Now that the first season of The Walking Dead is over, it's natural to ask the question: Did my choices even matter? Was this all smoke and mirrors, or did I really have a say over the outcome? It's the same sort of thing raised as any lengthy, branching video game story reaches its conclusion.
Partly due to production constraints and partly due to the writers' desire to tell a coherent story, most games like this don't have dozens of varied endings. We made so many decisions throughout The Walking Dead, but when all was said and done, did they matter? I'd say yes, they did.
Serious business Walking Dead spoilers follow. Beware of biters.
The final episode of The Walking Dead was always going to be where players' choices came together for a final reckoning. And there's no denying that a lot of the bigger decisions wound up not "mattering" that much, in a traditional sense. Characters you saved had already died some other way, and avenues you'd left open had been closed anyway. Whether you spared Ben in episode 4 or let him die (I let him die), he still died at the midpoint of episode 5. Even if Kenny stuck around, he still leapt down to get Clem's radio and met an uncertain fate. (Though remember the rule of death on TV: If there's no body, they're not dead. Going by both the books and the TV show, this even holds true for something as dark as The Walking Dead. So, we'll see about Kenny.)
No matter the decisions you made, you still wound up in the hotel room with Clem in the closet. You still barely managed to get her out of there. Lee had still been bitten, and even if you amputated his arm, he still died (though not before making some awesome/improbable one-armed building-jumps). So did your choices matter, or didn't they?
I think they mattered quite a bit. On a perfunctory level, the inclusion of the crazy stranger in the hotel room was a smart move by Telltale—essentially, it allowed them to sit you down and judge you for every bad decision you'd made in the game. There was no way to make it through The Walking Dead as a saint, so everyone would have to answer for something. I took food from the abandoned car at the end of episode 2. As it turned out, the car belonged to this man, and in the end drove his family mad with hunger and caused him to lose them. It was a smart way to judge players for their actions in a streamlined and doable way, and it was, all things considered, a believable scene.
But on a deeper level, throughout the series, we made decisions about what kind of a man Lee was, and how Clementine would see him. Our choices may not have affected the story outcome or averted his death, but they certainly affected his life—they made him the character we got to know and care about. (Or, depending, dislike but maybe understand.) One could make the same argument about the Mass Effects and Dragon Ages of the world, but given that The Walking Dead was a character study as much as it was an adventure, the fact that our decisions affected Lee's character is more central to the game's meaning as a whole.
Game critic Sparky Clarkson has effectively encapsulated why player choice mattered in a post over at his blog awesomely titled "Your choices don't matter." Rather, the choices do matter, he says, but "they don't matter in the way that they appear to."
Lee's choices don't change the world, or alter the fundamental flow of the story. He can do nothing to keep the drugstore safe, preserve the motel stronghold, or prevent the treacheries in Savannah. If those are the kinds of choices that "matter", then Lee's decisions don't. But decisions that mattered in that way wouldn't really fit the themes of The Walking Dead. It's not a world where a man ultimately has any real power to save anyone.
But the choices in The Walking Dead aren't really about changing the world, they're about changing Lee. The player's choices define who Lee is, whose company he values, what principles he chooses to uphold. The world reacts to those decisions, in subtle ways that either reinforce those decisions (for instance, in the developing friendship with Kenny) or play off them (as in the case of Duck's fate). The player's choices matter because they establish a context for his emotional connection, through Lee, to the game world.
Clarkson calls out the moment that I thought was the cleverest in the entire series: At the very end, when Lee directs Clementine to fight off the trapped walker, get a gun, and handcuff him to the wall before he turns.
All at once, the video game hierarchy moves up a step. Lee becomes the player, and Clementine becomes his avatar. For a few short minutes, it's as though we're controlling Clem instead of Lee. And before we send her on her way, we make one final decision. This game, which has let us make so many choices about how Lee lived, allows us to choose how he'll die.