One of the most fascinating things about Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead" is inhabiting the mind of the man you play as, Lee.
As you learn about him and make his decisions, you map out a psychic space. You weigh his values. You decide whom he cares about. You figure out who the man is, and you live as that man.
Or you transpose your own values on his, possibly going as far as to cut Lee out of the picture entirely and do what you, personally, would do in his shoes.
Either way, you find consistency in Lee's actions, and you practice it.
To not do that — to comfort young Clementine one minute and shun her the next, to have Kenny's back and then turn yours to him — is a cognitive dissonance no more tolerable in Telltale's virtual world than the real one.
The latest episode of "The Walking Dead," "400 Days," complicates this process. Because you don't play as one character — you play as five.
This epilogue to the first season elegantly sets up the second with five brief survivor stories. Compared to previous "Walking Dead" episodes, it doesn't play much differently. It's still standard point-and-click adventure cooked to a twitchy, action-game boil by split-second life-or-death decisions. So on a mechanical level, "400 Days" is more of the same. (And, on my Xbox 360, none of the stutters or glitches that plagued the game for some.)
In the case of this series, that would be good enough. The first season of "The Walking Dead" was my 2012 game of the year, so another fix is welcome.
But the gallery of characters makes this game into something more. As the bad-luck convict, the goodhearted stoner, the unsure guardian, the recovering junkie and the conscientious objector, you vacation in different minds, feeling out different motives and forging different identities through play.
The characters' episodes are short, but fraught with enough exposition and Sophie's choices to chart most of their mental territory already. And in the transition from one person to another, you almost feel like you earn a second, maybe experimental chance. What if I do play the idealist? The leader? The jerk? With Lee, you never get such resets.
To give any more detail would feel like spoiling the game, so I'll stop there.
On a personal note, "400 Days" also highlighted for me the sort of parasocial symbiosis between Telltale's "Walking Dead" and the comic and TV series. Having watched the AMC show since I finished the first season of the game, I entered this episode with firmer attitudes about what to do during the undead apocalypse.
That still didn't stop me from pausing the game as major decision windows closed, saying to myself, "Man — what should I do here?" It's easy to scream a choice at Rick or whoever; it's another thing to make it yourself — even in a video game. (The experience also made me realize I'm hopelessly unprepared for the real thing.)
I am, however, quite prepared for the second season of Telltale's "The Walking Dead." The people and events of "400 Days" pour an appetizing foundation for the much-anticipated series' return, and whenever that happens, hopefully I can play as all five of these richly varied survivors.