The second episode of Telltale's five episode seasons of interactive fiction are often "make or break" for a lot of players. Making a three hour game that captures players attention is one thing, but crafting a three hour follow-up that keeps players wanting to see the season through to the end 5-6 months from now is entirely different. After an unusual three-month-long wait from its premiere episode, Telltale's The Wolf Among Us continues with a second episode that is not lacking in suspense or excitement. However, like a fairytale character trying to maintain a human apperance in present-day New York, the cracks in The Wolf Among Us's facade are starting to show.
Episode 2 picks up right after the gut-wrenching plot twist that episode 1 left us with (don't worry, no spoilers here!). Having done away with the formality of introducing players to a world in which frogs talk and beauty and the beast are having marital troubles, The Wolf Among Us's second episode gets right to the thick of a good detective story: following leads, questioning suspicious folks, combing crime scenes for evidence, and lighting up a cigarette while you wonder what in the world is going on.
I had a blast following the narrative twists of "Smoke and Mirrors" as I was playing, and it is indeed another solid piece of interactive storytelling from Telltale. However, upon reflection, it seems that the episodes of The Wolf Among Us are remarkably similar. If I were to make a line graph of tension in the plot for each of The Wolf Among Us' episodes, I'd come out with two curves that looked exactly the same. In both "Faith" and "Smoke and Mirrors," a slow burn of an introduction leads to an exposition-heavy middle act, right before a hurried action sequence leads to a plot twist that begs the player to go on to the next episode. The two episodes still work fine in their own right, but the narrative brilliance of The Walking Dead gave me the impression thatI Telltale was beyond hunting for a new plot twist with which to end every episode.
"Smoke and Mirrors" is also a much more linear and exposition-heavy episode than its predecessor. The intriguing choices of where to go next -- my favorite part of episode 1 -- are unfortunately absent in episode 2. There's nothing wrong with an episode that needs its own space in which to set up grander storytelling ideas down the road, but after a three month wait, I ultimately wish this piece of storytelling was a bit more interactive than it came out.
This isn't to say that "Smoke and Mirrors" is a regression for The Wolf Among Us though. My biggest critique of episode 1, the narrow nature of Bigby's character, has been completely resolved in "Smoke and Mirrors." Rather than choosing from four shades of angry in every encounter, episode 2 opens Bigby's character up to genuine empathy, and a desire to help people. What's better, players like me who choose to give Bigby a "change of heart" in episode 2 will be acknowledged by other characters for doing so, and the plot doesn't feel forced against its will to allow for this new, more compassionate protagonist.
When it comes to the writing of its protagonist and furthering the story, "Smoke and Mirrors" is a definite step forward, especially after a three-month drought of interactive storytelling. Future episodes should explore plot structures that avoid the "end of episode plot twist," or further embrace the branching choices of epsiode 1, to avoid getting too stale before the season is even halfway over.