Tell Me Why is the latest episodic narrative adventure from Dontnod Entertainment, the studio responsible for the Life is Strange series.
Certainly, Tell Me Why seems to want to capitalise on the winning formula of its most celebrated studio predecessors, but the game is at its strongest when given the space to establish its own identity.
Over the course of three chapters, and approximately 10 to 12 hours of game time, you play as twenty-one-year-old twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan, who reunite after a decade apart to prepare their childhood home for sale. That task takes the twins to their hometown of Delos Crossing, a sleepy, snowy, and impossibly picturesque, town in rural Alaska.
As the Ronans clear out the lakeside house, they uncover evidence that what they always assumed about the death of their bohemian, mentally unstable mother may not be true. For the sake of closure they start digging, which means ripping the scab off traumatic memories, and interrogating tight-lipped locals who’ve spent the last ten years hiding toxic secrets.
For the most part, Tell Me Why provides a compelling, if leisurely delivered, mix of mystery and character study. Developed in consultation with mental health advocates, cultural advisors, GLAAD and other LGBTQ bodies, it deals sensitively with topics such as emotional crises in families, indigenous peoples and their traditions, plus transgender issues.
In a progressive move for video games, Tyler is a trans man. However, it’s important to distinguish Tell Me Why as a story featuring a trans protagonist, instead of being about a trans character – if that difference makes sense. It’s not that Tyler’s gender isn’t a topic of discussion in the game, but it’s not the point. There are no heavy-handed explorations or explanations, and the game certainly isn’t about Tyler coming to terms with his gender identity.
In fact, Tyler is by far the most well-adjusted and confident of the twins. The player meets him as a university graduate comfortable in his skin, and self-assured about his career plans. Alyson is the sibling stuck literally and figuratively in Delos Crossing, hesitant to stir up the past, and is prone to panic attacks. For the record, you play as both Ronans over the course of Tell Me Why, although the switches are dictated instead of being up to the player.
There’s a convincing sibling dynamic between Alyson and Tyler. Meanwhile, the sombre nature of their tale is alleviated by the welcome presence of Alyson’s jokey-yet-insightful best friend Michael, a standout character.
As long as you aren’t in a rush, or expecting an explosive, heart-wrenching finale like in Life is Strange, Tell Me Why works as a grounded, slow-burn drama with a few moments of levity, and a gorgeously rugged setting. There’s good reason you can get the twins to pause and admire the Alaskan scenery so often.
What doesn’t work as well in Tell Me Why is the gameplay. Drawing on a threadbare cliché, Alyson and Tyler share a kind of twin telepathy, which they call their “Bond” or “Voice.” Reunited, they discover they can talk to each other in their minds, even when apart, just like they could as children. A newer development is that they can also see each other’s most potent memories.
It’s an intriguing concept, but in execution feels half baked, like a supernatural element was shoehorned into the game purely because it’s expected of a Dontnod title. While the manifestation of memories is a consistent feature, the twins’ inner voice is used inconsistently, and only once per episode must the player choose between Tyler and Alyson’s recollection of key events. As a result, a gameplay aspect with a lot of potential comes across as largely wasted. The revisiting of memories could have been entirely figurative, and the game wouldn’t lose anything for it.
There are also some activities that really grind the pace of Tell Me Why to a halt, like doing stock inventory at the town’s general store. Some of these tasks feel like filler instead of contributing to the narrative or game world.
Much stronger are simple but enjoyable code-breaking puzzles that typically revolve around a lengthy, intricately illustrated book of fairy tales made by the twins and their mother. At their leisure, the player can read every one of the metaphorical stories about the crafty goblins and runaway princess. Again, though, there’s an implication that something is missing from the game. A couple of characters appear in the stories that mysteriously don’t have a human equivalent in Delos Crossing, when others explicitly do.
For the record, you don’t need to solve puzzles in Tell Me Why. Reconfirming that narrative is the focus of the game – not gameplay – you can brute force through certain challenges, or ignore them. Far more important are the dialogue and action choices that you make throughout Tell Me Why. These lead to a handful of different endings – some happy, some bitter. In keeping with Telltale-style tradition, at the end of each chapter you can also see how your decisions compared to other players.
Tell Me Why may meander at times, but the drive to uncover the truth is enough to keep you playing. Patient gamers will find a moody and mature-minded mystery, sensitively told. At the same time, the game already has enough of a dark fairy tale component that it doesn’t need distracting “magic” to be memorable.
Tell Me Why is available to play on Xbox and PC, as well as via Xbox Game Pass.
Last Updated: November 16, 2020