Just like that, there was a new episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead. And guess what? It's good!
More than that, it's interesting. A collection of five interwoven short stories, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is just the sort of experiment that smaller downloadable episodes make possible. Telltale appears to be running with that, putting together something that stands alone while teasing just enough information about the next "season" of the game to keep our longer-term interest.
400 Days is composed of five short episodes tracing the paths of five protagonists, each of whom has survived the first 400 days of the zombie apocalypse in his or her own way. Each episode plays out over a compact timeframe, running an average of about 15-20 minutes. (The whole thing took me about an hour and a half to complete.)
Telltale's skillful, economical storytelling is on full display here. 400 Days manages to establish not one but five new characters in an hour and a half. They do so by rarely oversharing, leaving enough blanks unfilled that we the audience can figure out the characters' motivations for ourselves. I wasn't as invested in each story as I was in Lee and Clementine's, but that didn't make any of the game's trademark tough choices any easier. That's largely because the choices come fast and hard, very much the sorts of no-win, not-exactly-moral decisions that make The Walking Dead's first season so strong.
(One of the mini-episodes even begins with a fun goof on those sorts of impossible decisions. I thought the answer was obvious, but your mileage may vary.)
The cast of 400 Days is welcomely diverse — black, white, male, female, old, young — and their multiple threads tied together in a smart but not heavy-handed way. (We seem to be seeing more and more games with more than one protagonist, huh? I'm a fan of this.) The five stories can be played in any order. While there are occasional references to events and characters from the first season, the stories mostly stand on their own or, occasionally, reference one another.
As I played, I was reminded of both the fascinating animated Matrix appendices Enter the Matrix and the masterful Avatar: The Last Airbender episode Tales of Ba Sing Se.
The latter example consisted of a handful of wonderfully creative, often sketches of the lives of the show's characters, out of the constraints of the season's narrative arc. There's nothing quite so artful in 400 Days; it's more workmanlike in its construction, and ultimately concerns itself with getting our five protagonists from point A to point B.
Each story begins with an in media res introduction, a quick choice or two, a transition to a second scene, and a second choice. The stories are all equally interesting and varied, though their structures are so symmetrical that I can't help but think it would've been nice to see one of them try something different.
(My favourite bit of the whole thing had to be the introduction to Vince's story, as he and two other men sit on a bus discussing the ins and outs of bank fraud. Their consensus: "Fuck Wall Street.")
Playing 400 Days, I was once again reminded of how well thought-out The Walking Dead's interactive conversation system is. Each dialogue tree offers a welcome third option that sits between two extremes, right where I'd probably land in real life. At least once I even uttered my personal response out loud before seeing it reflected back at me among the dialogue options. How nice to once again play a game where conversational options aren't binary and aren't tied to a binary morality system!
Since I didn't know these characters as well as I came to know Lee in the main game, I often wasn't sure what they'd do in a given situation. I opted for silence, another of Telltale's smart dialogue options. After all, in scenarios like these, sometimes it's hard to know what to say.
The Walking Dead's first season already opened the door for a lot of creative storytelling with its TV-like episodic structure. It's nice to see Telltale expanding on that, weaving multiple short story-bites into one bigger episode, which will itself fit into the grand arc of both seasons one and two.
Your choices in the main game will translate into 400 Days, and choices made in 400 Days will carry over to the second season. That said, I burned through 400 Days on Xbox 360, when my "true" playthrough of The Walking Dead is on PC. I therefore didn't feel all that much attachment to the choices I made, as I'll likely wind up replaying 400 Days on PC, just to be sure I have one complete playthrough.
However my choices wind up affecting the second season of The Walking Dead, 400 Days will remain a small but interesting, ultimately successful experiment in video-game storytelling. I'll look forward to seeing these characters down the road, but it was plenty enjoyable just getting them sent on their way.