Survive the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of five strangers.
PC Release: July 2, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Every so often I like to review a video game that deviates from literary paths that I’m familiar with. My latest experiment in this regard was Kentucky Route Zero, a video game that delved into the genre of magical realism. With giant eagles and underground highways considered as mundane as truck stops, it was a new experience for people who’ve never read Rushdie or Antrim. Today we’re going to take a look at a video game that explores the short story medium, following several disparate tales with a single, recurring theme. That game, or DLC, is a bonus chapter for the critically acclaimed Walking Dead episodic adventure from Telltale, titled The Walking Dead: 400 Days.
The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a bonus chapter released for the first season of The Walking Dead as a standalone narrative. Each of the episode’s five short stories revolve around an old gas station on a Georgia highway, one that our five heroes will interact with in one way or another. The title 400 Days refers to the span of time over which these stories occur; the first story begins on day one of the zombie apocalypse, the last on day 400.
I was intrigued by the approach of focusing on a common location instead of a common character, with each stop at the gas station an echo of the one taken by a forebear, so I decided to jump into the game and take a look at what Telltale had cooked up to tide us over for The Walking Dead: Season Two.
400 Days follows a riotous assortment of five people, ranging from a convicted murderer to an overbearing sister. None of them actually interact with each other, and each sub-episode features its own cast of supporting characters. 400 Days features Telltale’s story-strong gameplay, with players having a limited amount of time to choose between different dialogue options. Each option sets the tone of the next conversation and the next choice to be made. It’s what made The Walking Dead so compelling and it returns to do the same here.
As with The Walking Dead, the decisions you make extend far beyond conversation options. You’ll also have to make much more painful choices, like which supplies to make use of, or which friends to abandon to the zombies.
Telltale brought back the comic book-style visuals used in the main game for this episode. Characters feature cartoonish animations and the thick outline drawings common to graphic novels. It’s a cool style; it’s not so garish that you feel like you’re in a fantasy world and it’s just realistic enough to make you care.
The voice-acting in this game is also rock-solid, which is by no means a guarantee with DLC content. The voice actors for each character, even the supporting ones, were great at inflecting their tones with the fear and the dread that comes with a situation like this. The quality of the voice acting amplified the impact of the story choices, adding more weight to the praises of friends and the distrust of fellow survivors.
400 Days is a higher quality DLC than most you see these days, but it was not without some serious shortcomings. I do want to qualify that assertion by saying that these shortcomings had less to do with game design flaws and more to do with problems endemic to the short-story format.
My biggest gripe with short stories is that they very rarely feature character development. Not because they’re bad stories, but simply because there’s no time. Most of the chapters within this DLC are only 10-15 minutes long, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of time for you, the player, to become attached to these characters or witness them grow. For me, that’s a demerit.
Another strike against this DLC is the inconsistency in story lengths. You’re probably gawking at the idea that every story is 10-15 minutes long, but that’s only true for three out of the five. One of them is about 3o-45 minutes long and another is, I’d say 20-25. I was glad to see that not every tale was so short, but also confused as to why Telltale put the same effort into one survivor story as they did three others. I know, inconsistency is the spice of life and all that, but when one story pulls much more gravity than the others, it’s highly noticeable.
Finally, despite what the marketing tells us, the payoff that this episode brings for The Walking Dead: Season Two is almost nonexistent. You’ll get told that the choices you make in this game play into Season Two of the main series, but that’s bullshit. One of the five characters in this story goes on to join the main cast in Season Two, but everyone else makes background cameos that are literally five seconds long. And that’s assuming you can get them to agree to travel to that location at the end of the episode.
To reiterate, my gripes with this DLC have more to do with the drawbacks of the short story format than Telltale’s design choices, save their increased focus on one or two stories over all of them. The problem with 400 Days is that The Walking Dead‘s main mechanic is not just its choice-based gameplay, but how those choices will play out over time. Combining a long-term game mechanic with a short-term game length is not a winning formula, but the stories themselves are interesting and hardcore fans of the first season will enjoy them. But, by that same token, you’re not missing out on any crucial content if you want to skip ahead to Season Two.
And speaking of skipping ahead to Season Two, I didn’t review this DLC without any sort of follow-up. Stay tuned for more zombies on Art as Games.
You can buy The Walking Dead: 400 Days here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.