Dontnod is one of the few developers ready and willing to delve into uncharted territory when it comes to storytelling. For years now, the studio has continued to break new ground and establish new boundaries for narratives they want to put into the world. And because of that, we’ve seen such imaginative work like Remember Me, Life is Strange and now Tell Me Why.
For starters, from the moment we learned of the game’s existence, we knew that one of the leads we’d be playing as is a transgendered man. This idea is a first for the medium, and while we’ve seen other studios tread into the waters, Dontnod dives in headfirst to deliver a game teeming with charming characters and a beautiful backdrop set in Alaska.
Tell Me Why is an episodic game that is split up into three episodes. Unlike Life is Strange, the wait for the next episode is a week apart. A smart move, might I add, that gives the player just enough time to parse their opinions together before returning for the next episode.
Once Upon a Time
Tell Me Why focuses on twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan, and immediately puts us into the thick of things. In the near 10-hour story, you’ll be switching back and forth between the twins, a decade after being split apart after their mother’s death in their home. Alyson is waiting to pick up Tyler, and it’s the first time they’ve seen each other in years. Together, they’ll travel back home to Delos Crossing, Alaska and clear out their childhood home so they can put it on the market.
As you’d expect, returning to a place from your childhood is sometimes hard. With it, comes a flood of memories – good or bad – and we learn how exhausting the task is for the twins. And what I expected when I began playing Tell Me Why was a grounded story but what I got was a game dabbling in supernatural elements. Just like Life is Strange, Dontnod uses these elements in some fascinating ways: by creating a telepathic channel for the twins to communicate with each other.
Despite their different upbringings, the twins turned out to be decent human beings. Tyler comes off as a strong and confident individual from the moment we meet him. Alyson is reserved, a bit awkward and full of sarcastic wit. Watching the two siblings interact is a highlight for me and both actors riff off the other well.
There Were Two Goblin Siblings
Tyler’s representation is wonderful. For the first time ever, transgendered man is front and centre as a protagonist. Dontnod’s attention to detail and proving they’ve done their research is crucial to the success of this game but never make that personal decision the main center of the story. And while Dontnod succeeds in what they set out to do, one character, in particular, exudes a case of transphobia that is quickly pushed to the side (looking at you Sam!).
The gameplay is anchored around the newly developed “Bond,” a supernatural unique link between the Ronan twins that allows them to replay their memories. Players will use the twins’ Bond as one of many tools to unravel the truth of the events surrounding their mother’s death. I knew a pair of twins in my teens and they always were in sync when I’d talk to them and Tell Me Why uses that idea to great success.
That Lived In a Big Wooden House
Through remembering the past, the twins relive crucial moments from their childhood, often driving forward the drama. In one instance, you meet someone in town and the twins remember the event in two different ways. What impressed me is how you’re able to see the same scenario from two perspectives. In this one particular scene, the twins use this opportunity to question a townsperson on their mother and use what happened a decade ago to learn the truth. All the while, the twins are communicated with each other to make sure they are on the same page.
And those memories I mentioned? You’ll have to decide which twin’s memory is the true version and by the end of the game, I had split my choices down the center. I always did my best to make sure the memory presented lines up with all I’ve seen and read about the people, the places, and the past. What caught me off-guard is how well these characters are written because that led me to double-guessing my choices.
With a Lonely Princess
However, the downside of choosing which twin’s memory is the correct one negates any impact the decision may have. Instead, it becomes the definitive memory and the other twin’s recollection becomes quickly forgotten without so much as a second thought. This in turn makes decisions feel less impactful, and while these memories do push the narrative forward, their impact is minimal.
When you’re not focusing on the narrative, Tell Me Why includes puzzles that I found to be enjoyable. In one instance, you use a memento left by the mother to solve a riddle that’s plagued the siblings for years. The storybook left by their mother offers clues to many of the puzzles found in Tell Me Why and many of the characters in these stories serving as allegories of the people within Delos Crossing.
Speaking of their mother, Mary-Ann plays a huge part throughout the three chapters. While we learn a lot about the type of person she was, Dontnod delved into her psyche and her mental struggles at the start of the first chapter but there is a lack of resolution on that. We see two sides of the twins’ mother – a loving woman who wrote them a detailed storybook, crafted their toys, and allowed them to be crafty at home. In some scenes we see the darker side of Mary-Ann, a woman clearly struggling with a mental disease that is presented in an interesting way but half-baked in execution.
While it isn’t perfect, Tell Me Why is a promising title. It’s charming, it’s emotional and it offers well-written dialogue. I loved spending time getting to know Tyler and Alyson, understanding their character, where they’ve come from, and ultimately where they want to go. Transgender representation is front and centre with Tyler and we learn a lot of who he is, who he was through revisiting his childhood and hometown. Dontnod’s poignant story delivers what it set out to do, and through rekindling the sadness of a broken childhood, the twins discover much about themselves and also their mother. This journey to discovering the truth is one you won’t want to miss.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]