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.
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.