Bridging the gap between Season 1 and 2, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: 400 Days gives us a snapshot of the lives of 5 people after the zombie apocalypse. Centered around an ill-fated gas-station, we witness shattered images of civil people, cutting themselves into further jagged edges on an unrelenting world. Each story is a puzzle piece and, when these come together, they’re just complete enough for us to be able to recognise a full picture. Jagged and shattered, what we see are human stories, not “mere” video game distractions.
Much has been made of Telltale Games’ choice mechanic in their The Walking Dead series: save one life, or the other; respond with a compliment or a dismissal; be a fearless leader or a sympathetic caregiver. With these roots made of poisoned choices, each one winding its way toward another, the conclusions themselves can be nothing but tainted: Every choice could’ve played out differently, maybe better.
Maybe a worse choice earlier could’ve led to a better one later.
The power, then, of Telltale’s “mechanic” - what a patronising term for such an incredible property! - is not merely watching conclusions of choices: it’s recognising that “things could’ve been different”. It’s a game that very strongly asks us “What if” but only after the fact.
Yes, “what if the world was facing a zombie apocalypse” is the basis of the entire franchise - but Telltale works backwards, too. What if you had driven off, instead of executed the thief? What if you had never got into the truck with the dodgy stranger? What if you shot the other guy’s leg off instead of your friend’s?
This is what sits with you, hunched on your shoulders, when a choice is made. You sit there, wondering: Did I make the right one?
Only afterwards do you realise the most important part of this whole franchise: There is no “right” choice, there is only a choice. Though it sits on your shoulders, there is no angel or devil whispering into your ear. There is only the inevitable guilt, with a million disappointed faces staring back at you.
Unlike, say, Mass Effect where decisions had a dramatic impact, too (some were literally galaxy-saving), The Walking Dead games aren’t really about overcoming traditional gaming challenges: You don’t really need that much “gaming” skills: quick-reactions, aiming, and so forth. You don’t really need to worry about supplies, or have management skills.
This isn’t criticism, it’s description: the games just aren’t about testing what I’d call – perhaps mistakenly – traditional gaming abilities. They’re about testing our moral, more personal convictions, probing us to somehow justify actions we’d ordinarily think horrible, unthinkable.
Small but complete
400 Days is different to the first season in that it undermines character development in favour of dramatic choices: we are given barely two hours of gameplay to make life-changing decisions for 5 different characters.
This is DLC, not an entire season, after all. Who these characters are, what role they’ll play, etc., remains in the fog of speculation and behind the curtain the wizards of Telltale won’t release. We play everything from a convicted murderer to a deserter from a violent group: we aren’t given time to like or hate them.
We can only choose for them.
We’ve been put in their shoes, had our collars straightened then shoved onto the stage, in the glaring spotlight called gameplay. Make a choice… now.
You can play 400 Days in any order and you will witness some of the lives crisscrossing in surprising ways, making you wonder if you made the right choice, making you question whether you were defending villains or heroes. If you’ve played the first, you’ll know what to expect.
The graphics are true to the comic origin – though better. There’s nothing comical, however, about the world or its characters. For example, the voice actors, despite the short time you have with them, are excellent and convey a long-standing relationship with the characters they’re portraying. It’s as though we’re playing demos of games that have been occurring for much longer, such that the performers settled comfortably into the roles. That’s a sign of incredible talent.
The whole thing is short, but tantalising, and can be easily completed within 1.5 hours. But anyone who equates length automatically with quality clearly hasn’t seen James Cameron’s epically straining Avatar or Pixar short films.
For future games
What I loved most, however, was Telltale’s handling of morality.
The idea of not knowing whether the group or person you’re defending is a traditionally good or bad one is precisely what more games need, when playing multiple groups. Immediately setting up that these guys who wear this colour or speak this language or are this alien race are automatically bad does little to trouble us when we play: We laugh and joke as we kill the poor humans, or whatever.
Or, worse, morality is defined as good and bad, Rogue or Paladin, Paragon or Renegade. Anyone who has encountered moral decisions, for even a few minutes, knows that there aren’t two sides to difficult questions. There are many.
Telltale’s Walking Dead games sometimes give binary choices, but importantly they don’t say which is better or worse, they don’t convey this makes you a good or bad person. It’s simply a choice. But when all we have are humans, as in reality, then we all think we’re the good guys. The struggle for survival makes a mockery of good versus evil, since survival makes no distinction for good or ill: only adaptability.
Let us hope this property is utilised to greater and surprising lengths in either Season 2 or future, similar games.
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