The Walking Dead: 400 Days Is A Clever, Successful Experiment

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.


    I'm not going to read the article, since I haven't played the DLC yet which is waiting for me to be played. But it sure looks like there are spoilers in this, a warning would be nice maybe? :S

      How about not reading the article about that thing you haven't played yet?

        Well honestly with no text on the front page a pretty basic heading and an image, who knows what is going to be in the article.. How about that!

          Fair enough. I know I don't trust Kotaku to use spoiler warnings so I normally avoid articles until I've played the game when I care about plot (making reviews sort of pointless =P).

            He does have a point, if spoilers there be a warning should be...

      I couldn't see any spoilers, so I'd say it's safe enough.

      No spoilers. One or two vague mentions about the beginnings of a characters story but that's it.

      Yeah man, no spoilers in here unless you're super duper sensitive to them.

    Looks interesting. Should be a good addition for the series, I will pick it up tonight. Bit short though, was expecting maybe 5hrs or so, but as long as it is quality, it should not be a deal breaker. And yea, no spoilers in this article, go ahead and read it, gives you a good jist of the format you will be looking to expect from the game.

    Agreed. They are surprisingly short, but really good. I'm really looking forward to season 2 now.

    Honestly my only real complaint with 400 Days is the fact that we spent so little time with these characters. What was there, however, was top notch. Well worth $5.

    Is this out on Steam yet?

      Yeah, man. Was released this morning!

        Walking Dead and FFVII.... Today is a good day.

    I liked the dlc, but it felt short and left me wanting more

      Still, it's only $5, right?

      Last edited 05/07/13 10:46 am

        but the way they talked it up made it sound much longer.

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