The Wolf and Wheel

by Milo van Mesdag

2022

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A compelling folk-horror anthology, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

The premise of the Wolf and Wheel is dynamite: this visual novel consists of a series of folk-horror vignettes spinning off of a frame story set in a tavern, as the inhabitants of a small village eat and drink to take their minds off the fact that the sun stopped rising several weeks ago (I believe this is set in the same Eastern-European-inflected world as last year’s IFComp entry Last Night in Alexisgrad, by one of the present game’s authors). This isn’t quite the same structure as the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, but squint and you can see the family resemblance; it’s a good way of hanging together a bunch of semi-related stories, and the atavistic contrast between a warm place of safety and a newly-terrifying night creates a push-pull frisson of tension between the pieces of the game. There’s a lovely, homey art style, too, with appealingly idiosyncratic character designs and a few nice touches of animation, like snowflakes blowing past a window. This is the kind of game to sink into, drinking a mug of tea on a cold day (unfortunately it was 80 degrees in LA when I played it, though at least I had the AC on).

Given the overall high production values, and robust hour-plus running time, the game’s placement in the Back Garden isn’t immediately obvious, but the blurb discloses that it’s a chopped-up demo of a longer work, consisting of random event scenes (these would be the vignettes) connected by a newly-written frame story. Given this provenance, it’d be easy for the game to come off as a glorified clip show, but to its credit, it stands on its own pretty well. Some of the vignettes are stronger than others, of course, and some feel more fleshed-out and relevant to the frame plot than others, but that seems reasonable given the weird vibe of the supernatural happenings they depict. It also helps that the protagonist of the frame story – one of the workers in the titular inn – isn’t a passive recipient of the tales of others, but somehow finds themself (you can choose their name and gender) sucked into the memories of each taverngoer in turn, reliving their decisions and experiences. There are also characters and situations that escape from some of the vignettes and enter the frame story, meaning that this feels like a full narrative and not just a thinly-sketched framework for a series of self-contained, non-interacting stories.

As for the flavor of the vignettes, I called them folk-horror, but maybe folkloric is a better word? Some of the early ones are simply eerie, and even when later ones escalate into threat and violence, there’s still an otherworldly vibe. Some of the most memorable encounters are simply conversations, too – one dialogue with a psychopomp boatman especially stood out. They’re weakest where they stretch for meaning and try to press the player to make big philosophical choices – there’s one where you come across a werewolf in human shape, naked and raving in despair over what he’s become, but his desperate questioning comes across far too bloodlessly:

"I have not been able to work my way through that question: 'why live?' I presume a meaning or purpose, but what is it and am I wrong in that assumption?"

Truly, Socrates, put some clothes on.

Even this comparatively weak sequence is redeemed, though, when you realize that this werewolf isn’t a man bitten by a wolf, but a wolf bitten by a man – what torments him isn’t his red deeds, since as an animal he could kill and eat his prey with no qualms, but that his intermittent transformation into human form has given him a view of morality, and transformed his killings into murder.

Again, they’re not all like this – there are some vignettes that lean more action-oriented, or have a light investigative cast – and they move pretty quick, so you’re guaranteed to at least get a powerful image or two out of each (the one with monsters growing in the trees was pleasingly nightmarish). You are given what feel like significant choices in each too – usually hinging on whether to flee, combat, or engage with the weirdness on display – so you’re not a passive observer.

As for the frame story, it’s serviceable enough. My favorite part here is getting to know some of the other villagers, from motormouth scholar Elisabetta, Nat the infallible timekeeper, and tortured doctor Fyodora. I’d look forward to digging into these relationships in the full game, since as written you only get one or two encounters with each. Indeed, my main complaint about the frame story is that it seems to end rather abruptly, and while there are 11 endings, the connection between my choices and the outcome I got felt unclear (though this may be setting- and genre-appropriate, I suppose). If I was ultimately more enamored of the game’s constituent parts than how it finally came together as a whole, though, I still very much enjoyed by time with it – and given that the Wolf and Wheel is a reconfiguration of how those parts were originally meant to fit, I suspect I’ll really like the full game once it’s released.