The Walking Dead: 400 Days
The Walking Dead – in all the mediums the stories have been told in – has always been more about human nature than lumbering zombies. The undead are merely the backdrop, a natural obstacle that must be endured if you want to survive. It wouldn’t change much if you replaced the zombies with an erupting supervolcano or a worldwide pandemic. The only difference is how recently mortal these monstrous creatures are. They used to have jobs, families, dreams and aspirations. Now they’re reduced to shambling corpses, cursed to aimlessly wander the Earth. It touches on something fundamental in the human condition. The juxtaposition between our belief that we are elevated above other animals, and the realization that we’re nothing but slightly less hairy apes.
“This is truly the post-apocalypse. The brunt of the suffering has passed. Now only the slow decay remains.”Although The Walking Dead did have its flaws, it still captured that aspect. It was outrageous. A game that actually had something to say about humanity? Those don’t come around too often. 400 Days is the interlude between Season 1, which followed Lee and Clementine, and the upcoming Season 2. Lee’s story is definitively over, and Clementine’s whereabouts are unknown, so 400 Days instead takes a short, but panoramic view of a large cast of characters.
Five stories are told in the span of 1-2 hours, all centered on a gas station that connects the characters’ fates. Naturally, none of these stories get particularly much attention, and are best seen as momentary insights into some of the countless other stories that ran parallel to Lee and Clem’s story. That was a good decision. Although there were many side characters involved in Season 1, they were always second to those two. 400 Days is a more kaleidoscopic look at the vast human impact of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a hint that there is a larger world that’s suffering too. Although there are connections between the events of Season 1 and 400 Days, they served mostly to show just how insignificant that first story had been, in the grand scheme of things at least.
The very first scene works as a rewind to a more peaceful time. The camera faces the gas station at nighttime. Cars and trucks drive by. An electric guitar is playing in the background, and a voice joins in. Abruptly, it cuts out, and is replaced by the moans of the undead, as we fast forward 400 days. There’s no music anymore. Only a soft breeze, rustling the leaves, and blowing through the rusty pipes. The scene is reminiscent of the melancholic lines from Alela Diane’s Take Us Back, that played through the end credits of Season 1: “All that we have known will be an echo.” The camera shifts to a missings boards. It pans across dozens of photos of happy people, forming a striking contrast to the rest of the scenery. This is truly the post-apocalypse. The brunt of the suffering has passed. Now only the slow decay remains.
From the missings board, the player can choose which of the survivors’ stories they wish to experience first. Chronologically, that first story is Vince’s, a convicted murderer who’s on his way to jail, much like Lee was it. It takes place on day 2 of the outbreak, and shows the initial chaos well. When the undead inevitably arrive, no one really knows how to act. None of the people present can handle the killing, and one even throws up. After years of relative comfort, they don’t know how to react in a radically altered situation. They haven’t been hardened yet.
“Neither Season 1 nor 400 Days revolutionize the game medium, but they tell stories about real human beings, not escapist dreams.”Despite its shortness, it encapsulates an entire season of The Walking Dead. Each vignette contains a character-altering decision. Do you leave your friend to an unknown fate? Do you condone killing a frightened scavenger? When faced with deciding which of two bad men should live, how to decide that? With some suspension of disbelief, they’re a way for the player to experience the difficulty of such choices, without having to experience it on their own skin. We all claim that we’d “do the right thing”, whatever that means, but in the end, how can we be so sure that that is how we’d actually react?
Although the choices are merely illusory, 400 Days succeeds in provoking an emotional response from players, with some powerful performances by the voice actors, and Telltale’s skillful scene composition. But honestly, it doesn’t matter whether or not a character would have died based on your decision, as long as you thought the choice mattered in the moment. It might sound like an interactive film based on this, and that wouldn’t be totally wrong. Neither Season 1 nor 400 Days revolutionize the game medium, but they tell stories about real human beings, not escapist dreams, and that’s a rarity in the medium that ought to be embraced. It’s a sign of growing maturity that The Walking Dead has as much acclaim as it has.
Technical issues persist
It’s sad to see this well-crafted title marred by technical issues, just like Season 1 was. First I was confronted with the message that my account didn’t have a license for the game, even though I had. After a bit of internet browsing I figured out a relatively easy solution. Then, when I was downloading 400 Days, it froze on several occasions, prompting me to restart the program to restart the download. But my woes weren’t over. When I’d finally managed to install the game, I discovered that I’d accidentally deleted my old saves in a system restore. Granted, that one mistake is primarily my own, but it strikes me as odd that Telltale have not implemented cloud saving. After all, a game that relies so heavily on choices and consequences should have some safe storage for save files – which clearly isn’t my harddrive. One would have figured that Telltale would have sorted out the most serious of these issues by now. Evidently not.
As an interlude, and a prologue to Season 2, it succeeds. A whole new set of characters are introduced, and although none of them receive that much attention, you still get a brief insight into their personalities. It holds some promise that Season 2 might go in a different direction than Season 1, which was narrowly focused on Lee and Clem, and open up a perspective to a larger world. With the introduction of five new characters, it certainly opens up possibilities.
There is some truth in the belief that the strongest force is the will to live, even when life doesn’t seem worth living. One of the stories in 400 Days stood out to me in particular. It takes place among a small group of survivors who are holding up in the gas station. A young girl is playing the guitar, sitting on the counter inside the house. Everyone claps as she finishes, and she looks proud at the attention she gets. There’s a semblance of order, of normalcy in this community. All the flashlights are organized, counted and tested every now and then. They keep a long list of everything that needs fixed at the station. Everyone has roles they fill here, a place they belong.
But when the protagonist in this story opens the door to the parking lot, she finds two zombies tied to lightposts, to keep scavengers away. She takes it surprisingly well. Although there’s no sign of impending improvement, she keeps moving. Maybe the concept of death is simply too frightening. Or maybe she just has a naïve hope that one day the nightmare will end. That it’s worth giving that hope a chance, rather than just giving in. Whatever her motives, 400 Days and indeed The Walking Dead are remarkable achievements simply because they prove that games are capable at spawning thoughts of fundamental debates such as the meaning of life and death.