Narrative in Video Games #4: The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The Walking Dead is a comic series that gained mainstream prominence with a successful television series currently in the midst of its sixth season. For gamers, however, it brings to mind a series of episodic adventure games from acclaimed developer Telltale Games. With a miniseries on fan-favorite character Michonne starting this past week and a third season scheduled for later this year, I thought I’d take a step back and look at some of the earlier episodes in this growing game series.

The standalone episode 400 Days serves as something of a microcosm of what the game series has to offer. Released in 2013 between Season One and Season Two, 400 Days introduces five survivors the player can chose in any order via a bulletin board with an epilogue after all five stories, or rather vignettes, are told. Solve some puzzles, make some dialogue and story choices that affect the larger narrative, and wrap the whole thing up with an epilogue. Not a bad approach on paper, but it doesn’t quite play out that way.

Dialogue choices are somewhat arbitrary on the player’s part because every single scenario is told in medias res. You’re forced to intuit the relationship dynamics of an existing relationship while actively contributing to the conversation meant to give you that necessary exposition. It creates a disconnect wherein you aren’t the character, you are an impostor trying to convince the character’s close acquaintances that you’re still the same person. Kind of fitting for a zombie game the more that I think about it.

The story choices in many respects fare worse because they almost always represent a forked path that re-converges before any meaningful changes occur. You can help or kill certain minor characters, but when they don’t factor back in to the plot, or they anticlimactically die off-screen, choices start to feel meaningless. The player is wrestling against the game and it’s evident which one is always in control.

The Walking Dead is a fun journey while it lasts, but 400 Days epitomizes the false dichotomy at the series’ core. Replaying this series perfectly captures the reason why you shouldn’t return to your idyllic hometown after the zombie outbreak starts, and that’s perhaps the best compliment I can give.


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