Tell Me Why Review
Dontnod is back with another engaging and heartfelt story
Episodic adventure games have seen a sort of renaissance in the last decade, though they’re in somewhat shaky groud at this particular moment. Dontnod Entertainment has steadily been pushing the genre in new and interesting directions throughout this time, with Life is Strange seen by many as one of the best in the genre. And now they’re back with Tell Me Why. Like its spiritual predecessor, Dontnod’s latest offers fantastic writing, interesting characters, and fun twists and turns. And it also offers a chance to see the world through a unique perspective.
Video Games, and most types of art, are all about giving the audience a chance to experience something other than their own, normal life. TV and movies have typically offered a wide variety, while video games previously tend to fit within a similar formula. Whether it’s becoming a hero and saving the princess, or surviving a post apocalyptic wasteland, there’s no shortage of adrenaline-heavy adventures. But in recent years this has expanded and grown quite a bit, with many games offering truly unique stories and characters. Tell Me Why pushes these boundaries once more, offering a chance to see the world through the eyes of twins Alyson and Tyler.
Coming together after ten years of separation, Alyson and Tyler find themselves forced to confront their tragic past as they clear out their old family home. Tyler, a trangender man, has spent the intervening years in a rehabilitation facility due to his role in their mothers death. Previously inseparable, the two have grown apart more than they anticipated. Soon though they begin to discover just how connected they are, and how their past might not be all they thought it was. As they work together to uncover the truth about themselves and their family they will find that the world might not match up with their memories, and that much has been hidden from them.
Told across three chapters which will release in the coming weeks, this review will cover the entire experience of Tell Me Why (though all spoilers will be avoided). Each chapter tells its own story, adding up to the overall plot involving the twins and their mother’s death. The end result is that Tell Me Why feels like a dramatic trilogy, with each chapter leading to the next and an ultimate conclusion. Is that conclusion worth the investment? It certainly was for me, though this is the sort of game that can feel completely different for each player.
Featuring the first transgender male protagonist from a major video game studio and realistic depictions of native Alaskan culture, Tell Me Why doesn’t shy away from tackling tough subjects. Throughout the first chapter you see how being transgender has impacted Tyler’s life, especially as he returns home after so long away. However, while the game doesn’t avoid dealing with this and other topics of similar import, it is far from the focus of the game. Instead it acts as a layer atop a family drama that would still be engaging without it, but is certainly enhanced by the added element. And it is clear how seriously Dontnod is taking the inclusion, consulting with GLAAD and other LGBTQ groups to be sure the representation avoids the pitfalls seen in many other media. There is also an FAQ, in case players would like more information.
Tell Me Why feels like a dramatic trilogy, with each chapter leading to the next and an ultimate conclusion
The result is being able to explore the world through Tyler’s eyes, seeing how painful it can be to be misgendered or judged for who you are. But again, the real story here is the family history, and Alyson doesn’t feel any less important to the narrative by being cisgendered. In fact, after the opening moments you alternate between the two twins pretty regularly, with each having their own side stories and relationships through which you can make choices and discover new elements of their past and present.
The story as a whole is quite engaging, with mysteries popping up around every corner. The first two chapters do take a while to develop things though, and many of the confrontations can come across as a bit forced. The underlying mystery of Tyler and Alyson’s past is ever-present, but it feels like minutiae sometimes takes focus away, or the twins will get upset about things that often have a reasonable explanation.
Similarly, the focus on mystery can sometimes lessen the impact of certain scenes, as surprising the player takes priority over telling a coherent story. However, Tell Me Why nails almost every resolution to these stories, even giving you a chance to right previous wrongs in the relationship. So while you might get frustrated by characters’ actions in the moment, they’ll usually end up giving you the choice as to how it all turns out.
These choices aren’t as consequential as we’ve seen in previous graphic adventures like Tell Me Why. There’s no split second decisions about who lives or who dies, but those always felt a bit over-the-top or contrived anyway. Instead you’re typically deciding whether to resolve differences and form better bonds with people, or to allow your anger (often righteous anger) to build up or remain. This gives the game’s interactions and dialogue choices a more naturalistic feel, and it’s better for it.
However, while this all clicked for me it is very easy to see other players who would find it offputting or uninteresting. Tell Me Why tells a focused narrative about this family and their extended group of friends. If that doesn’t interest you, or you don’t want to experience the realistic conflicts presented here it might even come off as annoying.
The game isn’t tasking you with defeating some big, bad boss. Instead it deals with how someone can overcome their anxiety, or how memories can be changed over time and the ways in which that impacts ourselves and our relationships. It’s all important and earnest topics, but players looking to shut off their brain and enjoy a few hours of gameplay might be turned away by it all. (Of course, here’s the requisite “it’s on Game Pass” mention, so if you’re a subscriber Tell Me Why is definitely worth trying out)
One way that Tell Me Why is much more accessible is through its puzzles. Featuring some very well-designed puzzles across all three chapters, the game rarely forces you to go through the rigors of solving them. Each will offer a chance to skip it almost entirely, though this should be avoided since they are quite enjoyable to figure out. Most will force the player to read through one of the many stories in the “Book of Goblins”, a collection of tales crafted by the twins and their mother. As you dive deeper into the stories you’ll quickly realize how important they are to the overall narrative, so hopefully you like reading because to get everything out of Tell Me Why you’ll want to do a lot.
What’s less enjoyable is when the puzzle is simply figuring out how to proceed or which object to interact with. There’s a lot of optional world-building within Tell Me Why, with each major scene offering lots of stuff to interact with. Most of it doesn’t help you proceed, instead serving as extra content, collectibles, or just red herrings. The interact nodes scattered throughout the environment are quite small though, and you need to focus the camera on them to get the prompt. This results in a lot of fiddling with the controls to get the right angle. Also, if you don’t want to experience all the extra stuff you can quickly lose your patience as you go on a dot hunt of sorts, trying to find whatever node will continue the plot.
Beyond the story, Tell Me Why has a lot to like as well, with the setting as a major standout. Set in the fictional Alaskan town of Delos Crossing, players will get to see some amazing sights. The graphics on the whole aren’t quite up to modern standards, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a visually pleasing game. Creative framing mixed with some beautiful artwork and scenery design creates some fantastic visuals at times, though the animations will break the illusion pretty quickly.
Though it mostly fits within the usual graphic adventure genre tropes, Tell Me Why is a significant step forward for gaming as a whole. It has some flaws, such as certain story beats feeling forced or mysteries getting in the way of coherent story-telling. There’s no singular moment or element that stands out to make it an amazing experience, but looking back I’m quite happy that the game exists and that I got to play it. The story of Tyler and Alyson is worth experiencing and will live with you long after the credits roll.
Tell Me Why
- Available On: Xbox One, PC
- Published By: Microsoft Game Studios
- Developed By: Dontnod Entertainment
- Genre: Graphic Adventure
- US Release Date: August 27th, 2020
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
- Quote: "There's no singular moment or element that stands out to make it an amazing experience, but looking back I'm quite happy that the game exists and that I got to play it. The story of Tyler and Alyson is worth experiencing and will live with you long after the credits roll."