There is No Happily Ever After: social markers in The Wolf Among Us (2013)
In this blog post, my goal is to analyze class markers in The Wolf Among Us (2013). My analysis focuses on the social construction of class inequalities and hierarchies through social markers of difference. To describe lower socioeconomic class, I will refer to subcategories of working class, working poor, and underclass. The term “working class” refers to people who have hands-on physically demanding work, but usually have access to benefits. These jobs are usually considered 'unskilled' labour and are low-paying. Besides these issues, the working poor people don’t usually have benefits and often hold temporary positions. The underclass refers to unemployed or underemployed people who work in menial jobs with low pay. Since they have to manage on little to non income, they usually face housing and food insecurity, relying on the support of public assistance to get access to medical care, housing, and food.
First, I want to clarify the meaning “class marker”. This concept is drawn from the field of Social Markers of Difference which analyzes how social inequalities and hierarchies are socially constructed. This field examines the social production of difference considering the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, age, and class. Here, I refer to Class Markers to address the norms that define class identities which could be related to typical behaviors, clothes, and objects one must own and display to be recognized as being part of a certain social class. Further in this investigation, we will see that being recognized as part of a specific social class by displaying these class markers is an important factor that determines who can be integrated into society and who has to survive in its margins.
Fairy tales as political allegories
The Wolf Among Us (2013) is an episodic adventure and mystery choice-based game developed and published by Telltale Games. The game tells the story of characters from fairy tales and folklore. These characters, known as Fables, were forced to leave their Homeland, a place filled with magic forests, talking animals, and royalty. They traveled to New York City, forming a clandestine community known as Fabletown where they must disguise themselves as ordinary people and find jobs to pay their bills. In the context of poverty, mandatory low-paid labour, and corruption, players make decisions that will impact their community. Since The Wolf Among Us is a game with a complex branching narrative, I analyze how the player-character’s choices impact the way class oppression is handled.
By placing fairy tale characters in a modern late capitalism space, The Wolf Among Us modernizes historic fairytales, which are already allegorical, to make a point, whether intentional or not, about modern class hierarchies. Through metaphor, the narrative represents social class discourses with the purpose of discussing modern class positions. Considering that fairy tales were used to send a message to their audiences, I inquire: what is the message being sent here? To do that I will start by introducing the central playable character, Bigby, and then explaining in more depth the game’s storyline and gameplay.
Bigby: The Big Bad Wolf
Bigby is the “Big Bad Wolf” from famous fairy tales and is well-known for his bad reputation. As the sheriff of Fabletown, his duty is to protect humans from fables as well as from themselves. Throughout the game, Bigby is investigating the murders of Faith and Lily, two fable sex workers who were brutally murdered by beheading. In the gameplay, Bigby makes choices that involve how he will resolve community conflicts: by using violence or by being empathetic. The challenge is whether Bigby will continue to be violent or whether he will be able to choose more peaceable options and so redeem himself with the community.
From the Homelands to Fabletown
When fables left the Homeland, they lost their established economic and social status. The royalty, who lost their lands and tributes, now have to find jobs to sustain their lifestyle. Creatures, who used to inhabit magical forests, now need to pay rent. However, many fables are not able to earn enough to sustain even their basic needs.
Amid the loss of economic and social status, many fables, who now have become part of the lower class, had to turn to the Fabletown Business Office, a fable ruled governmental institution, for help. Ichabod Crane, the acting mayor in Fabletown, has prioritized the needs of the residents of The Woodlands who are usually upper-class fables and used to be royalty. At the same time, lower class fables who didn’t own much in the Homelands, have their requests denied or ignored.
The desperation of not having the means to survive forces lower-class fables to accept jobs that actively exploit them. Almost every fable has been working directly or indirectly for the Crooked Man, the main antagonist, a loan shark that profits from loaning money to the poor and small business owners. Those who are usually unable to pay him back, are forced to work for him on his terms. If they rebel, they end up dead like Lily and Faith, the two murder victims mentioned previously. It’s later revealed that The Crooked Man also has connections in the Fabletown Business Office where the mayor receives bribes from him. The Crooked Man’s operations involve activities that are considered illegal, but ones that fables are unable to disengage from: the production of “illegal” Glamour potions.
It’s all about Glamour and Labour
Although fables are well-known in our world, they must hide their true identity. For some fables, such as Snow White, pretending to be an ordinary human is not difficult. However, for others, such as Mr. Toad, they have to take Glamour, a magic potion that disguises fables as human to blend in and integrate into society. Fables who don’t look human are sent to the Farm, a place where fables are forced to live in and cannot leave - essentially a prison.
Glamour is produced by witches hired by the Fabletown Business Office to assure that the potion meets a minimum standard. The potion comes with a tag price and it’s not cheap. Due to financial instability, many fables cannot afford Glamour.
In this context, to look human is a prerequisite to be part of the society. In that case, fables who do not look human are always at a disadvantage. Being a human-looking fable is a privilege. Non-human-fables can be interpreted as an allegory to marginalized identities. If they can’t afford Glamour, which is sold at an inaccessible price, they are forced to hide themselves. They cannot be a part of society without changing their appearance, and looking human is not only a privilege, but a commodity.
Figure 1: Sheriff Bigby threatens to send Mr. Toad to the Farm after seeing him without Glamour.
In the game, players learn about this situation when talking to Mr. Toad and Colin. According to the Book of Fables Entry, a wikia inside the game, Mr. Toad is described as someone who is not “too concerned with what the law is, and has to be reminded often." Although Mr. Toad is described as someone who doesn’t want to comply with the rules, Mr. Toad explains that it’s not a matter of wanting to comply, but not being able: “Bigby, they're bleedin' me dry, mate. The quality of the spell goes down, but the rates keep climbing up. Do you have any idea how much it costs to have an entire family in Glamour?”
In the Book, Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, is described as a non-human fable troublemaker who constantly escapes from the Farm because he is “unable to stand such a boring life”. Although the wikia states that the reason why he doesn’t stay in the Farm is the boring life, Colin explains to Bigby that “the fresh air and sunshine pitch they sell you on is bullshit. I didn't escape out of the Homelands to end up in some prison, okay.”
Figure 2: Colin asks Bigby to not send him back to the Farm. Bigby has to choose whether to send him back like Mr. Toad or to protect him.
Fables that need to take glamour, but cannot afford legitimate sources, buy it from alternative cheaper sources. There are potions produced outside the Fabletown Business Office in a parallel market controlled by the Crooked Man. In this market, the Crooked Man built a clandestine factory that uses slave labour to produce the ingredients of the potion. Unemployed witches use these ingredients to produce Glamour. Producing the potion is their major income.
Figure 3: Snow threatens to burn Greenleaf’s tree which is what allows her to produce Glamour. Players have the choice to obey Snow and burn her tree or to refuse to burn it. In the end, regardless of what players choose, Aunt Greenleaf reacts as if Bigby burned it.
This alternative Glamour is of lower quality than the original one, but buying it allows these fables to be integrated into society. However, the fable government enforces the law to prevent them from getting cheaper Glamour instead of making the official one affordable. Instead of criticizing the lack of affordability, Bigby criticizes the Fables who purchase it: “people just don't know the real cost of getting something cheap.”
Figure 4: When investigating how illegal Glamour is produced, Bigby finds a clandestine factory.
Considering the Crooked Man and Mayor Crane’s arrangement, the lack of access to Glamour benefits the Fabletown Business Office. The Crooked Man can profit from selling illegal Glamour and exploiting the working poor while the mayor receives bribes. If non-human fables can be integrated into society, they won’t be vulnerable and be exploited by the Crooked Man. If they are unable to find economic stability, they become cheap labour.
Poverty, police violence and law enforcement: A tale about a broken system
In The Wolf Among Us, the ability to pass as human is what determines how fables experience poverty and class oppression. Not being able to afford the means to look human places these characters at the margins. They cannot get jobs because they need to hide from humans. If they are discovered by the authorities, they are sent to prison.
As the Sheriff, most of Bigby’s dialogue options are centered on his ability to solve conflicts in the community. Bigby’s violence can be interpreted in two different ways. First, knowing about Bigby’s sordid past as the Big Bad Wolf, these choices can be seen as part of his challenge to redeem himself with his community. In this case, Bigby’s violence is framed as his individual struggle to improve his personality. On the other hand, considering that Bigby is the sheriff, his violent acts could be an allegory for police brutality.
When the Crooked Man is defeated and Mayor Crane runs away to avoid charges of corruption, Snow White becomes the new mayor. Although she claims that things will be different, she believes that stronger law enforcement regarding Glamour is the solution for their social issues. At this moment, Bigby is confronted with the dilemma of supporting law enforcement, even if that means sending Colin back to prison, or choosing not to enforce the law.
Class markers and agency in The Wolf Among Us
As discussed previously, “passing as human” is a class marker in The Wolf Among Us because it defines which fables will be integrated into society and who will be left at its margins.
Choices regarding law enforcement are mostly related to how Bigby responds to conflicts involving the use of Glamour. In dialogues between Bigby, Colin and Mr. Toad, Bigby often has to choose between displaying empathy toward their struggles or simply enforcing law by threatening them. These dialogue options don’t always have an impact on the game’s ending. Mr. Toad will be sent to the farm regardless of what Bigby promised him. However, Bigby can choose to send Colin to the Farm or keep him hidden in his own apartment. Hiding Colin is presented as an option because Bigby feels guilty for destroying Colin’s house in the fairy tales.
Games published by TellTale Games are well-known for having limited agency. The Wolf Among Us isn’t different. The endings are determined by how players choose to punish the Crooked Man: by killing or imprisoning him. Having agency only in relation to the method of punishment, we could argue, is an allegory for how the system focuses on the punishment of individuals instead of analyzing how such violence is actually systemic.
Limited agency in the context of class oppression can have a different role. As the game’s personification of law enforcement and as a non-human fable, Bigby doesn’t want to send Mr. Toad to prison, but he has to follow Snow’s orders. His lack of agency can be an allegory for the powerlessness people experience when wanting to change the status quo.
Considering passing as human as a class marker for Fables, Bigby is put into a complex situation. As the sheriff, Bigby has to ensure that everyone displays this class marker. However, Bigby is also a non-human fable, so he is forced to display the same class marker to be integrated into society. Bigby faces isolation for being a non-human fable who could become part of the working class and for not being working poor. He has to enforce the law on the working poor for not being able to afford class markers, which he only has access to because of his job.
The Gears of a Broken System: A Cautionary Tale about Capitalism
Fairy tales, considering their allegorical nature, are usually used as a tool to raise awareness of moral issues. Characters and their destinies are symbols to discuss ideas and discourses. Considering the events described above, The Wolf Among Us is a tale that warns audiences of the dangers of class inequality. The game could be interpreted, essentially, as a cautionary tale about capitalism.
The Wolf Among Us follows the structure of a cautionary tale. It introduces a prohibition: not taking the official Glamour. Characters such as Colin, Mr. Toad and Lily, break the rules. Finally, they have a bad ending as a consequence of their actions. Based on this structure, there are a couple of moral messages the game could be sending to audiences such as “Do not buy something that you do not know the origin of.“ or “Comply with government regulations.” However, when we look at the reasons why fables were working for the Crooked Man and consuming illegal Glamour, we see the moral message could be “the government should support marginalized communities instead of just reinforcing the law”, “not complying with the law is not a matter of choice to marginalized communities” and/or “law enforcement is not the solution to end systemic violence. Promoting class equality is.”
However, the game ends on a different note. Snow White becomes the new mayor and promises that everything will be different because she will do everything by the book. Although there are dialogues throughout the game that involve fables arguing against Snow’s propositions, they come from characters that are framed as troublemakers. As the community is appeased when the Crooked Man is punished, no one opposes her.
Regardless of Bigby’s actions, the community will always criticize him. However, instead of reflecting on his role as law enforcement, Bigby’s last dialogue option demonstrates that he doesn’t recognize himself as one of the gears of a broken system.
Figure 5: When Bigby is reflecting on his own actions, the game doesn’t provide any dialogue options where Bigby reflects on his role in the perpetuation of systemic violence.
To say that everything will be different because of stronger law enforcement is to send out the moral message that “criminality is the result of lack of law enforcement”. Although the game portrays the dynamics of class oppression, its lack of self-awareness backfires: it ends up reinforcing class myths.
As an alternative ending, the game could have provided the ending where Bigby reflects on his role in systemic violence as well as his marginalized position as a non-human fable exploited by the system. By reflecting on his positionality, Bigby could have promoted the discussion within the community to come up with effective solutions for systemic issues. Instead, the game gives us a typical fairy tale ending that “now things will improve” when in reality we know that it will only be better for those already supported by the system.
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