When I saw a sneak preview of The Walking Dead's "400 Days" DLC at E3 I could hardly contain my excitement. I was briefly taken back to the emotional roller coaster that was the game's first five-episode season, the characters I'd never see again and the characters whose fates were uncertain. Just imagining experiencing that again was thrilling, though brief. I won't lie, I had high expectations for 400 Days.
Unfortunately, those expectations only half met, as 400 Days never fully capitalizes on the emotional currency that the first season of The Walking Dead banked. The comparison I'm drawn to is the first episode of The Walking Dead. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the cast of characters and thus found it difficult to empathize with them. Was there potential? Absolutely, especially with four episodes remaining in the season. With 400 Days, however, that potential end with the episode. There's no part two, just the five relatively succinct and unfulfilling stories therein.
Telltale Games could have used 400 Days as an opportunity to experiment, to push the line, to maintain the emotional and character driven staples of the first season. Instead, we just get some relatively shallow zombie apocalypse sideshow stories. Where'd all of the depth go?
400 Days tells the tale of five individuals during the zombie apocalypse, broken into five separate stories that span the length of just about one episode from the first season. Each character's story takes place somewhere between the first day of the zombie apocalypse and the four hundredth. As such, there are a handful of references sprinkled throughout the DLC that point both to the stories of other characters and the original first season itself. However, some of those references will be wasted, considering the stories can be played in any order.
I don't want to call the stories outright formulaic because Telltale does a solid job of presenting each with a different focus or style, but they're certainly cliche. Think of it this way. There are five stories and each one can be wrapped up in less than half an hour. How do you take a half hour story and make the characters within seem real, make the player feel emotionally connected to them, make the decisions made therein feel significant? Why, by using cliches of course. I hate to outright say tropes, but let's just say that if you've seen a fair share of horror movies most of the stories should be fairly familiar. It's simple, it's effective, but it's not what made The Walking Dead great.
As a result, a lot of the actual character interaction in the game feels rushed and hackneyed, each character's reactions forced. Of course an innocent young girl will become cold and unsympathetic after seeing her mother make two difficult decisions in five minutes. Of course two prisoners will be open about their crimes when soon you'll be forced to make a violent decision between the two of them. Of course, because otherwise the story wouldn't fit in thirty minutes. The characters aren't designed to be realistic or relatable, they're designed to fill out a very specific role so each short story plays out as intended. They're made specifically to lead up to one fateful, significant decision or event that defines that specific story.
Only there's two things wrong with having the entire point of each story be one very particular climactic choice or event. First, if you rush the set-up for that choice it doesn't feel real or significant. Second, there's no conclusion and no promise of a follow-up further on. Each story was clearly intended to be impactful, but these are people we've known for thirty minutes. It all just felt so... so very much like a video game. When The Walking Dead just spent five episodes showing how an adventure game can do it right, 400 Days comes off as a huge mystery to me.
I still found solace in a few different aspects of 400 Days that made it an enjoyable experience for me, despite my overall disappointment with the DLC. Events from each of the five stories as well as certain characters are almost certain to reappear in Season 2 of The Walking Dead. While I can't say I enjoyed the back story provided for many of the characters, I can respect that Telltale is laying the groundwork for something more. Maybe this is just that first episode all over again that will make Season 2 that much better. That is, if they really are planning on bringing anyone back as something more than background faces.
Another aspect is there were a few interesting gameplay mechanics introduced in the DLC that made me excited about the future of the franchise. Nothing extraordinary, but small things like having a character walk down a road while being able to look around the environment, or how one character navigated a corn field in a sort of puzzle. Again, nothing complex, but small things to show that Telltale is making an effort to add some diversity to the gameplay. Just a handful of interactive ways to make those adrenaline-filled moments more immersive could go a long way.
And of course the voice acting, sound work and visual quality was all outstanding. One of the ways Telltale has been able to make those oh-so-messed-up moments in The Walking Dead so great is with their amazing sound and visual work. The player is meant to hear and feel every bone break, every gunshot, every bite, scratch and stab. Each tense moment is played out through a characters facial gestures and movement. Yikes, I'm giving myself shivers just thinking about it.
The reason The Walking Dead was one of our "Game of the Year" contenders for 2012 was because of the depth of each and every character. I loved each conversation, each difficult decision, each smile and grimace on those poor bastards. I loved to hate the villains and loved to love the heroes. Why was that? Not because of what they went through, but that we went through so much together. My favorite The Walking Dead moments weren't the decisions I made, but wondering how each character would react to each decision, because I knew them each so well.
"Oh snap, Kenny is going to go absolutely crazy. Will he still watch my back?" "Clementine will hate me if I do this, how will I ever explain this to her?" "If I do this, it means I put everyone in danger, but it's what they'd want right?" When I made decisions in 400 Days they were just that, simple, boring decisions. The characters were cardboard cutouts at a shooting range and all 400 Days asked me to do was pull the trigger.
Perhaps if there had been a single protagonist going through each of these five stories. Perhaps if they had been in a specific order, creating a story arch. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Perhaps I should have waited for The Walking Dead Season 2.