to back him up for that. I wanted to be the wolf’s wingman. So when we walked into the Pudding & Pie for the second time, with Snow beside us, and Georgie acknowledged us with the lovely greeting of “Ey Bigby, come to get lessons for your b*tch, eh?” I didn’t even have to think. I clocked him. Hard.
This is honestly not something I’ve done often in video games. I usually have my negotiation stats leveled up so much I can convince a murderer to turn himself in with an Excel spreadsheet breaking down every piece of evidence we’ll need to put him behind bars for life. I very rarely take the physical route in other games, because it often will lock off options furthering an opportunity with that character later on. But this time I wasn’t worried about my opportunities. I was thinking of Bigby. And Bigby loves Snow, and has a very pent up, nasty temper. So when George insulted her, when he treated her like someone below him… I rearranged his face a bit. And it felt so, so good.
The other thing I do in video games is play the “harbinger of justice” role. If I am at the end of a game, and I’ve finally defeated the ultimate bad guy, and the game gives me a choice of sparing or ending him/her for good… 99.9% percent of the time there’s going to be a fresh grave in the cemetery. I usually take this route because most of the time the bad guys in modern games are so sadistically evil Gandhi would scream for them to be burned at the stake. The true villain of the Wolf Among Us is no exception. Extortion, racketeering, ordering the assassination of innocents, taking advantage of the poor, encouraging violence from his cronies… the Crooked Man (yes, from the crooked house, with the crooked cat… that one) is a bad dude. At the end of the game, you have the option to spare him or kill him.
I wanted to kill him. Oh buddy, did I want to kill this guy. After everything I’d watched him do, all the people who had come crying and broken to me about how their lives were ruined because of him. I was ready to end it all right there, to make sure he never could hurt anyone again. But I didn’t. Because it wasn’t about me. It was about Bigby. With all of Fabletown watching the Big Bad Wolf, I wanted to prove he’d changed. I wanted to give people the chance to see the protective, caring, relatable character I had spent so much time with. I wanted Snow to see that huffing and puffing wasn’t the only thing he was capable of. So I let the Crooked Man live. And you know what? That felt really great too.
It’s moments like this that have cemented Wolf in my brain. It’s made me have a desire to play more games where the characters channel me, but they’re more than me. It’s made me realize how powerful it can be to play the voice in a character’s head, and not the character itself. And most importantly, it’s made me realize what playing a role really is. And I will remember that.