It takes a lot of guts to put out a follow-up to a critically acclaimed game only seven months after it sweeps year-end awards. The Walking Dead's runaway critical success hasn't seen Telltale Games, a smaller developer not quite used to the spotlight, shy away from experimentation. With The Walking Dead: 400 Days, Telltale games has thrown its star writing team back into its element to prove that video game short stories can work, and that lightning strikes twice.
After winning almost every narrative-focused award in 2012 with The Walking Dead, Telltale games definitely deserved to take their newest and most beloved game on a victory lap. I'm pretty sure they could have released a pre-apocalypse episode in which the player guides Lee through the process of ordering a hot dog from a street vendor and I would have given it at least 3 stars.
Instead, 400 Days is delivered in an entirely new format: five vignettes 20 minutes or shorter, starring five new characters, totaling 90 minutes of gameplay, with the same intense action and decision making of the original Walking Dead. Rather than take a victory lap, Telltale decided to experiment and work even harder, and the end result needs to be experienced. Make no mistake, cramming five immensely satisfying story arcs into 90 minutes, with plenty of action and suspense to boot, is a monumental achievement. Yes, each story is short, and the general gameplay rhythm of each vignette becomes readily apparent halfway through. Still, Telltale has found new ways to dazzle and surprise within the confines of the zombie apocalypse.
Played all at once, 400 Days is the video game equivalent of speed dating. Most of the vignettes start mid-action scene with no preamble. The frenetic nature of the situation onscreen matches the bewilderment of the player, as you try and catch up and understand who you are and what is going on. Fifteen minutes later, the story of that character finishes, and you are already hoping that they return in season two. After playing through each of the stories, a climactic ending sets the stage for Season two. Each individual story wraps up neatly, sometimes too much so, but the ending of 400 Days proper does a remarkable job of inviting speculation on how these characters will (or won't) return in season two.
That said, while 400 Days breaks new ground for video games narratively, the time constraint applied to each story steers it away from what made The Walking Dead our 2012 Game of the Year. The Walking Dead's choices were meaningful because you had to live with them for hours (or months, if you followed along on release day) until you reaped the consequences. These consequences complicated your relationship with the core group of survivors in unpredictable ways. I can still remember initially liking Ben and hating Kenny, only to have events over the course of August to November sway my opinion. And as a further testament to The Walking Dead's emotional depth, I'm sure a few of you got angry at me when you read that sentence.
400 Days continues The Walking Dead's reign as the best story-based adventure game right now. Lightning has struck twice, and the end of 400 days keeps expectations high as we near the Fall release of season 2. Yet, where the original Walking Dead is a fully orchestrated symphony of twisted relationships and nail-biting decisions, 400 days settles to be a collection of chart-topping pop hits. The fun, suspense, and intrigue are still there, but purely due to the format, 400 days cannot achieve the same emotional depth as its predecessor. The extent of your enjoyment will largely hinge on whether you view 400 Days as an odd footnote to an incredible first season, or as the prologue to an even higher-stakes follow up this Fall.