When I was playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I was so invested in the plight of Lee and Clementine that every choice felt intensely personal. So personal that I was unable to go back and replay the game. Making any other choice just seemed wrong, like a betrayal of the character and myself. It’s good that Lee and Clem are nowhere to be seen in 400 Days (unless that brief flash of a photo on the billboard of a girl with a backpack and hat was in fact Clem) because it allows me to forge a different kind of relationship with the game.
I wrote a while ago about the roles that we take on while gaming: Writer, Actor, Player, and Character (“How Can I Be Me?: The Gamer’s Role in Interactive Fiction”, PopMatters, 8 November 2010). I spent much of The Walking Dead as an Actor inhabiting the role of Lee, trying to think like the character and make the kinds of choices that felt right for him, even if they weren’t right for me (though usually they felt right for both of us because that’s just how The Walking Dead is designed).
The short stories of 400 Days are different. That great design of the dialogue systems keeps pushing you towards personal emotional investment, but the brevity of each story makes true emotional investment impossible. As a result, I find myself shifting between roles. Specifically, the roles of Actor and Writer, between someone who wants to make choices that stay true to the character as he or she is presented and someone who wants to purposefully challenge how those characters are presented. I want to think like them, and I want to help them survive. However, I also want to fuck with them. It’s an oddly abusive relationship, but then the best stories always abuse their characters.
Since I don’t know these people very well, I’m less invested in their well-being, which means I tend to make choices that I think will lead to an interesting conflict even as I justify that choice within each character’s situation.
As Russell, I chose to stay with the psychopath Nate because he displayed a sincere trust in me. I knew he had my back even if he was willing to stab everyone else in theirs. But then I also love how much of a wild card Nate is, and I’m interested to see what kind of chaos he’ll cause. As Shel, I chose to drive away because she couldn’t execute a friend and her group’s leader, Roman, had become a tyrant. But then, killing that friend, Stephanie, would kind of have to end Shel’s character arc, and I’d much rather stretch it out. As Vincent, I chose to save Danny the statutory rapist because he seems like an okay dude, but I was disappointed that Danny died before he got to meet Shel’s teenage sister Becca. It’s not that I wanted to see Becca get hurt, but I did want to see her in danger, especially if that danger arose from the actions of a character I saved—because danger like that is just more interesting than zombies or the lives and day-to-day problems of random survivors.
It’s like playing a game of D&D as the Dungeon Master and as a player at the same time. I want to help these characters survive, but I also want them to risk their lives. I want to steer them into the fire and then help them escape. I love them, but I want to abuse them.
For as great as The Walking Dead was, I don’t want Season 2 to be just more of the same. That’s what makes 400 Days so reassuring.
It uses the same excellent design of The Walking Dead to slightly different aims. Telltale can mess with pacing and narrative, free to set up stories and conflicts without the burden of having to follow through on them. This means 400 Days evokes a different relationship between player and character than The Walking Dead did, and that kind of difference is a good thing. 400 Days is more Walking Dead, but it’s not more of the same Walking Dead, which bodes well for the future.
I can’t wait to feel guilty for fucking with these characters.