Zombies bring out the worst in people. Yes, yes, literally—how often do FX teams get the chance to show off their craft and their best fake intestines?—but figuratively, too. Zombie fiction is often rife with the dredges of humankind. Friends turn on friends to survive. Cannibalism is kosher. Every form of sadistic villain comes out of the woodworks. Sometimes you get Dawn of the Dead, but at its worst, it’s torture porn masquerading as Hobbesian fables.
The Walking Dead
game (no, not that one) felt different. Maybe it was its central relationship between protagonist Lee, an escaped convict, and Clementine, an 8 year old girl he finds hiding in a treehouse. The game could be a misery parade, but their relationship was warm and hopeful. Even at its grimmest the game was just about how Clementine would endure and survive. But that story is over, at least for now, so one has to wonder what 400 Days, the new DLC for The Walking Dead, is supposed to be about.
The answer, disappointingly, is that it’s a retread. 400 Days is a series of five short stories. You’re thrust in media res into the lives of different people, each one trying to negotiate issues of trust in a time where trust is all one has. The game plays like a 21st century choose-your-own adventure book, with the action progressing on its own and at key points asking the player to make decisions about what to say, or what to do. Like the original, tough decisions are thrown at the player. Do you put a woman out of her misery at the risk of alerting zombies to your presence? Do you kill the man stealing your supplies or show mercy? The ramifications of these actions are never quite clear. What made the original so powerful were that characters would remember what was said and react accordingly. Decisions always felt like they had long term consequences.
400 Days, because of its anthology format, can’t produce anything near as interesting as the volatile relationship between Lee and Kenny, two men who, by the end of the original game, have a long, complicated history. As much as the copy promises some impact in the second season of the game, coming out in the fall, the stories feel like morality tales culled from discount EC comics. Rarely does anything really feel at stake, because I don’t need to live with the consequences.
What saves it is the writing. None of these stories could stand a full length episode, and Telltale knows it’s better to leave a player wanting more than rolling their eyes waiting for it to end. Telltale’s writers cover a lot of ground quickly in creating their characters. For example, Russell’s story, propelled by an unstable driver who picks up the young teenager on the side of the road, has velocity and menace. Wyatt’s story is probably the shortest, but in those few minutes, an entire friendship built on co-dependence and fuelled by inside jokes plays out. Although the rhythm is pretty transparent—you know that the other foot will come down the second you’re at ease—I hardly cared during the best stories.
The writers even get a bit ambitious with the format: The stories can be played in any order and there are certain things that only happen when played in a certain order. This is more of a parlour trick than anything that’s put to dynamic use. More vital are the foreshadowing and allusions that cross over. Playing Russell’s episode first means the player doesn’t have a sense of dread when they see the truck from Wyatt’s chapter pull up the road. Other references colour first impressions of characters. Lee was a moral tabula rasa, but these characters have a line they’ve already crossed.
400 Days is a transitional work. It’s a reminder of the first season’s theme of trust. There’s a lot of table setting and hints of things to come. It’s also a bit loose and experimental, by Telltale’s standards. I want to like the game more. Not just because it’s more of one of my favourite games of last year, but also because it’s not filled with an unending despair about people (The Last of Us, the current cycle’s big blockbuster zombie game, is pretty content to call everybody an asshole.) But it does not say anything new, really, and it feels a bit like Telltale is resting on their laurels. Maybe the second season will redeem and justify the choices made in 400 Days, but it feels like a step back, a testing ground for ideas that the first season of The Walking Dead has thoroughly explored.
Filipe Salgado works at a bank, but he’s not all bad. Sometime he writes for Kill Screen or writes stories about the deserts of the American Southwest on his blog Big Talk, Real Slow. You can also follow him on Twitter @philthe25th.