Telltale Games’ great success with The Walking Dead stems from an understanding on the part of the creators that Robert Kirkman’s comic book series has never really been about the zombies. People form the heart of these stories, whether it’s Rick Grimes trying to guide his son Carl along on a safe path through the shadows, or Lee Everett giving his all to protect the orphaned Clementine. The Walking Dead: 400 Days carries this idea forward in a novel way, with Telltale’s writing team being given an opportunity to spread its vision across a larger canvas as a half-dozen new characters slip into the foreground.
Each of the five one-off stories that you play through in 400 Days amounts to a slice of post-zombie apocalyptic life as it unfolds around an abandoned Georgia truck stop. The disjointed nature of the presentation allows you to tackle the lineup in any order that you choose without fear of spoilers. There’s some sense of crossover simply because all of these events unfold in one geographical location, but the tone and pacing of each selection varies according to the story being told. You’re just as likely to find yourself chatting your way through the relative safety of a fortified encampment as you are to be sneaking through a moonlit cornfield while flashlight-wielding survivors hunt you down.
There’s Vince, the conflicted escaped convict who may well have followed a similar path to Lee’s had he come across a helpless little girl in need of saving. Russell, the solitary hitchhiker who picks up some valuable lessons about trust and survival from his encounter with a suspiciously generous driver. The desperate tragedy of ex-junkie Bonnie, who can’t seem to catch a break as she becomes mired in a rut as a third wheel caught between a dysfunctional husband-and-wife. Wyatt, a bearded and bespectacled pothead whose back-and-forth banter with fellow traveler Eddie injects some unexpected comic relief… until shit happens. Then there’s Shel, an overprotective big sister who has fallen in with a questionable crew, the better to protect her young and impressionable sibling.
You control each of these characters through brief, 30-odd minute scenarios in much the same way that you did Lee throughout season one. Your choices are monitored and recorded, then reflected in the behavior of those around you. Elements of The Walking Dead‘s first five episodes bleed into what happens here – to say how would spoil the surprise – and it becomes clear in the end how your choices in 400 Days will carry forward into season two. This is no mere bridge story. Even in the absence of familiar faces, the places you go and decisions you make continue to shape the particular Walking Dead world that you dwell in.
Nowhere is this more clear than in 400 Days‘ epilogue, which brings necessary closure to all five narratives with an eye-opening revelation about what you’ve really been doing here through the lens of an outsider’s perspective. There are terrible choices to be made in each of the five stories that amount to defining moments in the lives of these people. Did you face a likely threat head-on or duck and hide? Choose the safety of a loved one over the stability of a group? All of this resonates into the episodes final moments, and you come to realize the long game that Telltale is playing here. The whole time, you’ve been fleshing out a history.
None of the pathos ever reaches for the same gut-level impact that the most difficult moments of season one did, but 400 Days snapshots its way to a more detailed and complex world. That’s the great success here. We’ll be seeing many of these characters again, perhaps in season two and perhaps even after that. Whenever they return, however they return, you’ll meet them with benefit of knowing the circumstances that brought them to this particular place. More than that, you’ll know that some random act of kindness or heinous betrayal is entirely the product of the decisions you made to shape that personality. Non-player characters in video games do things because they’re programmed too. How often have we gotten to play something where the programming is, in essence, your own act of creation?
The world of The Walking Dead continues to have a dynamic life of its own in this special episode, one that you both observe and influence simultaneously. The characters that you meet and the situations that you guide them through hold up perfectly well as trifling one-offs set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, but there’s big payoff in a larger sense for those who are fully invested. You also can’t beat the price at just $4.99.
There’s never been anything quite like The Walking Dead in video games, and 400 Days amounts to a natural extension of Telltale’s innovative approach to interactive storytelling.
(This downloadable content was reviewed on PC via Steam using a code supplied by the publisher, Telltale Games. The plot reviewed was informed by a save file from a full playthrough of Season One.)