A Shift in Perspective
HIGH "Would you rather…"
LOW Wyatt's lightweight story.
WTF We don't see any of what happened after the stories but before the epilogue?
While the first season of The Walking Dead is complete and the story of Lee and Clementine has been told, there are plenty of others left to tell in the zombie apocalypse created by Robert Kirkman and interpreted by Telltale Games.
For those who don't know (and by this point, that's got to be a very small number) the series has hinged on sequential storytelling and in-depth characterization. It was crucial that the previous installments be played in order, but The Walking Dead: 400 Days is different.
Rather than being a direct continuation of established events, it acts as a "bridge" to season two by offering five separate mini-episodes and an epilogue. Each vignette takes place at different point in time over a four hundred day period (hence the title) and every character is brand-new—one's a prisoner trapped on a transport bus, two are sisters holed up at a truck stop, one's an ex-junkie in a love triangle, and so on. Although it hasn't been confirmed that these new faces will star in season two, it seems safe to assume that at least some will play a role in the future.
This five-way split is a big divergence from the earlier episodes, and in my view, it's a great idea. Like many other people, I was quite impressed with season one and felt that it would be an extremely tough act to follow. By branching out into this new direction, Telltale has given themselves a little breathing room and space to experiment. It's a good thing, and I applaud them for taking a chance.
On the other hand, what made Lee and Clementine's Walking Dead so riveting was the intense focus on character and enough time for people to become invested in the story over the course of many months. 400 Days only spends 15 or 20 minutes with each person, and gives the player very little context (sometimes none) about what's going on. While that trick worked with Lee in the first game because players had the opportunity to mold him throughout the entire season, the in media res approach doesn't have the same effect here.
Without knowing much about the characters it's tough to make any satisfying choices, and the episodes generally end without seeing the ramifications of what was chosen. When all five episodes are complete and the epilogue plays, the game jumps ahead in time and pulls some narrative shorthand to show why each character decides a specific thing at the end. (No spoilers!) Unfortunately, I didn't feel as though I had any investment in those decisions, nor did they carry much weight.
To be fair, I didn't expect the same impact that the first season had—that would be impossible. But, when working in a smaller narrative space, storytelling has to be tighter and punchier. Each of the vignettes (except one) had the core of something solid and intriguing, but they were little more than quick sketches. Even adding just another ten or twenty minutes to each segment would have significantly boosted the experience.
Also, I think the writers missed a larger opportunity by letting players choose any vignette in any order without visibly identifying them with a timestamp. With a little more work and a clearer chronological sequence, I think a larger meta-narrative focusing on the area where the events take place could have emerged, and rather than the characters, 400 Days could have been about the location itself. There are hints of this meta-narrative regardless of which order the stories are taken in, but the potential is not realized.
The details connecting the five tales needed a bit of polish, as well. Some links between them were obvious, but there were many small nuances that I totally missed on my playthrough, partly because they were too subtle, and partly because the nods only mean something when going through the tales in the right order. Since The Walking Dead isn't the sort of game that's suitable for multiple replays, I didn't know half of these details even existed until I talked to players who chose a different sequence. It seems a shame that the developers put so much work into these touches, only to have most of it (probably) going unnoticed.
Although I've spent more time in this review on the rough spots of The Walking Dead: 400 Days than I did on what was right, it's still refreshing to play a title that puts its focus on something besides large-scale slaughter, and Telltale's take on The Walking Dead remains one of the most compelling intellectual properties in gaming today. If my biggest criticism of 400 Days is that there wasn't enough of it, that can only be seen as a good thing.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately one and one half hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game contains strong language, blood and gore, and intense violence. Parents, there's no question that this game is absolutely intended for adults and no children should play or watch. Some of the scenes are quite intense, and there's plenty of zombie-themed gore to go around. It's great, great stuff, but only for big people. Keep the kids away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are available for all of the dialogue—and there's a lot. The great news is that the developers go further than most, and include different colors to signify which character is speaking. It's a great addition and really helps make the cutscenes easy to follow. In terms of the gameplay, there are no significant audio cues, so gamers with hearing issues can jump right in.