At risk of generalizing, it’s not often that mainstream writing talks about videogame writing. Game narratives aren’t discussed so much as graded; there are games with ‘good’ stories (stories you don’t notice) and games with ‘bad’ stories (stories you actively ignore), and the talk in-between is usually reserved for working out what the acronyms stand for in Hideo Kojima games.
So it’s satisfying when a game manages to break type and get its narrative actively discussed – especially in the mainstream – as was the case with Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead last year. Riding high on the zombie zeitgeist and equipped with a wrench pointed squarely at our guts, The Walking Dead’s first season told a story with characters that were three-dimensional beyond polygons, and likeable, to boot. It was, for all intents and purposes, good stuff.
To tide us over while we wait for season two to start, Telltale recently released The Walking Dead: 400 Days, a short ‘bonus’ episode composed of five interlocking stories, told shortly after the events of the first season. For better or worse, The Walking Dead is back.
Sadly, the move to a shorter narrative form doesn’t sit well with the series. Last year, Telltale’s writing staff stumbled into a successful formula for manipulating the player’s emotions, and here, they seem to be trying too hard to imitate the natural successes of old. Every ‘shocking’ moment is delivered in woefully blatant shorthand: the twist of a friend unintentionally killing a foe, or a child sinking into depression, isn’t subtly revealed so much as thrust into the player’s face, and it ultimately weakens the emotional impact of the whole package.
When it came to a close, the first season of The Walking Dead appeared to revel in excess. Limbs were amputated, people were impaled – heck, one particularly grisly scene involved spreading the guts of a rotting corpse over a small child. In isolation, these situations were ridiculous – they only worked so well because we were already invested in the characters. Here, there’s no such blessing. By the time you develop anything resembling a connection to the new cast, they’re either dead or gone, replaced by the next rent-a-character, ready to engage in a familiar greyscale shock-a-thon, minus any emotional investment.
I am disappointed in 400 Days, chiefly because Telltale’s writing staff seem to have become lost in their own hype. Of the five stories within, only one – Shel’s – contains anything near the same level of emotional depth as the original series – the rest are one-trick ponies; soulless, telegraphed exercises in despair – seemingly crafted to revolve around a single ‘oh shit’ moment each, if just because those were the parts people raved about previously. On such a small scale, it’s just not interesting.
Not to mention, on a scene-to-scene basis, 400 Days’ writing amplifies the flaws of previous episodes. The ‘choice’ gimmick, for example, is needlessly stressed; the outcomes of the player’s decisions are left to expository lines of dialogue, delivered so heavily that they tend to disrupt the flow of otherwise well-crafted exchanges. At one point, a key character breaks rank to reference an oddly specific ‘man with a moustache’, in a direct call-back to the previous episode; a neat touch for fans, but one inserted so haphazardly that it kills the scene dead.
Sure, there’s still some great stuff in here. Conceptually, the ‘Vince’ storyline hits all the right marks, focusing on three ambiguous characters all competing to atone for their sins – a dynamic that left me pining for more – while the minute-to-minute gameplay has been tightened to flow continuously forward, shaking off the incongruent adventure game elements that felt so odd in the original few episodes without devolving into David Cage-esque mundane theatrics. In the context of the series as a whole, however, 400 Days does little to improve on the original – more often than not taking steps backwards into the predictable and the exploitable.
Ultimately, while 400 Days’ short length and frenetic pacing may be its biggest downfalls, underneath, there’s even cause to be concerned for the long-form second season of The Walking Dead. Everything is now on the surface. References and emotional beats that should be left in the background are now being thrust into focus, warts and all, and it seems indicative of a negative trend in Telltale’s games, of which The Walking Dead’s first season was the exception to the rule. Here, subtlety is missing; lost in self-indulgent and outright dumb writing practices that undermine everything that made prior episodes so endearing.
I’ll give Telltale the benefit of the doubt for the season to come, but the fact stands that 400 Days is a disappointing continuation of a great story, more in line with their formative efforts than any of their greats.