The Moral of The Wolf Among Us: Cynical or Pragmatic?

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Last week Paste published critic Jed Pressgrove’s review of the fifth and final episode of The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s adaptation of DC/Vertigo’s Fables comic, in which Pressgrove decried the game’s cynicism. Luke Winkie offers the following response.

By their very definition, fables exist to educate the public. They provide life lessons that go back to the beginning of time: don’t lie, cheat, or steal; beauty is three-dimensional; build your houses out of bricks not hay; slow and steady wins the race. In the ultimate moments of episode five of The Wolf Among Us, when the Crooked Man was counting the ways I had failed Fabletown in a last-ditch effort to save his life, the only dialogue option that made sense to get the public back on my side was a simple, empty, “we will do better.”

The Wolf Among Us is a game of in-betweens. City hall is corrupt and the citizens are selfish. You’re forced to either victimize the pigs or the street cretins. Sometimes the only thing that makes sense is lighting up a cigarette. The Crooked Man is a definitive bad dude—manipulative, power-hungry, and sociopathic. So it speaks to the dubious conception of justice you’ve administered that he can stand before you, couched in all his malevolence, and make a compelling argument that you’re the real evil. I tore his head off. I wanted him to stop talking, I was tired of being disrespected and tired of everyone telling me I was coming up short. The rest of Fabletown wordlessly looked on. It didn’t feel like winning.

It left a bad taste in my mouth for a while. The Wolf Among Us bludgeons you with your failures. Your attempts to do right are minimized by the collective cynicism of the people you’re serving, and your weaknesses? When you’re too quick to violence or too bound to bureaucracy? Those are magnified, inescapable. You don’t finish The Wolf Among Us with any glimmer of triumph, you’re standing out in the rain apathetically watching one of your friends get carted out of town. The faint love interest you had is now wrapped up in endless paperwork. Maybe you smoke another cigarette.

Is there something to be learned here? Is it too one-note? A morose world that only gets sadder, a few chuckles barely holding back the pain, always being too late to stop another death? The remorseless in which The Wolf Among Us hammers home its point of view is sobering at best and maddening at worst. You walk away with your optimism soaked up, that anything you could do to inject a little hope into humanity is laughed right out of the room. What do we take away from a world where Beauty and the Beast are at each other’s throats? Is there anything worth salvaging? Is there a moral to this story?

There is, I think. The more time I spend away from The Wolf Among Us, the more its anti-moral (of sorts) makes sense. How could we blame Snow White, or Ichabod Crane, or Beauty and the Beast for letting our unmagical society corrupt them? To jade them? Fables are, after all, generally told in binaries, The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs. Now in dirty New York City and wrecked with capital hierarchy? Of course they’re confused, there’s no easy good and evil when everyone is mortal. The old lands didn’t need a justice system, much less an overworked, inefficient municipality. Is there any greater commentary on the injustices of our society than recasting the same fables, the same moral paragons that we use to impart our children’s earliest lessons, as disillusioned, back-broken proletarians? There’s power when you look in Beauty’s eyes, and realize she doesn’t have any more lessons to give.

We’ve become accustomed to The Little Mermaid losing her voice out of love, or The Big Bad Wolf hunting his meals out of primal hunger, but The Wolf Among Us takes those threads and asks us to ponder a world where these banalities come from a very real motivation. A world where The Big Bad Wolf hunts because here, just like the fantasies, that’s what he has to do to survive. It’s the overarching power of the series. The sorrow and acrimoniousness never feels cheap, because frankly, it’s not that difficult to imagine.

Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.