Rather watch the video version of this review? Click here.
Tell Me Why, the most recent game from Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment, is something very special.
Gone is the focus on supernatural powers and fantastical occurrences. Instead, Tell Me Why‘s story is very much grounded in reality. A difficult, broken, and sometimes hard to understand reality; but reality all the same. It tells a story that’s at times difficult to stomach – it’s emotionally charged, right from the first moments of chapter one – but it’s one that you’ll be very much invested in from start to finish.
Tell Me Why tells the story of twin siblings Alyson and Tyler Ronan. Despite being inseparable as young children, they’ve spent the last 10 years apart following the death of their mother. But now, aged 21, they’re back together. Tasked with clearing out their old family home to prepare it for sale, dusty belongings aren’t the only thing they’ve got to sift through. They’re also confronted with a lot of memories – and some really hard questions that they need to find answers for.
Like Life is Strange, Tell Me Why’s narrative is delivered over a number of chapters. This time, though, there’s only three, and they’ll be made available with only a week in between them. Dontnod has purposefully made this decision to give players a chance to reflect on the events of each episode before jumping into the next. It’s a wise choice – and undoubtedly you will reflect on the story between playing. There are numerous choices to make as you play, many of which shape the outcome of the story. There’s no right or wrong way to approach anything, but it’s easy to second-guess your own decisions. Many times I’d ruminate over something I’d chosen, wondering if it was the right call or not.
Maybe it doesn’t matter; it is just a game after all, right? But Tell Me Why‘s characters are so incredibly well-written that it’s impossible not to care for them. Aly and Tyler feel real; their problems become your problems – and after only a few minutes with them, you’ll likely find yourself deeply caring for them. You’ll take control of each of them at points in the story, so you’ll be responsible for the thoughts and actions of both.
There are a lot of sensitive topics dealt with in Tell Me Why, many of which other games developers would shy away from out of fear of getting something wrong. But here, Dontnod tackles representation head-on, which it should be applauded for. Set in Alaska, it features indigenous Tlingit peoples, whose culture is an important part of the game’s fictional town of Delos Crossing. It’s also the first major game to feature a transgender character at the forefront.
Although I’m not qualified to discuss in detail the game’s representation of transgender and LGBT characters and issues, I do feel they’re dealt with in a way that’s respectful yet realistic. The fact that Tyler is a transgender man is never the focus of the narrative, but it is an important element. He’s open about his transition and – as he should be – he’s proud of who he’s become. But of course, returning to his home town for the first time since he was a child means not everyone is (initially) so understanding. A couple of Tell Me Why‘s secondary characters struggle with the concept of transition, but are shown to quickly accept Tyler for who he is.
It’s affirming to see characters go through the process of growth and acceptance. Yes, of course Tyler should immediately be accepted, no questions asked, but unfortunately there do exist close-minded viewpoints in the world. Tell Me Why doesn’t shy away from this, but ensures these opinions are never deemed acceptable. You really feel for Tyler in the moments his validity is questioned, but he’s assertive and firm in his responses (even where the player is given a choice). Hopefully it’ll go some way in showing how easy it actually is to accept a person for who they are.
Dontnod and Xbox Game Studios published a FAQ that discusses Tell Me Why‘s approach to representation, which is worth a read if you have any concerns about how the game may deal with sensitive matter.
As Tell Me Why‘s story progresses throughout the three chapters, you’ll shift between watching cutscenes and being free to explore certain areas of the game’s world. You’re never herded down a path, and so your progress never feels linear – even if it technically is. You’ll come across numerous puzzles, some of which you can choose to solve, or simply brute-force your way to the result. Other times, you’ll feel like a true detective. One of my favourite moments of the game comes in chapter two, when you’re tasked with sifting through a police archive. You’ll flit between the computer database and physical boxes, gathering file names and key pieces of information as you go.
Many of the game’s other highlights come in its narrative moments. Tell Me Why doesn’t lean into the supernatural in the same way as Life is Strange, but Aly and Tyler’s twin bond means they have a psychic connection; they’re able to communicate without speaking. They can also share memories, which play out in front of them as if they’re watching ghosts from their own past. Sometimes these moments are eerie; other times they’re tender and beautiful, especially as we see just how special Aly and Tyler’s bond was as children.
Uncovering these memories also makes up a key part of Tell Me Why‘s narrative. Excellent use of the controller’s rumble feature notifies you when you’re in an area that triggers a memory. Pressing down the right trigger button allows you to hone in on it, and once you’ve located the specific spot, you can push another button to play the memory. These are key to the twins discovering what happened to their mother – but there are times where they both remember events slightly differently. When this happens, it’ll be up to you to decide the ‘true’ course of events.
Tell Me Why is a beautiful game in terms of its visuals, too. Its depiction of small-town Alaska is absolutely stunning; views over lakes and mountains make for an incredible backdrop. Character models are nicely detailed and animated, which helps bring them to life – but it’s the stellar voice performances that really set them apart. The rest of the soundtrack is excellent, too; there’s a few choice songs that fit perfectly, but the overall score is masterfully paired with the game’s tone. Tense, dread-filled beats accompany you when you’re on the brink of making a major discovery; and wistful, melancholic tones breathe life into the twins’ forgotten memories.
I’ve no hesitation in saying that Tell Me Why is Dontnod Entertainment’s best game yet. Its narrative may be somewhat small in scope, but the subject matter it deals with packs a punch much greater than any tall tale of time manipulation ever could. Its characters are some of the most well-realised I’ve come across in a game yet, and their story is one that’s not going to leave me any time soon. Dontnod deals with difficult subject matter bravely and commendably, but that’s not why Tell Me Why is so special. It’s the combination of everything altogether – its characters, actors, visuals, story – that makes this an experience I’m not soon going to forget.
Tell Me Why is available on Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the game on Xbox One X with a code provided by the publisher.
Buy Game Pass to play Tell Me Why as part of your subscription