"Man is born to live, to suffer, and to die, and what befalls him is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must ... deny it all along the way.”
Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again
Do you always lose your humanity when trying to survive? When is appropriate to shuck a child’s innocence in order to acclimate them to a hard world? Do you lie to someone to protect them? What happens if they find out the truth? Most importantly- when does this struggle end?
As bleak and powerful a game as you’ll ever find, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was better than a video game adaptation of the series had any right to be, a point proven by the lousy Activison first person shooter that followed it. Fortunately Telltale’s adventure game was both critically and commercially successful, which guaranteed a follow-up. Before that, though, a diversion. 400 Days is the first (and probably last) bit of DLC for the first “season” and in it Telltale has decided to tell a different story - five of them, in fact.
It begins as you gaze at a corkboard at a truck stop, one covered in pictures of presumably missing people. Choose a picture in any order and witness that person’s story, each of which takes place at various points after the zombie apocalypse. You’ll play through everything from the familiar story of Vince, who's on a prison bus on his way to jail for murder, to Russell, a high school kid who's traveling down the road by himself and ends up hitchhiking.
The less you know about the characters the better, since you will barely have any time with them as it is, and learning what kind of person they are is part of the game. After you play through each story you'll play a coda that sees all their stories intersecting, one which ends on a bit of a cliffhanger that seems a likely point to set up The Walking Dead: Season 2.
The ending certainly doesn’t have the impact of the end of the first season but really, what does? Since this is a one-shot they weren’t able to build up your rapport with characters over a dozen hours, making you fall in love with flawed characters like Kenny, Ben and Larry (Ok, maybe not so much Larry. He wasn’t exactly the salt of the Earth.) You only have the time to get tiny glimpses into these people but you still manage to completely figure out who they are, thanks to the stressful choices they must make.
One of the finest episodes of the first season started off with you coming across a man trapped in a bear trap. His screams are attracting the undead and try as you might it’s impossible to get him out of that thing, as the trap is too tough. But you do have an axe. As the undead gets closer and the characters scream at you to make a decision it soon comes down to the decision - do you take the leg and try to save him, or leave him and save the rest?
Since there’s no room in 400 Days for character growth (it really only feels like you’re getting introductions) much of this DLC centers on horrific, impossible dilemmas like that, stuff that you would mull over for hours if they didn’t throw a timer at you and demand an answer, now. It’s a far cry from most games where decision-making hinges on good/bad karma decisions, when you’re generally only trying to stay on one side. Here there are no perfect choices or people. Even when you do what you think is the right thing it can end up coming back to haunt you. Even the best person can act like an animal in self-interest or to protect a loved one.
These little stories makes for a great two to three hours of gameplay but I worry though that the system is getting tired and won’t survive through a second season. Even here a lot of the characters and themes feel recycled and you wonder how many times you can be forced to choose between two lives.
But Devin, Brian and I all loved The Walking Dead for its narrative an it's great to see them trying new things with the story structure. There's nothing like coming back to this world and it doesn’t hurt that the few bones they throw the fans of the series (references to characters and events from the first season) aren’t blatantly pointed out- they just come out naturally.
After you play through it’s time to talk about it with friends who have played it as well, to compare where your people ended up. You chose your own path here and your decisions stick with you. Will they lead right into the second season of the game? This works as a fine origin story for them, so let’s hope so.