The Walking Dead: 400 Days seems like a cobbled-together playlist of Season One’s deleted scenes. But fortunately, this content would have been cut for issues of time, not quality, because it plays like the best of Lee and Clem’s adventure.
The episode begins with five photos, each representing a character story, tacked to a bulletin board. The player selects any one of these and gets thrown into conflict.
Each story provides moral dilemmas onset by living in apocalyptic times that make my compassion and survivalist instincts clash. 400 Days steeps players in these biting ethical morasses immediately. No time is wasted on context or characterization, yet each 20-minute story develops its characters better than most 50-hour epics. All five survivors seem exceptionally human, which can be credited to Telltale’s talented wordsmiths. Nate, the bigoted pickup driver, never breaks character, nor does the overprotective older sister, Shel.
Will Shel leave the safety of her camp to avoid exposing her little sister to harsh, perhaps unavoidable realities of their new world? For how long will Russell tolerate Nate’s lewdness for a ride to see far-off family? This is familiar thematic material, but the personal and situational nature of these questions – and of your subsequent choices – makes revisiting them as gripping and tense as ever.
The Walking Dead series, at its core, has always been less about zombies and more about humans bickering over how to best survive. More than previous episodes, 400 Days focuses on its starkly human characters and what makes them so. In fact – and this is not an admonition – most episodes barely glance at the undead, sometimes ignoring their rotten flesh altogether.
The only caveat in all this praise is that I’m not sure where, if at all, the episode fits in relation to the five prior—or if it even matters. At times, 400 Days seems like a reel of deleted scenes in which Telltale flaunts its writing chops and masterful craft of complex issues. But at others, it seems like a well-positioned prologue to Season Two or a grab bag of compelling situations meant to tide players over until Season Two proper.
No matter what it is, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is so well-written, technically sound, and true to what makes its subject matter compelling that I forgave its muddled identity. Walking Dead fans, too, will likely accept it as another darkly satisfying exploration of humanity in the undead apocalypse.