A riveting, sad and grounded story
DONTNOD’s latest adventure game is about a pair of twin siblings Tyler and Alyson Ronan who are reuniting for the first time in ten years. Their reunion is bittersweet as the twins plan to sell their childhood home in fictional Delos Crossing, Alaska. After going through their own belongings, Tyler and Alyson enter their deceased mother’s room only to discover that their mother has been hiding more secrets than the twins previously suspected. While Alyson is content to leave the past behind, Tyler is eager to learn more about their mother, Mary Ann. Alyson eventually relents to Tyler’s wishes and the pair quickly discover that no one in Delos Crossing seems interested in talking about Mary Ann.
Tell Me Why is a narrative focused game, with light puzzle solving elements. If you have played DONTNOD’s previous Life is Strange games, Tell Me Why will feel instantly familiar. The bulk of the game involves walking around, interacting with objects and speaking with other characters. The few moments of gameplay are relegated to reading material to solve puzzles and doing basic button press mini-games. Some of these puzzles are surprisingly time consuming, especially one early puzzle that involves reading an entire children’s book.
The two gameplay quirks in Tell Me Why are the twins ability to visualize childhood memories and to communicate telepathically. Like in real life, memories are sometimes inaccurate and there are instances where Tyler and Alyson remember the same event differently. The narrative changes depending on whether you choose Tyler’s or Alyson’s memory as well as how you choose to react to specific characters. While it’s not as flashy as the ability to turn back time or use telekinesis like in the Life is Strange series, the ability to visualize memories is a great way to introduce more narrative story bits without having a cutscene wring control from the player.
The game is not shy about showcasing difficult topics. From the moment you boot up the game, there is a disclaimer indicating that trans and mental professionals were consulted in the game’s development. Tell Me Why is the first game that I know of, that features a trans person as one of the main characters. In addition there is a gay character with whom you can form a romantic relationship with. There are also depictions of anxiety, depression and poverty. All of these heavy subjects are handled with an appropriate amount of care. If there is one thing that feels out of place, it is that the game paints this very idealistic portrait of reality. The game never really introduces any form of significant opposition. The people of Delos Crossing are maybe a bit TOO polite, accepting and understanding.
Tell Me Why shows its budget constraints in its technical presentation. The title screen is very plain and boring; it’s a background of the twins with no animation. There is only a small roster of characters to meet and most of the settings are heavily recycled. Characters' lips don’t quite sync perfectly to their voices. And the game tends to have dialog cut into another line of dialog especially when walking around. With that said, the game looks stunning at times with wide vistas of mountains, rivers and trees. The few environments in the game are heavily detailed and feel lived-in. The character models, especially Tyler and Alyson, are handled with exceptional care on their faces, hair and clothing.
It’s hard to discuss any more about Tell Me Why without spoiling the story. The best I can say is that it’s a DONTNOD adventure game experience. There is excellent music, very creative direction/camera work and a plot that mostly comes together at the end. The game is far from flawless. There are several moments that require a significant suspension of disbelief and other sequences that feel like busy work. With all that said, Tell Me Why is DONTNOD’s most ambitious work yet. It dares to talk about sexuality, anxiety and poverty at a very adult-level not seen in many video games. The endings, especially the bad ending, left me with an emotional gut punch that I will be feeling for weeks.