Review: Walking Dead: 400 Days will make you sad, but not sad enough
Telltale Games' Walking Dead: 400 Days, a piece of downloadable content meant to span the gap between last year's game and the new story coming this fall, is an excellent “people's history” of a zombie outbreak.
When it comes to picking a protagonist, your standard video game ascribes to the “Great Men of History” theory. These are your Lincolns, your Washingtons, your Julius Caesars and your Napoleons—larger-than-life people who single-handedly redefined history.
In video games, this is your Master Chief, your Link, your Commander Shepard. If history is a river, the theory goes, its course can be changed by one man, apparently digging a new trench all by himself like some kind of sick John Henry-type.
But the “Great Men” philosophy is reductive and (frankly) boring. It's a simplistic way of explaining the world to children, but as we grow older we democratize history and admit that, hey, canals are built by common people working together to make the world a little bit better.
“I want to live like common people”
Enter Walking Dead: 400 Days. There are no great men here, only common people: a convict, a big sister, a college graduate who has forgotten how to trust, a 20-something who likes to smoke weed, and a recovering drug addict.
You're dropped into pivotal moments in their lives, one at a time, spending a mere 15-20 minutes with each character. It's a bit like playing through the flashback moments on Lost—or, to draw from zombie canon, it's a lot like the oral history format used in Max Brooks' novel World War Z. In fact, I'd say 400 Days is a better World War Z adaptation than the actual World War Z film/game.
From a writing standpoint, it's an intriguing and challenging setup. You need to establish a character, make us care for their predicament, and then throw in some gut-punching tragedy in less time than the standard half-hour TV show.
Surprisingly, 400 Days makes good on its format—for the most part. I was surprised at how different each character feels. I first played as Shel, whose story takes place 236 days into the outbreak, desperately trying to shield her younger sister from the horrors of this new world. I then jumped in to Wyatt's story where he and his friend cracked jokes—for instance, “This road's straighter than my dick.” Quite the tonal swing.
The range of voices on display here is phenomenal. It's refreshing to play as five completely different characters, and not a one of them grunting or muscling through the story. None of them look like they were born with a gun in their hand, either—everyone's a little uneasy when violence breaks out.
I loved what Telltale did with Walking Dead last year, and I thought Lee made a great protagonist with his (in my playthrough, at least) tale of redemption, love, and loyalty. Still, we were playing as a character who'd obviously seen some terrible events in the past, and even when things went wrong Lee seemed like he could handle it. By comparison, these new characters seem broken and worn out.
It would be easy to tell the same “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” story for the umpteenth time in video game history, but Telltale doesn't even give us that satisfaction; instead, we're watching ordinary people play out incredibly ordinary situations. The problem is that ordinary situations after the apocalypse are the stuff of nightmares. It's all handled incredibly well, especially in light of how little time you spend with each character.
The Ratatouille conundrum
Unfortunately, Telltale's Walking Dead efforts last year have created a bit of a Pixar-esque quandary. 400 Days is a terrific game, and I fully recommend fans of the first game buy this DLC. However, the bite-sized snippets we get here never plumb the same depths as Lee and Clem's story in the original.
While every character is well-written, you don't get enough time to connect with them before reaching the meat of each section. I didn't feel quite the same sense of horror arbitrating their lives as I did making even the smallest decisions as Lee.
[WALKING DEAD MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
There's a point early on in the original Walking Dead story where Lee is tasked with distributing food to the other survivors. Easy—except you only have enough food for about half of the people, and even those fortunate enough to eat are only getting a mouthful or two.
What do you do? Do you feed yourself? Do you feed the kids, even though they can't help work? Do you feed the guys sweating in the sun busting their asses to improve the compound? One woman asks you to feed her father, but he's old and has always been a jerk to you. Do you feed him anyway? Do you only feed your friends, even though people will accuse you of favoritism?
I couldn't do it. When I played through that sequence I literally set the controller down and walked away from the game for a while. There was no way to “win.” I knew I'd regret whatever I chose, either immediately or way down the line.
The problem with 400 Days is there's no tail of regret. These are not decisions you'll still be haunted by, eleven hours later—once you're done, you're done.
As such, the strings are too apparent here. In Walking Dead proper I never felt an urge to go back and redo anything. For all I knew, the choices I made three or four hours in the past set current events in motion, and I was seeing things play out the only way they could. There was a sense of inevitability when everything went wrong—almost as if that was the only way events could play out. It felt right.
400 Days feels more game-y. In each section you'll only make five or so noticeable choices, and so you get the idea there's an optimal path to choose. Neither path is necessarily the “easier” path, but there's clearly a “better” path for each character. That's a bit disappointing, after the original game's shades-of-gray choices.
The original Walking Dead definitely had surprising moments, but the scenarios people remember are the ones of vague, sustained unease—the ones where both paths looked equally bad, but we knew Lee had to walk one.
400 Days doesn't give us those moments. It doesn't have time for the slow burn. All we get are the surprises.
Surprises are great at birthday parties, and surprises are great here also. 400 Days is powerful at points, and Telltale continues to deliver narrative on a level most studios don't even care about aspiring to.
But at the end of the day I'm directing strangers through what is clearly a video game. It's the difference between reading a short story and a full-length novel. Can short stories be good? Absolutely. It's just a different level of character investment.
Put another way, Walking Dead made me cry. This add-on just made me think “Ah damn, that's messed up.” Still commendable for 400 Days to make my hardened video game heart feel anything at all, but it only made me more impatient for Season 2.