Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-07-12 17:31:01
The Walking Dead: 400 Days Thoughts
After three seasons of mostly garbage, I now resent the Walking Dead TV show. To an extent, I grew to dislike the comics as well over time. My reason for disliking both is largely the same: when a group of survivors join with a community, you know that something bad is lurking just around the corner. It's so predictable in an apocalypse setting that a random 'safe haven' will become available offering shelter and food. It's also certain in the world of The Walking Dead that whatever resources are granted in that paradise, they will be temporary - something will come along very quickly to take them away and put the helpless victims in an even worse position than before they arrived. Communities are a bad idea.
In Telltale Games' The Walking Dead: 400 Days five mini-narratives bring a rag-tag group of five characters together, before offering them a new start in a community at the DLCs climax. This community will likely serve as the fulcrum of Season 2, and it makes me a little nervous. I genuinely do believe that Telltale's rendition of the Walking Dead world is the best of the bunch, and so seeing the game go in the direction of the show and comic by exploring a community that will undoubtedly have a sinister underbelly makes me anxious. Then again, any reservations I have about the future from a narrative standpoint are almost negated by the quality of 400 Days, which shows Telltale at the top of their game once again, despite its short run-time of around an hour.
At this stage, Telltale have pretty much solidified themselves as the modern kings of storytelling in video games. I just don't see the same quality of writing from other games I play. It is Telltale's approach to characters that really sets them apart; they have mastered the art of throwing a lot of them into a contained scenario and somehow invoking an emotional response. There are more characters in 400 Days than all five episodes of Season 1, and yet all of them, from the playable five to the supporting cast, are interesting and, perhaps most importantly, believable.
Players get about ten minutes, give or take, with each character. That isn't much time to make you invest in someone, and yet Telltale almost unanimously pull it off. Out of the five tales, only one falls flat (Bonnie's) and that's probably only because her story seems really short in comparison to the other (already short) stories. Chances are that she has the potential to be an interesting character - the game implies that she has overcome some sort of drug addiction - but the game is so quick to take you out of Bonnie's shoes that she remains something of an afterthought. Vince's story, on the other hand, may only take place in one location - a bus escorting prisoners to another location - but it works so incredibly well that I could have happily stayed with him for hours. The supporting cast in that particular tale, the moral choices Vince has to make, and the quality of the dialogue and writing is among the series' best. As a microcosm for what The Walking Dead does well - juggling morally grey characters with morally greyer decisions - Vince's story is the high-note of the DLC and is arguably worth the price of admission alone.
The other three stories are similarly engaging. In order of best to worst: Wyatt's roadtrip-gone-wrong with his buddy Eddie; Russell's hitch-hike with a sociopathic driver called Nate; and Shel's diplomatic scuffle with her group. Shel's story is still good, but so many things happen in such a short period of time that it feels as if it needed more room to breathe; it has some of the best decisions in the game (I struggled with Shel's final choice, especially if it's going to influence Season 2) but it feels the most rushed. Hopefully we'll be making a return to some of her group at a later date to truly flesh some of them out (including the returning cast of Vernon's cancer survivor group from Season 1).
Speaking of Season 1, there are a few references to the previous game, but nothing hugely influential. A different body here; an image or two there. It's enough to make 400 Days feel at least somewhat connected to the events of Season 1, although it's quite clear that Telltale are going to follow a different group with Season 2. To that end, 400 Days is much appreciated and incredibly smart. While some may view it as a way for Telltale to squeeze more money out of the game, the truth of the matter is that 400 Days does an admirable job of introducing a new cast that are already likeable. Had they jumped straight to Season 2 with a new group of protagonists, I imagine players around the world would be screaming, "Where's Clementine?". With 400 Days in existence, if we play as any of these five characters in Season 2 (or if we encounter any of them) players will immediately feel familiar with them.
I'm not a fan of the way in which the DLC package ends, if only for the fact that an over-saturation of The Walking Dead has made me tired of communities in zombie-infested landscapes. Groups are fine; it is when those groups are asked by a seemingly benevolent larger group to join the society they are rebuilding that I roll my eyes, as these situations never go well in the world of The Walking Dead. If this town ends up being anything like Woodbury, I'll be disappointed, and I really hope that the whole of Season 2 doesn't take place within this as-of-yet nameless society. I like my apocalypse victims when they're on the move, not when they're putting their feet up in a city ruled by psychopaths posing as normal folk. But hey, even if rebuilding the world does take priority in Season 2, 400 Days does a great job of making the tedium seem more tolerable. If we have to build a new home together with Vince and Shel and Russell and Wyatt as family members, it will, at least, make for fun times. Bonnie not included.