I’m a fan of short fiction, sometimes more so than novels. While novels are often much more ambitious and technically complex, few textual mediums can whet the appetite as efficiently as the one-sitting short story, and fewer still are quite as appetizing as those in the horror genre. Poe, Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and the more contemporary Mieville and Gaiman operate comfortably in this mode, weaving brief tales that glimpse into bizarre worlds and characters before pulling the reader back out. How perfect, then, to release a prologue for Telltale’s eagerly anticipated The Walking Dead: Season Two in the form of an anthology of five brief tales of horror, survival and despair in The Walking Dead: 400 Days.
I was a latecomer to Telltale’s The Walking Dead because I was admittedly turned off by what I thought was a lack of gameplay in service to a good, but fairly simple narrative. I waited until the entire season came out, and, after the accolades began rolling in, I decided to give it a try. I never expected to like it as much as I did. In fact, I felt that I cheated myself by not following the game serially–a mistake I don’t intend to duplicate when its sequel is released. So, I came to 400 Days ready to jump back into the world I found so engrossing and filled with the clever writing and rich characters I came to appreciate. It may not be a perfect stand-alone product, but I was disappointed by little, save its brevity.
The Walking Dead: 400 Days begins with a bulletin board on which are five different characters: Vince, Wyatt, Russell, Bonnie, and Shel. Choosing one will begin a character’s story, and they can be played in any order. Each mini-episode, taking place at different times after the outbreak, lasts about twenty minutes, giving the player maybe an hour and a half of total playtime, which may turn some people off the initial investment. At about five dollars, though, a collection of engrossing (if imperfect) vignettes makes for a worthwhile way to spend your money and time.
Anyone familiar with The Walking Dead‘s template will feel right at home. The controls are the same: moving a reticle across the screen highlights objects and characters as well as different means of interactions. Conversations branch as you can choose your character’s responses, and your choices ramify later in each episodes. Lies will be challenged. Honesty can be punished. Insults and jokes succeed and fail, eliciting smiles or hurting feelings depending on the character with whom you converse.
The stripped-down adventure game structure returns as well. Puzzles are clear and direct and always in service to the overall narrative. It’s a tested system that works, even if the gameplay mechanic is a bit simple. These new scenarios allow for varying ways to use The Walking Dead‘s gameplay, whether it’s prying a steel re-bar from the ground, providing cover fire so your partner can flank an enemy, or just searching a car for some weed while your buddy tries to concentrate on the road.
Of course, the main draw of The Walking Dead is not complex, rewarding inputs; the game’s focus on narrative and character are here in full force. Each episode introduces characters right before some life-threatening/altering event occurs. Vince is on a bus with fellow prisoners in the earliest days of the outbreak. Bonnie and her group are hiding from their pursuers in a cornfield. Russell finds himself in a peculiar hitchhiking position. While some of these stories are stronger than others, each is entertaining and engrossing in its own right, and the cel-shaded comic book style visuals help sell it.
While the visuals are effective in injecting the world with personality and atmosphere, it does come with the usual Telltale hiccups. I don’t know why (probably because I’ve never been a game designer), but it seems like Telltale still can’t quite make the art style work without choppy cuts and poor lip-syncing. Too often do glitches and sloppy framerates dull a high-tension moments due to a rough cut in the action. It hardly breaks the experience, but, for a game that depends on the player’s ability to believe in this world and its characters, it seems like fixing these small mistakes should be a priority fix.
Nevertheless, the writing is so sharp, that the technical issues present hardly pulled me out of the experience. It takes a talented individual with a slick pen to make me genuinely care about fictional characters, but to do so in a span of maybe twenty minutes presents new hurdles. We had maybe ten hours to get to know Lee and Clementine in the first season. We saw them through heart-wrenching moments of starvation and tragedy as well as gentler times of playful discussion. 400 Days lacks that long-term attachment. Each story moves quickly from bare bones introduction to high-stakes decision time without dwelling on the minutiae that made Lee’s story so believable.
This structure does, however, allow for some clever interplay. These five stories are connected in curious ways. Characters cross paths, mysterious bloodstains to one person are explained in front of another, and this small rest stop diner becomes the locus for many of the stories (and an important factor at the game’s ending). Such moments really provides the game with some much-needed cohesion.
If I do have any real complaints about this compilation, they involve my own preconceived notions about what short fiction accomplishes. Besides telling a story in a brief amount of time, a good piece of short fiction can exist as a self-contained text. Reading one of Lovecraft’s stories is fine as each can stand alone, but many of them allows for a deeper understanding of his mythos. Of the stories here, only a couple provide that kind of satisfaction, and even then only if I played a certain way. I also ran into the same issues I had with Lee’s story in that the game has a clear direction it wants you to take, and electing otherwise will often be met with the game undercutting your choice.
But closure is not the purpose of 400 Days, and neither is player control. It’s not a great example of short fiction (as too much of it depends on the season to come), and wishing it were seems to do it a disservice. 400 Days is an experiment, an attempt to build hype for a new season by giving the fans what they love: a playable, engrossing game. It’s a brilliant way to market to your audience with a product you know they’ll devour. After playing 400 Days, I felt even more ready for Season 2. Now that I’ve had a bite, I can’t wait for the main course.