If I had to name my game of the year for 2012, it probably would have been Telltale Games' The Walking Dead video game. I say this as someone who enjoyed, but eventually sort of gave up on both the comic series and the TV show in that franchise. The game managed to solve a lot of the issues I had with its media brethren, and here's the crazy thing: The new downloadable "special episode," 400 Days, solves even more of them.

400 Days is something of a prologue to the next game in the series, and the way it presents its story is a really neat trick: After an opening cinematic of a desolate truck stop, the player is presented with five photographs on a board full of pictures of missing people. At first, I thought this was just part of the cutscene. There's no prompt telling the player to pick one of the photos to move on. The quiet of just that moment established an immediate mood, and put me in the shoes of the then-unseen character looking at this board. I took a minute to appreciate the quiet. I knew there wouldn't be a lot to come.



Once I finally did pick a picture, I found myself filling the shoes of one of five characters, all in different situations and at different times through the first 400 days of the zombie outbreak. One's a woman trying to protect her little sister (someone I have to believe is a stealth nod to X-Man Jubilee because of her yellow jacket and pink shirt). Another is a guy on his way to prison. Yet another is a young woman in the middle of a love triangle.

The way this episode puts the player in different scenarios with different characters is brilliant. One of my biggest problems with continuing zombie stories is that, once the characters figure out what's going on and endure a certain number of hardships, the hopelessness of the story just becomes overwhelming. I've watched these characters go through enough, I tend to think. But because we have to continue with them, their situations have to escalate. We have to see them react to new, even worse things. It's too much to handle.




By virtue of introducing players to new characters in new scenarios after short segments -- half an hour each, maybe -- this game doesn't have any of that. Before you can begin to feel too depressed about what happened to Wyatt, it's time to move on to Russell's story. That said, I realize we'll definitely be seeing more of these characters, and possibly some of the characters from season one, in the next game. But if the first five episodes were any indication, we'll see just enough misery before saying, "okay, that's enough."

Speaking of those first five episodes, this game plays much like that one does. Most of what you do as a player is make quick decisions and choose responses in dialogue trees. Occasionally an action sequence will pop up in which you've got to quickly choose an item and use it, or kick a zombie in the head. Compared to big action games like The Last of Us, that sounds pretty simplistic, but I prefer it to the running-and-shooting stuff. You've got to think about it a lot more, because the decisions you make really do have impacts. People -- characters you come to know very well in an astonishingly short amount of time -- literally live or die as a result of them. It invests the player in the game so much more than tossing a gun at them and telling them to shoot whatever steps in front of them.




Though I have to tell you, a part of me would prefer a game where you shoot everything. I'm kind of a game perfectionist. I like getting 100 percents and "good" endings. In these Walking Dead games, there are no "good" endings. There are just decisions. Often, the choices are two bad things. You just have to choose one. And when you do, you feel the consequences. One choice I made in one of the vignettes left a guy dead. I didn't realize that would happen, and as my character ran away from his soon-to-be-eaten body, I felt legitimate guilt. You don't get that from video games all that often. You don't get it from horror fiction all that often.

When you read a comic or watch a TV show, you're a passive observer. You can yell at characters for making dumb decisions and take comfort in your confidence that you would have done the "right" thing. This game will cure you of that confidence pretty fast. A lot of times I found myself in a situation where the clock was ticking down, I had to say something, and I ended up unintentionally doing the worst thing. And there are no takebacks. You can't load a quicksave and go back (at least not on the Xbox 360 version I played). You just have to accept what you did and move on. Being an active participant changes everything. I had trouble keeping up with the characters in The Walking Dead the comic. In these games, I know every character's deal. I have to.




Even with having to carry around that digital guilt, I just plain don't find these games as depressing as the Walking Dead comic or TV show. Maybe it's because the art style, which isn't cartoony but is certainly pretty stylized, softens the blow a bit. It's not so real, though the characters are highly expressive, and are written with genuine, human reactions to things. Maybe it's the dark sense of humor. Or maybe it's that I'm too busy trying to decide what to do next, trying not to screw up again, to let myself get too bogged down in the despair of it all.

Whatever it is, I can tell you this: I'm not a Walking Dead partisan. I don't want to sound like I hate the other parts of Robert Kirkman's media empire -- I read the comic for a long time and I've watched my share of the show -- but I don't love either one. I love these games. I might love 400 Days the most of any episode Telltale has released. I'm going to try to play it again and do things right.

I know I won't, though.

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