This is the hardest part of being a disabled gamer. Faith, Episode 1 of The Wolf Among Us is the latest from Telltale Games of The Walking Dead fame that swept the gaming world into a gripping narrative in 2012 and reinvented the definition of a AAA game with its episodic releases and Game Of The Year wins, is an exercise in frustration for us even while we try willing ourselves to ignore the inaccessibility. The classic question arises; is enduring the inherent inaccessibility worth the gaming experience?
Note that this review is based on playing via on the Xbox 360. Additionally, due to limited resources the images used are amateur images taken via smartphone. I apologize for the poor image quality. I wanted to show examples of what I cite in the review and my only screen capture option is my smartphone camera.
For those unaware, The Wolf Among Us is based on the comic series Fables by Bill Willingham where Fableton is a hidden New York City community that houses exiled fairy tale characters coping with life in the modern world. Classic fairy tale characters barter past wrongs with cigarettes and alcohol and marital woes plague what was once happily ever after. Bigby, once known as the Big Bad Wolf, is tasked with maintaining order amongst Fableton’s haves, have nots, and the animals from talking pigs to dragons who are banished to the Farm.
Despite the inaccessible difficulties, Telltale Games’ care in developing the best game possible is clear and a few simple changes would create an even better game for all to play. Telltale Games’ dedication to game design and detail is palpable in each scene. The art style beautifully gives depth to cell shaded art, cinematic camera angles are well used throughout the cut scenes, and deeply detailed environments reward players for lingering the cursor over the screen. Simply eyeing the environments yields a missing cat poster featuring a feline named “Pixel,” a snowflake pattern on Snow White’s blouse, the Huff & Puff cigarette brand, and an intersection with a working walk/don’t walk light. The noir style “whodunit” mood is well complimented by purple lighting and a smoke effect that is taken advantage of with nearly every Fableton character lighting up.
With such accolades, we still must ask whether or not we can play the game. The game allows the player access to options before gameplay begins. Settings allow for subtitles on/off and for inverting the controller.
There are two different types of gameplay in The Wolf Among Us. Ongoing cut scenes with cinematic camera shots that momentarily pause for a conversational decision and action sequences based on quick time events (QTE) from single or rapid button pressing to analog stick twitch responses combined with trigger presses. Yet, the power in a Telltale Games game is its story. The QTE action sequences are the game’s weakest sequences even with its rework since The Walking Dead and it is the QTEs that renders the game inaccessible for those with fine motor control disabilities.
While the time limit is relatively forgiving and the QTEs are not a one hit death. Eventually not successfully hitting the button prompts results in a game over. The QTEs are long sequences that require a combination of on hit button taps, rapid button presses, dodging via analog stick, and targeting with the analog stick with corresponding trigger pulls. In a roughly 3 hour game, there are 3 lengthy QTE sequences required for progressing.
Requiring that an able bodied person step in hourly for game progress is not fun and immersive gaming. Stepping away from a game in order to enlist able bodied assistance is the definition of inaccessible and sours the overall experience. Surely an option for skipping the QTEs is not only possible but true to the game’s narrative focus allowing all to experience the stellar story without barriers.
At the game’s beginning, a radio show plays with details eventually pertinent for the observant. Yet, no subtitles revealed what was said and the dread of what subtitles do and do not represent sets in. After the first character speaks the subtitles begin for character conversations but bizarrely missing the black background for readability. Even with text color coding for each character the subtitles are constantly unreadable against busy environments which is akin to the audio cutting in and out throughout the game.
This missing detail is clearly understood by Telltale Games because when conversational options arise each option is readable with the text distinct against the black backgrounds making its removal from the subtitles puzzling. Playing a narrative intense game with subtle conversational cues but struggling with reading the subtitles is a fundamental flaw.
Slight paraphrasing occurred where the subtitles stated “AKA” but the character was speaking the entire phrase, “also known as.” Still, Telltale Games commitment to the game remains evident in an instance where a character’s speech became slurred and the subtitles reflected the change with spelling such as “Wud?” rather than “What?”
Again, the game’s strongest element is its narrative. Audio cues set up transitions between scenes and characters often respond to sounds such as banging on a door or a ringing phone but audio cues are not subtitled. Subtitles are meant as a language translation designed with the assumption that the player is hearing whereas captions assume that the player is deaf or hearing impaired therefore includes pertinent audio cues. Early in the game, a phone off the cradle emits a busy signal suggesting that the player replace the phone on the cradle and later a character awakens to a knocking on their door with the next player controlled action to answer the door. Sure, a point and click adventure can be played by scrolling over the environment until a prompt arises but doing so because of missed audio cues is a kick out of immersion due to a hearing disability, not due to player curiosity.
For visual disabilities the game is more accessible. The icons detailing whether to view, touch, talk to a, or ask about a character or object are mapped to the face buttons with corresponding color icon with distinct shapes representing each action. While the red circles during QTEs are difficult to see especially given the time clock to target correctly this concern is addressed with further clarity to the icons and target circles such as with a black outline reminiscent of the overall cell shaded art rather than an overlaid 2D art style.
Telltale Games brings disability, albeit briefly, into the game’s narrative itself. In a brief moment a character bypasses a line and another character waiting in line shouts, “What’re you — blind?” This is a mere moment with a line said in a flash of anger that is a rare example of disability mentioned straightforwardly in a game. In Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: 400 Days a character yells, “I don’t know if you are deaf, dumb, or an a******.” Telltale Games continues using these insults that occur in our everyday realities as conversational moments based in anger and fear. Surely these are great jumping off points for real life conversations about why the inclusion of this language is a realistic portrayal of modern day insults. A conversation about why fear and anger spurs name calling based on disabilities. Allowing the disabled into a conversation about themselves starts with allowing us into the game.
Happily, the game has a free demo allowing disabled gamers the opportunity to play a snippet of the game in order to assess the game’s impact on our individual disabilities.
Usually, game reviews are published long after game development is completed and calls for change are for “next time.” However, Telltale Games continues their new business model of episodic content. Faith is Episode 1 out of 5 with the remaining 4 episodes still in development.
Let us take a new approach as well. Go and play the demo or the episode and if you encounter barriers that impact yourself, a friend, or family member come back and let us know in this space. Or simply add your support that the subsequent episodes are made accessible. Let us raise our voices and make known not what we want but what we need and maybe we can induce change, not in the next game, but now. We cannot make these changes alone, add your voice too.
Overall Rating: Partially Accessible
Visual Rating: Thoroughly Accessible
Fine-Motor Rating: Inaccessible
Auditory Rating: Partially Accessible
Released For: Xbox 360, PS3, PC