When I was young, my father introduced me to a strange Vietnamese dish known as bittermelon (in English anyways). Its a round green fruit with a hole in the middle, where boiled noodles and beef were tucked into, making a strange looking dish that rivals weird food I’ve seen today. He told me it was a very specific and aquired taste; and that he’d give me $100 if I could eat one. Eager and greedy, I bit into it; a tiny bite for a tiny little 6 year old kid. I gagged and started crying, and my dad started laughing. He even brought out the money and waved it around my face. Gathering courage,I bit again and cried more. To make a long story short, I needed therapy and I didn’t get $100; but I do like bittermelon now. And Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has never been anything but a huge slice of bittermelon.
No longer “Just an interactive movie”:
The biggest criticism leveled against the 2012 Game of the Year was a pretty confusing one; there are many who argue that Telltale’s take on the popular zombie-drama franchise was not in fact a game. Yes, it had fallible sequences, yes, you were able to make decisions, but they argued the title was an interactive story at best. There were few “game mechanics” to be had, and challenges were scarce. TWD: 400 Days answers those detractors with a heightened focus on action, quick changes, and increased gameplay mechanics. A combination of stick movements and button presses make action scenes more immersive; at one point you attempt to rescue a man, dragging his injured frame as the fog surrounds you, holding and dragging this man only to drop him and level your weapon on an ever approaching walker; and rather than mash buttons to watch your character slowly succeed, you hold buttons to hold the man as you drag the stick back, and release everything to pull your weapon out and dispatch foes. The controls are leaps and bounds above the original sequences, and thankfully everything feels as slick and intuitive as it needs to to make this idea work. Telltale has mercifully learned their lesson from Jurassic Park, and shied away from a shoe-horned inclusion of puzzles, and opted for more of a focus on what made TWD: Season 1 so good; moral choices with implicit consequences. You are dropped into the lives of different people with different stories and forced to learn as quickly as you can, lest you make the wrong decision.
The few criticisms I can level with this game can fall into nitpicks or valid concerns; decisions. While 400 Days was intended to be an interlude into TWD: Season 2, few if any of the choices of TWD: Season 1 are present or impact the story. The reappearance of some background characters, hints about old lost friends, and allusions to the original story are scarce; though it is a big world, a complete lack of main story allusion is sure to disappoint fans who were hoping for concrete news on our favorite child in video gaming. Within its own story even, TWD: 400 Days fails to communicate some of the long reaching consequences of your decisions. Characters are mostly static, which is expected of a game that introduces characters in small chunks; however most of our time with these characters is spent understanding their past. We get little chance to shape their future, and when the future does come, the sudden decisions made seem abrupt and lack the emotional punch I’d like. With the total run time of 2.5 hours, 400 Days feels like you were given a taste of something truly great, only for it to sour in your mouth in the process. The worst part is also one of the best parts of the game: its ambiguity. The game ends with a culmination of your decisions, and the fate of each depends on how you played; the trouble is, its damn near impossible to tell what was “good” and what was “bad”. Its brilliant in a writing sense, but completely frustrating in not knowing what your efforts were for; did you want this ending or not?
The road less traveled
TWD: 400 Days shows how far Telltale has come in terms of designing their games. The episodic Back to the Future titles, built on a similar engine, show the roughness of the genre, the lack of gameplay, and the obtuse puzzles. 400 Days shows that its not just ready to tackle mature topics, but it has the writing and game design to back up their epic story. The game’s technical performance is leaps and bounds above TWD: Season 1, its gameplay is varied and immersive, and the story is all the bitter hopes and sour survival that Walking Dead fans crave. Even in spite of its short length, abrupt ending, and total ambiguity, TWD: 400 Days is a marvelous experience for any fan of the first season. In the end, TWD: 400 Days is like bittermellon; if its your thing, you’re going to chew it slowly and savor the bitter taste. Not too many people make bitter games any more, and although its not sweet, it has a unique presentation and story, and enough grit and seriousness to hit you right in the heart. While we wait with bated breath for season 2, fans and non-fans everywhere fan agree one thing: Fuck Wall Street.