The Wolf Among Us – Building Character Through Limitations

They say it takes a certain strength to mature.  That denying hurt and woe builds character, as though refusing emotional responses is a major step in growing up.But perhaps the concept has become muddled through parental psychology: the ideal philosophy would be managing a firm grasp around our reactions, rather than flat-out denying them.  If emotions define our humanity, keep us separate from the written characters on screens and page which we so often seek to identify with, then denying them would be anything but human.  Anything but the next step towards maturity.

The greatest conflict is often the struggle to maintain the ideal nature of the self. Often the most effective stories describe a protagonist grappling with moral instability, be it their own or within the context of their society’s particular strife — or, more often, one’s impact on the other. Altruism can ultimately prove equally pernicious as greed, since not everyone can benefit from any certain method of decision-making. Absolute benevolence, acting for the ‘good of all mankind’ really does not exist in reality; as there are repercussions to every choice, regardless of motive.

Video games as a medium allow players to experience this first hand. Telltale Games have become notable for their consequential playstyle, in which scenarios force players to make quick-thinking decisions which will affect the outcome of the narrative. While the endgame result is often the same no matter the decisions made — part of what makes their advertised gimmick so deceptively transparent — significant alterations in character psychology and understanding of the playable protagonist are formulated, which can have positive and negative outcomes regarding relationships.

The Wolf Among Us remains the developer’s greatest approach to this type of storytelling, for it understands the internal dilemma of attaining personal prosperity while also striving to keep peace in the community around oneself. The game often begs the question: What exactly defines ‘justice?’ Does it mean working outside established laws in order to incarcerate a crooked man, pinning a malicious individual for an unaccountable crime simply in order to get him off the streets?

Because The Wolf Among Us is a game based around decision-making, it allows the player to decide the answer for themselves, ultimately becoming a sort of enlightening trial in which both them and protagonist Sheriff Bigby Wolf learn more about what they each believe is morally correct. But what allows the narrative to function with focused attention is the limits to which these decisions may be made. If there are two sides to the law, methodical rule execution and malfeasance, then the choices given to the player to make need to allow enough room to contemplate which will allow the more positive outcomes.

Most important, however, is demonstrating the negative aspects to every decision, in the most surprising methods possible in order to facilitate that very essence of moral conundrum. By pitting players in the role of Bigby, a man constantly struggling to reject the wild, angry animal instincts within him, they come to terms with their own struggle to properly define ethics as a means of bringing virtue to the world around them.

These limited decisions offered, however, notably define Bigby as a character himself, one that is directly understandable because of his recognizable struggles with moral decision-making. A connection is made between the player and protagonist precisely due to this inherent human understanding. There are a limited number of responses to situations and conversations which Bigby can dictate, all of which properly illustrate the internal conflict he is constantly faced with.

Will Bigby send his friend Collin to the Farm because of his legal obligation to do so, or will he hypocritically renounce his responsibilities in order to help out his friend? Will Bigby take murderous vengeance upon The Crooked Man for ordering Faith and Lily to be murdered, or bring him to trial by a jury of his peers as his authoritative liability warrants? It is these decisions which speak volumes regarding his ethos, and by actively participating in these moral quandaries, the player is allowed to decide how much control Bigby truly has over the beast within.

Limiting these options available to the player allows them to be directly involved in certain outcomes, while also keeping a focus on the story which the developers wish to tell. It simultaneously maintains the main arguments, involving the unavoidable moral complications involved in preserving hierarchical status, while further dictating them through proof of concept. In other words, it is a story which greatly benefits from being interpreted through the videogame medium, providing evidence for its overarching thesis through direct player involvement.

But games also often approach storytelling through linear methods, subtly expressing the more interactive elements to enunciate a character’s motivations. While The Wolf Among Us suggests the significance of player interaction providing context for the protagonist’s impetus, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs provides an interesting counterexample. Developer, The Chinese Room choose to involve players by paralleling their journey through the industrial domain with that of the main playable character, an amnesiac industrialist, seeking to find answers to the supposed horrors manifested within his factory.

While the previous Amnesia entry allows the handling of numerous objects throughout the game, most intriguing is how AMFP limits manipulation to certain necessary tools (ie. puzzle pieces), which simultaneously provide insight into the setting’s history, as well as Mandus’s responsibility for its undoing. Solving the game’s minimalistic puzzles equates to reminiscing with the past, exploring the factory’s perverted experiments firsthand, establishing a deeply-rooted connection between the player and the protagonist.

Perhaps the game’s greatest strength is its commitment to subtlety paired with a consistent lack of. The concerns of duality, regarding the repulsive efforts of evolution, are plainly expressed through the menacingly pitiful hogs which roam the Mandus Co. factory — the game is literally titled A Machine for Pigs. But while its central themes are proudly worn on its sleeve, a unique steampunk structure underlies the central narrative, involving a tycoon seeking to move forward into a new century by actively disrupting human nature through science and machinery.

Technological advancement provides the key to human development; however, the twisted logic fueling these key figures’ progress has consequently created animalistic abominations. The game depicts these figures as ‘enemies’ to evade, the abhorrent Other who have slid backwards in evolution, decayed and staggering as they ramble, feeding off their excess waste to evince a sickening and ceaseless cycle. Longevity despite, and as a result of decay. A perverse process, but nonetheless gripping.

The game’s linearity represents a plunge, certainly a nod to the title’s precursor, The Dark Descent. Beginning in a magnificently macabre mansion and continuing forward down into the black industrial catechisms below the neighboring Mandus Co., the journey to rescue Mandus’s twin sons from the grips of some seemingly-supernatural being, beckoned by some unknown voice, parallels descending from royalty into the trenches of poverty.

It is this scenario which ties our first-person viewpoint directly to Mandus himself, allowing the player to control how he continues but not necessarily if he even will. It is a determinedly linear experience, a straight plunge into the unknown, where revelations surrounding the nefarious preoccupations with his company arise. The player learns as the playable character learns.

This also means limitations must be set, and AMFP opts for a stripped-down foundation to provide these limits and engage in a more story-driven experience. The wonky sanity meter in TDD would often impede or rush progress, disconnecting involvement with puzzle-solving to frustratingly search for cures to mental woes. AMFP fortunately sidesteps this issue by completely erasing the system, and thus disallowing a disconnection between player and protagonist. AMFP never once tells the player how “scared they are,” as TDD so consistently does as a means of fundamental gameplay initiative.

A primary focus on creating an attachment between the player and the adopted persona also provides gradual insight into the characters involved. What’s perhaps most interesting in terms of game design is how few objects found throughout the environment are manipulable. There are puzzle segments during every level of this Victorian nightmare escapade, but they are often regulated to “pick up this item, place it over here, and press a button,” providing the most basic elements of figuring out a riddle. However, it is the implications behind these segments which are so fascinating to consider.

A chemical compound is needed to rid of a door’s metal lock, indicated by a note describing the compound’s use in essentially bringing (back) to Life the sewn-together pig experiments. By forcing the player, and subsequently our protagonist, Mandus, to compile the ingredients for this compound, the game directly involves them both firsthand in demonstrating the effects of this scientific procedure. It is a reflective gesture, forcing Mandus to confront the unnatural practices behind this corporation’s efforts, whilst providing the player with more information involving the overarching fiction.

So ultimately what is most considerable, regarding the methods of storytelling presented in AMFP, is the limits to which the player has an actual impact on the outcome of the situations they are directly involved in. When solving a puzzle, they are consequently inciting memories of the past to come to fruition for Mandus; reliving the sinister occupations of his prior endeavors as a means of confronting his own accountability for the decay and chaos surrounding him.

One notable scene presents an encounter in which the player/Mandus looks down upon the pig mutants from an elevated platform, watching them as they occupy themselves feasting and stumbling around listlessly. In a journal entry, Mandus describes how innocent they seem, likening them to naive children, more human and cognizant than their repugnant appearance may reveal.

This directly affects the player’s understanding of these formidable opponents. Up until this point, they have been illustrated as nothing but monsters to avoid at all costs, hideous and rotting from the inside out. As Mandus descends deeper into the factory, and thus deeper into his past, the player is along for the ride, and the startling revelations behind these once-oppressive beasts reveal themselves ever so gradually throughout to both parties simultaneously.

Bridging the gap between both The Wolf Among Us and AMFP is the underlying characteristic features which aid in developing their surprisingly similar core narrative concepts. Essentially, both games center around class struggle, and examine this struggle through the viewpoint of a morally-conflicted protagonist eager to work past his personal emotional tumult. Uncontrollable emotional responses are the true obstacles to overcome for these men, and their attempts to move forward into the future are often impeded by the very nature of their being, an inherent inclination towards personal gain, even as they vocally promote the betterment of society.

These are stories concerning morality, without the needless inclusion of some sort of morality system integrated into gameplay. Where The Wolf Among Us most greatly succeeds is in demonstrating Bigby’s inner turmoil through multiple conversation responses to choose from, allowing the player to decide how to respond without ever punishing them for their actions. There is no right or wrong to moral decision-making, there are only consequences to each, which the game fundamentally demonstrates through its involved plot regarding the fabrics of society and lawful hierarchy.

Amnesia, meanwhile, suggests player involvement by pitting them within the role of a man who has lost sight and memory of the evolutionary enterprise he has founded. His singular aspiration, to descend into the unknowable depths of his past to rescue his children, provides the MacGuffin for the player to involve themselves in alongside this central figure.

What is most important to consider is how the limits to which players can interact with their environs directly constitutes the psychology of the player character, Mandus. He elicits an ingrained understanding of the environment in spite of his amnesia, and so the ability to interact with only particular objects hints at their general disquieting significance and his past association with them.

Personal association is really what makes these characters matter. The player connects to them in a psychological manner, akin to melding one’s mind with another without retaining any physical form thereafter, proving that role playing is more than a skin-deep procedure. By providing a catalyst through which an individual may experience another Life, in an effort to provide telltale context for greater understanding of social structure; these games not only promote player interaction, but have the capacity to ergo manipulate the player’s psyche.

Education through representation: this is the reason videogames strive as an artistic medium. They present the ability to argue a creator’s thesis, and set limitations effectively provide the borders by which the portrait may be sculpted. Whether eluding prowling beasts — manifestations of industrial experimentation — or struggling to tame the beast within; the extent to which these titles effectively declare their political significance directly falls upon the player’s participation as a means of first-hand proof of concept.

Building a proper character necessitates humanity, despite external or internal flaws.  Forging a monster out of these individuals represents the idea that they have lost their sense of control (a human concept).  But by allowing players to aid in their reclaiming that control, it provides a narrative arc which only gameplay can provide.  Simulated maturity through active thought process and physical input: now that is artistry at its most complex.

Andrew Gerdes

Gamer, musician, writer, film buff, 'foodie,' aspiring baker, critic, intellectual self-reliant, optimist, health-obsessed kid who only wants to explore the infinite possibilities of artistic expression. Also, people tend to think I'm an all-around awesome guy

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