Sixteen months ago, in the burgeoning air of April 2012, Telltale Games took creative control of AMC’s critically acclaimed zombie-series The Walking Dead. The studio pumped out a five-episode season of interactive point-and-click adventures, a slew of $5 downloads that somehow added up to a $30 retail package. It could’ve been released as a mechanical, broken mess of a game and still made money. Yet somehow, impossibly, it was let loose to critical fanfare. The title won Spike TV’s 2012 Game of the Year Award. It was bold, poignant, and emotional. It reminded audiences that games could be just as expressive as other communicative media. To this day, it holds a respectable 92 on Metacritic.
TL;DR? By now, everyone’s clamoring for Telltale to ship a new season. While the studio’s backlog is filled with atrocious tie-ins like CSI and Back To The Future, it’s clear someone finally managed to engineer a winning formula. They’re currently working on two titles, only one of which features a zombie apocalypse. It’s gonna be some time before we see a new entry in the Walking Dead mythos, but for now we’ve got a little teaser. It’s called 400 Days, and it’s a five-dollar DLC episode.
According to Telltale’s PR team, this newly released chapter is meant as a strong adhesive. It’s something gooey and viscous to connect season one’s heart-wrenching conclusion to the opening lines of the upcoming season two. Excited yet? You should be. Unfortunately, 400 Days doesn’t provide much more than a fleeting, ephemeral glimpse of what’s to come.
Like any good Super Bowl commercial, it’s packed with action, suspense, and a large cast of lively characters. Also like a Super Bowl commercial, however, it’s overly succinct, only attempting to convey a simple message: season two is on the way. It’s got all the workings of its award-winning predecessors, but none of the overarching totality. Whether or not that’s worth 400 Microsoft points is up to you, but the title certainly doesn’t provide the unparalleled narrative structure or adventure mechanics that the first five episodes managed to perfect. Here’s the breakdown:
400 Days, when broken down to nuts and bolts, includes every necessary component of a great story. It’s got a solid cast of characters, incredible tension, interesting conflicts, and a perfect setting. On the most basic level, all of these factors come together in an interesting way. To reiterate: 400 Days is an interesting, cluttered, thought-provoking shell of a game.
Telltale has provided us with five vignettes, five protagonists with their own trials and tribulations ahead of them. Each has a distinct, vivacious personality. It’s a great start, but one that loses focus as the work comes together as a whole. The episode doesn’t play out like any of its primetime counterparts, and this is what starts to hurt the experience. Having the audience play through five short plotlines is unconventional, but not necessarily negative. If you’ve ever seen one of those horror classics like Tales From The Crypt or Creepshow, you’ll have an idea of the intended story structure.
Unfortunately, when it comes to 400 Days, structure leads as one of the title’s two predominant shortcomings. The game’s five main characters lead lives that intertwine in interesting ways, but the experience does little to explain the reasons they’ve been tied together. Telltale Games have provided us with a stimulating deductive challenge, and with enough scrutiny and reasoning, the nuances of the plot become clear. The problem is, the missing threads aren’t interesting enough to fully investigate. With the exception of a few diehard fans, most players will have no reason to connect the dots.
In this way, the game’s structure feels scattered and incomplete. It’s an episode akin to the skeletal scaffolds preceding an intimidating skyscraper. Not only does it require a disproportionate amount of effort to link the various plot points, each storyline comes across as haphazardly, perilously short. You finish five micro-episodes, watch a cutscene, hold your breath… and then the episode ends. There’s no immediate takeaway, other than the desire to watch these character’s lives unfold. If there’s any defining purpose, it’s consumer motivation. Get psyched, or pumped, or whatever. Hopefully you like your loose ends as plentiful as possible.
The second of the game’s twin pitfalls comes in the form of gameplay. Picking up on the narrative’s various intricacies becomes a challenge in itself, but the title’s play mechanics are too often relegated to modest dialogue-based decision-making. There was a reason that Telltale’s first season wasn’t a crude Heavy Rain parody. It provided much more that that—it was also an adventure game. The mechanics left you with puzzles, action, and mystery, all of which came together to bless the player with urgency and escapist immersion. 400 Days, on the other hand, is content to offer only the simplest of branching paths. It’s still meaningful, for sure, but it lacks the depth of its predecessors.
Finally, as if to highlight the structural gap between 400 Days and the rest of the first season, the most recent episode is mired with technical issues and poor sound design. It seems as if these issues have been amplified, expanded even, to match the smaller scope of the DLC. For some, this lack of proverbial polish might fly as unobtrusive. After all, The Walking Dead’s magnetic pull comes directly from the poignant narrative and emotive characters.
That being said, these blemishes add up to hamper an otherwise laudable experiment in interactive storytelling. The title’s score is awkwardly dull compared to the cinematic nature of the presentation. Considering the game was adopted from an AMC television series, this comes across as a particularly egregious fault.
Ultimately, whether or not you’ll actually enjoy Telltale’s latest hinges on your relationship with the franchise. 400 Days is nothing more that a glorified trailer for the impending release of season two. All the same, it allows opportunity for narrative experimentation, fascinating conflict, and the exploration of the series’ cavernous backstory. The experience as a whole suffers from structural damage—it’s fleeting, unpolished, and somewhat disjointed. All the same, if you can look past the skeletal mechanics and piece together the overarching story, 400 Days proves to be worth the ink on your credit card bill.
Telltale show its mastery of interactive storytelling with incredible characters, tense conflicts, and a perfect setting. Even better, the episode only costs $5.
The game suffers from structural damage, skeletal mechanics, technical issues, and mediocre sound design. None of these do much to hurt the experience as a whole.
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/