[24 July 2013]
The least interesting thing in a zombie story, paradoxically, are the zombies. The best stories relegate them to the background and ignore their existence for as long as possible. They are the ever-present danger, something like a background radiation that threatens to overwhelm the protagonists, but they are never the direct threat. Zombies are only the catalyst for the breaking down of social bonds. They are the Sword of Damocles to the social contract, and the best zombie stories are always about whether or not it falls.
The Walking Dead video game understands this very well. In the first season of the episodic game, zombies were used as a means to push characters out of their safety zones, and The Walking Dead: 400 Days perhaps understands the usefulness of these monsters to this end even better than the main game does.
The story is really five short vignettes taking place at or around a roadside gas station. They all take place over the first 400 days of the outbreak, starting with day 2 until the game concludes at day 400. You see a billboard and there are five photographs of the people whose stories you will be playing. You can choose to complete them in any order, and you will see recurring elements affected by the choices you made in the other stories.
The game works both as a teaser for season twp of The Walking Dead video game and as a standalone entity. The five stories manage to quickly introduce the characters, set up a conflict and eventually give you one of the game’s classic no win situation decisions to decide upon. The vignettes are structured differently and each has their own sense of pacing and style. 400 Days manages to harness what the team has learned about the craft of interactive storytelling over the course of season 1 to this game’s best advantage. There are no elements that do not feel organic to the situation. The game even introduces one or two new elements to change up play, continually providing a fresh experience to match the narrative.
At the same time, it has some subtle callbacks and nods to the events in the first season that fills out the world more. The world of The Walking Dead feels like a real persistent place. All the while, you can see how the game is setting up possibilities for the future. It’s not enough to see how things will develop, but enough to hint at what will have to be contended with.
I don’t know if it is thanks to the format, which resembles a collection of short stories, that Telltale chose for 400 Days or if I’ve accepted the world over my own time spent with the first season of The Walking Dead, but the general absence of zombies in the new game never struck me as odd. They do exist, but overall, they never feel like a threat. At the same time, there seems to be no time in the game when you don’t feel threatened. Existing in this horrible world is a trial in and of itself. Any zombie attack simply throws the already existent tension of human drama into sharp relief.
It is the humans that are the biggest threat, and it is a much more dangerous world than we have seen before with every person in the world becoming a threat to your characters to some degree. Some are more overtly dangerous than others, while some have no malicious intent whatsoever but still remain probably the greatest threat to your survival. These stories are all sitting warily under the sword. Forces trying to reestablish or maintain the social contract verses those threatening to unhinge it battle throughout the episode. In each story, you are the character at a crossroads and you, the player, subtlety weave through the elements of the debate through the enactment of the drama of your decisions both great and small.
Traditionally each episode features five big choices that at each episode’s conclusion report to you how your choices match up with those of the masses. Given the game’s format, that makes one choice per story in 400 Days, but as always, there are so many little choices presented in almost every dialogue option that are also clearly defining these characters for later down the road. Then, before the credits roll, there is one final section that shows how all of this has all been in service to a a frame story concerning a woman looking for survivors. It is in this segment that the results of your decisions and how you played come to fruition. The ending scene is something that you don’t often find in video game stories—a denouement. The scene practically plays itself out running off the personalities that you’ve defined for the five survivors.
Everyone has his or her favorite episodes of The Walking Dead game and 400 Days has managed to catapult its way to near the top of my list. It’s an excellent piece of tightly focused interactive fiction with all the pieces falling into place one way or another. After all this time away, I was worried that The Walking Dead may have lost its luster as newer and shinier games steal away our attention. 400 Days proves otherwise and has me warmed up and ready for more.