Wot I Think: The Walking Dead: 400 Days

By Nathan Grayson on July 4th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

How do you follow a series as groundbreaking/tear-jerking as The Walking Dead: Season One? Well, with The Walking Dead: Season Two of course, but that’s not ready yet. In the meantime, Telltale has re-purposed its old ZomboTech to create a very different sort of story – or rather, set of stories. The Walking Dead: 400 Days focuses on five characters and a single truck stop over the course of, well, 400 days. The idea is to create a sort of “bridge” between seasons, but it’s no flabby gut of filler. 400 Days is more of a rapid-fire storytelling experiment set in Walking Dead’s universe, a sort of palette cleanser for Telltale after many more than 400 days with Lee and Clem. But does it succeed, or has Telltale’s misery drooling maw of human suffering finally bit off more than it can chew? Here’s wot I think.

(Note: I’ve made sure to avoid specific spoilers of real consequence, but I do discuss character motivations and story structure. I don’t think this one warrants a spoiler warning, but I thought I’d offer a heads-up all the same.)

It’s a bit strange how comfortable I feel with a gun in my hand.

In games, I mean. In real life, I’d probably be better off hurling one at an assailant than “aiming” at them. But that feeling of reassuring calm – like I’ve just been handed a glass of warm milk by a sentient safety blanket – is a trademark of modern game design. Sure, the first hour or so might be jarring, but then mechanics tend to settle into a nice, soothing stew of constant gratification. From there, things go pretty much exactly how we expect, and our brains? Well, they just eat that stuff up. They get addicted. Predictability (with the occasional slight twist) is a drug. Ten hours, 20 hours, 60 hours. Shooting and slashing and skipping rope with entrails are “thrilling” activities, but we do them for the comfort.

But not all games have to be like that, nor should they be. I think The Walking Dead: 400 Days provides an excellent model of how we could break this sleepy cycle – if not necessarily a perfect execution of it. It manages to stitch together five wildly varied yarns in just under two hours, comfort zones be damned. As soon as I slipped off my Marathon Weeping Shoes and stretched out my legs, I got hit by another twist or a new character or a choice that made my stomach lurch. 400 Days flatlines in a heartbeat, but it covers an incredible amount of ground during its exceedingly brief lifespan.

Each character’s individual story clocks in at around 20 minutes, and the sheer range of backgrounds and situations explored is pretty marvelous. My favorites were Shel, a dutiful older sister struggling to keep her sibling from throwing away her humanity, Bonnie, a former junkie in an, um, interesting spot with the couple that took her in, and Vince, a prisoner whose supporting cast is far more interesting than he is. That’s not to say that the other two characters, Russel and Wyatt, are boring. They just have less going for them on the whole, and they only touch on interesting beats instead of fully delving into them. Wyatt, especially, falls flat in the personality department, and Russel’s general likability gets squandered on a conclusion that doesn’t quite pop.

Really, that’s where 400 Days biggest strength also becomes its greatest weakness. The mini-story format lends itself incredibly well to variety in theme, pacing, and (at least, by Telltale adventure standards) mechanics, but its shovel only goes so deep before striking concrete with an ugly clang. Each story is about an interesting situation or character – but rarely both. There’s simply not enough time to flesh out the goriest of details, and in some places even Telltale’s wonderfully clever storytelling can’t make up for it. Some of the setups for characters’ mini-arcs, meanwhile, are just well-worn apocalypse cliches in slightly snazzier clothing. But I suppose that just goes with the territory.

The short version? Don’t go in expecting a character dynamic as heart-mashingly powerful as Lee/Clem. You won’t find it. I rarely felt attached to anyone, as I didn’t have time to get to know them well enough. As a result, I was definitely a bit more cavalier with my choices – not sick with worry each time yet another frail life ended up in my hands. Speaking of, choices are everywhere in 400 Days (perhaps even more so than in previous TWD episodes), but many are fairly illusory and a couple left me wondering, “Wait, why couldn’t I…?”

The big moments, however, save the day and then some, offering hugely stomach-churning quandaries that left me positively exhausted from grief and self-loathing. Once again, I can’t help but applaud the brilliant economy of the experience Telltale’s created. 20 minutes and I felt like I’d just watched the credits roll on something that lasted me 60. Hours.

20 minutes.

That said, the ending – which neatly hogties the plot’s many twitching tendrils – is disappointingly weak compared to the rest of the story. It’s a shame too, because I feel like the idea behind it is actually quite excellent. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it’s the point where the consequences of your choices are really felt. Sadly, however, the stakes aren’t high enough and characters end up making some confusing decisions as a result. I won’t go into any more detail, but suffice it to say, the final scene could’ve punctuated the experience with a much more powerful oomph. It just needed some more fine-tuning.

There really are some brilliant moments scattered all throughout 400 Days, though. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-them drops the still waters of character development that ripple out for miles. Many are, as ever, exceptionally bleak, but a few manage to squeeze out some laughs as well. There’s a cute moment between an apparent couple that opens with a heated debate about the benefits of lobster hands over snake tongues, and I now want to own a prison-jumper-orange shirt emblazoned with the words “Fuck Wall Street”.

Honestly, these pre-zombie moments might be 400 Days’ finest, giving us glimpses of miserable people simply trying to cope. The big, orchestral-score-worthy megaton tidal wave hasn’t hit yet. It’s just human beings trying to live in a world that’s become death’s plaything.

400 Days’ remaining flaws will be quite familiar if you’ve played, well, any other Walking Dead episode. Don’t get me wrong: this is excellent DLC for Walking Dead: Season One, but it’s still Walking Dead: Season One – moldy tech warts and all. Characters animate less like people and more like horrifying animatrons from Chuck E Cheese’s, and background loading between scenes occasionally cannon-ball leaps onto center stage. Shooting, fleeing, and one particularly annoying bit toward the end of Bonnie’s tale also all feel stiff and look embarrassingly robotic. Fingers crossed that Season Two ends up being the technological equivalent of open heart surgery, only the heart gets replaced by the world’s most emotive diesel engine.

In the grand scheme of what 400 Days accomplishes, however, those are just nitpicks. The long and short of it is, Telltale’s managed to explore a more diverse range of characters and subject matters in two hours than much of the gaming industry has in, well, ever. Yes, this is still a zombie story, but it’s an exceedingly clever one (even if it’s not the deepest). I felt like I was getting a quick flyby of some intriguing survivors’ Greatest Hits rather than embodying their lives, but I definitely enjoyed the brief, brilliantly paced time I spent in their sneakers.

We need more of this: more established developers winging out left-field experiments in form and function. This is how innovation is born. 400 Days definitely isn’t perfect, but it’s smart, short, and – in part because of that – unafraid to toss out conventional gaming industry wisdom in favor of diversity of character and theme. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the main series’ significantly meatier plot, but I do hope we see more along these lines from Telltale sooner rather than later.

400 Days’ whiplash-inducing string of twists and change-ups – a nauseating, unpredictable ebb and flow of dread – served to yank me out of my gamerly comfort zone. Really, the only predictable thing about 400 Days is that everything can and will go crushingly, devastatingly wrong at the drop of a hat – worst of all if you try to play the hero. Such is the ever-present law of this land. The moral of Walking Dead’s story.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days is available on Steam right now for just $5. It does, however, require a copy of The Walking Dead: Season One to function, despite being largely standalone content-wise.

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74 Comments »

  1. luukdeman111 says:

    Exactly what i hoped and expected it to be… Nice

  2. Noviere says:

    I played through the first 3 stories last night, and the remainder this morning. Overall, I was impressed. I figured with such a short length and so many stories to tell that it would lack any depth… But I was wrong! In some ways, it was more interesting than Season 1.

    I quite liked Russell. He was the most likeable, and the easiest to relate to. Maybe that’s because I grew up with terrifying stories about hitchhiking? Who knows. There was something about that feeling of, “I know I shouldn’t do this, but…” followed by that sinking feeling that you should’ve listened to your gut. Other that Wyatt, I liked all of the stories really.

    It will be interesting to see if Season 2 has any significant cross-over with 400 Days.

  3. bigjig says:

    Eh, just play the The Last of Us instead. It achieves everything The Walking Dead sets out to do narratively, all while including this revolutionary new concept called “gameplay.”

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      You know this site is dedicated to PC gaming, right?

    • Drake Sigar says:

      Read the forth and fifth paragraphs again. Unless you be trollin’.

    • Ashen says:

      Good for you bigjig. Those of us on the other hand who enjoy good writing, character building and consistency will probably stick with this game though.

      • Syra says:

        Hey now, I’ve played them both and The Last of Us has all of those things and much more it’s really far greater than it appears to be and frankly is my game of the console generation, if not the decade.

        Shootin’ stuff doesn’t diminish any of those things you mentioned…

        It’s obviously going to better than a DLC that lasts like 30 min, but that’s apples and oranges isn’t it? Bigjig is trollin’so don’t feed it.

      • RogerioFM says:

        Well brother, I have to disagree with you there, I am mainly a PC gamer, but recently I was able to buy a PS3 and got The Last of Us, did not finish it yet, but so far its proving to be one of the best story driven games ever made.

        Its not on the same level as Planescape Torment(For me it’s the best), but I think the comparation is completely unfair. It is as good as The Walking Dead though. Although I still believe the PC have the most complex games on the market, let’s not presume that the consoles does not have masterpieces as well.

    • Matt7895 says:

      I really like The Last of Us. But I love The Walking Dead. Funnily enough, I can like one more than one game.

    • Noviere says:

      Gameplay = kill stuff!!!!

      • Kadayi says:

        Indeed. Who can forget the whooping and hollering at that TLoU E3 press conference when the protagonist blew the guys brains out with a shotgun.

        • woodsey says:

          Says more about the E3 press crowd than the game. (Incidentally, having played it, I’m pretty sure that’s not even in the game.)

          • Kadayi says:

            So it’s the presses fault?

          • woodsey says:

            Is what the press’ fault? Cheering and yelling like a bunch of morons? Obviously.

            Getting it removed as a consequence? Maybe.

          • Kadayi says:

            Was it actually removed? I’ve not read anywhere that they toned the violence down. But then again you don’t have to fight everyone Vs sneaking past

          • DougyM says:

            I doubt it was removed, because if it was they forgot to remove a bunch of other stuff that is as violent as hell including torture, faces getting hacked up with blades in close combat, more torture, exploding body parts from grenades etc.

          • Rockman says:

            @DougyM, it was removed, though probably not on the grounds of violence for the reasons you stated. The shotgun scene is definitely not in the game though. /3rd playthrough

    • Anders Wrist says:

      Or, you know, watch a Let’s Play on youtube, and skip the boring, repetitive grind of quicktime events and ladder hauling that you call “gameplay”, and you can experience the linear story without having to strain your thumb.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        This post would be ridiculously off base even if it weren’t made in the context of a comparison between The Last of Us and The Walking Dead game (which actually is what you just described, if you want to ignore the story). You obviously didn’t even try to play the game if that’s what your takeaway of what the gameplay amounts to.

        Anyway, I like both games. And plenty of other games. Almost as if it’s not necessary to stick rigidly to a narrow style of gameplay.

        • Laurentius says:

          Actually that’s exactly what i’m doing watching Let’s Play of Last of Us and Walking Dead, definietly i don’t feel like i’m missing anything excpet boring, grindy stuff that i can skip at my leisure. I can honestly attest that most modern (DX:HR. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Uncharted ) games ar as enjoyable as Lat’s Plays or even more due skiping the bore.

          • Anders Wrist says:

            Exactly.

          • Ragnar says:

            What you’re missing is the best part – making the games’ stories and worlds your own.

            Watching a Let’s Play is equivalent to handing a choose your own adventure book and a pen to a stranger, and then going through it and following their choices.

            Yes, the gameplay may be less than thrilling, but you’re effectively choosing to sit on the sidelines and watch your team play football to avoid getting tired and sweaty from playing yourself.

          • jrodman says:

            I find a Let’s Play done well also lets me skip all the parts of a game I don’t like. The frustration, the bad design choices, the railroading. I am freed of all of these.

            In a lot of games it’s a positive trade.

    • Iceman346 says:

      While I did like The Last of Us and was positively surprised that it actually has decently deep gameplay (you know, in contrast to those Uncharted games) the story itself in my opionion didn’t reach the heights Walking Dead Season One did. TLOUs story is full of genre tropes, there are no surprises whatsoever if you know your zombie flicks and is mostly enjoyable for the well crafted characters of Joel and Ellie.

      Although if you find Joel relatable, especially at the end of the game, will probably vary. I for one didn’t. Ellies character development on the other hand was a joy to experience.

      • woodsey says:

        The Walking Dead’s decision making approach with TLoU’s gameplay would be far more interesting to me than either of them alone. I enjoyed them both, but TWD never seemed anywhere near where I would expect it to be consider it’s nothing but the cutscenes from Mass Effect stitched together, whilst the end of TLoU set in me in contention with the man I was playing because he wasn’t making the choices I wanted to.

        • Kadayi says:

          I must of missed the bit in Mass Effect where they introduced a decision timer and stopped spelling out every decision into clearly marked paragon/renegade and neutral options and instead introduced a lot of tough grounded choices whose payoffs weren’t obvious and often times unexpected throughout the narrative.

          • kyynis says:

            I’m pretty sure that bit was Alpha Protocol.

          • Kadayi says:

            Swap out Paragon/Renegade/Neutral for Bourne/Bond & Bauer. Same result. Much love for AP, but it’s not a patch on TWD with regard to narrative complexity.

          • Jimbot says:

            Depends on your definition of “narrative complexity”. Alpha Protocol is insanely reactive and things play out completely different on where you go and who you talk to first, how you talk to them and what kind of intel you have when you talk to them.The Walking Dead managed to tell a neato story with characters you like but it was a fixed narrative at the end of the day with your choices changing very little of the story being told – Alpha Protocol, on the other hand, completely changes. The only time it doesn’t change is in the tutorial level of Saudi Arabia but even choices made there have ripples through-out the story.

            Don’t mistaken downbeat for complex or deep.

    • RakeShark says:

      Nah, I can get The Walking Dead for cheaper than The Last of Us. I’ll check out TLoU when it’s half-off.

    • Homu Homu says:

      Couldn’t agree more. I don’t want a developer that wishes they were making SegaCD FMV games but “reluctantly adding adventure elements” to their games see a single red cent.

    • KenTWOu says:

      It achieves everything The Walking Dead sets out to do narratively…

      TLOU didn’t achieve anything at all, it doesn’t have choices and consequences, it’s a completely linear heavily scripted cinematic experience in terms of narrative. While TWD at least has few real choices and consequences. TWD set out to become nonlinear experience, TLOU didn’t even try.

    • Apocalypse says:

      Sorry, I rather watch a Uwe Boll movie than to suffer from this “gameplay” you are speaking off. Uninspired 3rd person shooter with super duper cover mechanics and the retarded thumbstick controls are nothing to be fond of.
      That the developers get even away with this “gameplay” to stretch the game out to acceptable AAA-title length is mind-boggling. But enjoy your walks thru side alleys and ducts from one linear cutscene to the next.

      I still would like to see a “last of us” movie, maybe Uwe Boll is available?

  4. GameCat says:

    I like very much these little novels. I would want to see more games like this DLC. Anthology of few 15-20 minutes stories. I mean, we have already collections of short stories by some writers or TV shows like The Twilight Zone where every episode have its own plot and characters, unrelated with others so why not games?

    Yes, I REALLY want to play horror/weird fiction game like that.

    • Syra says:

      I’d love to see more of what a dev can do given free reign over an engine and just make lots of scenarios after a successful game (kind of like blood dragon) – the problem this doesn’t often happen in gaming is costs pure and simple. Generating art assets for each unique take and new animations, then sound design and voice talent etc *shudder* that’s serious development time and expense.

    • Nick says:

      Alan Wakes American Nightmare is quite like a twilight zone episode, not exactly what you are looking for but worth a try imo, it had some neat ideas.

      • GameCat says:

        I have Alan Wake + American Nightmare (thanks to latest AW bundle) so I will try it.

  5. DrScuttles says:

    You’re forced to make a decision. You instantly regret said decision. Yeah, The Walking Dead is back.

    • Homu Homu says:

      Then you realize neither choice mattered.

      • DrScuttles says:

        Well, yeah, but I find it works as a narrative device. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that.

      • Kadayi says:

        99.9% of all narratives end up in the same place. It’s how you get there where the meat is.

      • colossalstrikepackage says:

        The writers have said that they wrote scenes that they expected most players would never see, because of the choices they made. I’m all for branching like that.

        Also, if the story is good enough, the convergence is okay and even plays into the impact – the end of season one was a testament to that – it felt that all the choices I made came back to kick my ass. And make the ending that much more powerful.

        • Apocalypse says:

          Funny enough for me it was the opposite, it felt that my choices constantly bite me into my arse until the end, where it all came together and saved me. Kind of.

  6. Caiman says:

    As long as it’s better than the first episode of Season Two’s TV series – wow, how to totally kill my interest in that series, although the first season wasn’t exactly Breaking Bad it was at least moderately fun. I doubt I can watch another episode now without wanting to punch the hateful, stupid characters being portrayed. Telltale’s Season One was Shakespeare in comparison, so I’ll certainly give 400 Days a go.

    • lomaxgnome says:

      The second season is pretty awful until the last few episodes and the third season is a lot better.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      I read the comics, watched the TV series and played the game. What Telltale have done is elevate a depressing, pessimistic and to me a mediocre concept into a work of art.

      Yes it’s jarring around the edges, and could have been executed better. But the writing far outstrips everything else in this little zombie infested universe. It’s still exceedingly grim, but Telltale don’t lose what’s most important in such a scenario – hope and humanity.

      And bravo for being brave and experimenting not only with completely new characters – but also with new mechanics.

      • ignarebrute says:

        Do you mean you’ve read more than 100 issues of a mediocre comics?

        The TV series is shitty. Right. Especially since season 2. Tellgame game and the comics are aside. And great. Both.

  7. Nick says:

    The Wyatt one was my favourite.. it reminded me of buddy horror comedies like Monster Man. I actually want a full game based on that sort of situation =(

    I was annoyed that I didn’t have the option to talk to someone before doing something in Shels one. Bad writing to force your hand one way or the other imo.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      All five force your hand! It’s interesting that you felt it more with Shel.

      But that story didn’t grab me as much because of how sassy her younger sister is. Definitely not another Clem.

      • Nick says:

        Oh, yeah, they all do, but not with bad writing. The fact you can’t even *talk* to the person just doesn’t make any sense.

        • bleeters says:

          I assume you’re talking about the choice at the end of the Shel story, between the keys and the gun?

          Because yes. I know they’re supposed to be short stories to introduce characters, but that one bugged the heck out of me in terms of the point at which it ended.

        • colossalstrikepackage says:

          Ah. Yes. That bugged me as well. It contrasted sharply to the previous kill/spare decision. I get that the character needs to be developed, but the ending of that story was really jarring.

        • Tagiri says:

          What good would talking to that person do by then, though? What could they say that would make a difference to anything?

      • S Jay says:

        Wow, I hated Wyatt’s story. It felt you couldn’t do anything besides “click here to proceed with the story”.

  8. Aerothorn says:

    Can someone explain to me what, exactly, was “groundbreaking” about The Walking Dead? Having played 4 of the 5 episodes (and I will drag myself to the finish one of these days) I fail to see what it does that is radically new.

    • Nick says:

      having a child character that isn’t annoying is pretty unheard of.

      • Aerothorn says:

        Fair point, but I don’t think that’s what they mean :)

    • Kadayi says:

      Not radically new compared to what?

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      I hadn’t before seen any game tell a captivating story so directly. Its focus on plot was unerring and choices mostly bloody difficult. Controls being janky robbed it of greatness, but it did everything else amazingly well.

      If you can think of other games that did this, please let me know. I’m dying to play them!

      • Kadayi says:

        Seconded. I want to tap into this mine of unheard of games that actually possess some degree of nuance and treat their audience like adults Vs trite morality and overt signposting.

        • DrGonzo says:

          The plot was terrible in the first two episodes, clichéd, badly acted and unconvincing. If this game was a tv show people would be laughing at its attempts at emotional scenes. If it wants to be an interactive story then i think the writing and acting has to be held up to the same standards as film and tv, and man does it fall short. The characters act like they are The Sims. Someone just died next to them and they flail around as if they just burned their toast. The whole thing is cringey.

          Then you have the decisions, which in the first episode at least make no impact on the story whatsoever. I just found the whole game quite amusing. I may have persisted, but the actual game itself was terrible.

          • Kadayi says:

            Maybe better to finish the 3 other episodes that make up the season before jumping to conclusions about what impact events have there Gonzo. No one cares for the opinion of the guy who walked out of the movie halfway through, least of all those who have and can judge it in its entirety.

  9. Dayofthedan says:

    I really enjoyed this episode. It is up there as one of my favorites because it doesn’t really slow down the action even though it has to set up a new back story every 20 minutes. It had some of the most action packed and gory moments in the series as well.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Agreed. I really enjoyed how much more effort has gone into recapturing the excitement from the Motel scene in the first season. I think they’ve improved the bits you have control into something much more interesting. Hopefully this bodes well for season 2…

  10. demicanadian says:

    Is there a way to aquire it if I have talltale store / nonsteam version?

  11. S Jay says:

    I didn’t like it very much. I was a bit unlucky, because the first 2 or 3 stories I played looked like a corridor shooter in terms of choice: none. Russel and Wyatt stories are just “click here to go ahead”. At least this is what I felt.

    The junkie and the girl with the little teenage sister were way better.

    The ending made little sense – but maybe it will make a lot of sense in Season 2?

    • Ernesto25 says:

      As for the ending i reckon they may not even be a part of your “group but maybe in the background. or you meet the ones who stayed behind in one episode or something a few nods here and there. I agree with the lack of game play (apart from wyatt). i really can’t see how people could fail at this game unless the phone rings upstairs and they forget to pause it between a qte.

      • pocketlint60 says:

        “Difficult game” is not a synonym for “good game”.

  12. ignarebrute says:

    I dont know how you managed for each mini-story to play as long as 20 minutes.
    Checking on my steam achievements timeline, it’s 10 minutes each, and for a few of them I really had the feeling I haven’t done anything.

    http://linethemup.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/tak-tak-tam-w-lustrze-telltale-the-walking-dead-2012-2013/

  13. Ernesto25 says:

    I liked it but i wish they would add more / actually challenging point and click adventure mechanics. The choices again don’t matter but then the thought experiment bonnie does at the start of the same is pretty much what the walking dead is for me. Telltale seem to think the word “tailored” means doesn’t effect in anyway shape or form. I’m glad i found wyatt as annoying as you did though i just wanted it to end which is a shame given the nice set up.

    My end thoughts are i will get season 2 as i enjoy the storytelling however given wheat season 1 turned out to be i know how these zombie stories go and everyone will die/or be severely injured by the end only clem may have a chance of living. I’d be surprised if anything has an impact as much as episode 2 and most of episode 3 did.

  14. BisonHero says:

    Nathan, I sorta can’t believe you chose that picture to headline the story with. Finding Carly/Doug is a cool callback (and sorta the only one) to spoil by including it in your article. It’s not even representative of game.

  15. Nater says:

    I played 4/5 of these too short shorts and I really appreciate what they were trying to do with this. I would pay for standalone game (Walking Dead Stories, Season 1) if they made each vignette a full length episode that criss crossed and came to some great ending.