Report Card: Tell Me Why (Review)

John Wahl

Memories come in many different forms. They can be warm recollections of happier times. They can be painful reminders of a traumatic past. They can be all you have left of something you’ve lost. In Tell Me Why, the newest game from developer Dontnod, memories are puzzle pieces to a tragic accident from the past that may not have happened the way you remember.

Dontnod is a developer I’ve become quite a big fan of in recent years. Their previous titles Life is Strange 1 & 2 have both made it onto my Game of the Year list and they are a studio that seems to be on the rise, getting better and better with each new release. For Tell Me Why, they have chosen to step outside of the Life is Strange universe and tell a somewhat smaller and more intimate tale. And while this narrative adventure doesn’t feature any references or nods to Chloe Price or the Diaz brothers, it will feel familiar to fans who have fallen in love with that series.

Tell Me Why tells the story of Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twins siblings from the small, picturesque town of Delos Crossing, Alaska. After tragedy strikes their family, the two children are separated from each other for nearly a decade, with Alyson being adopted by the local sheriff and Tyler being sent to a group home for troubled youths. Now as young adults they are reuniting to sell their childhood home in an attempt to move on from the trauma of their childhood, but as they return home for the first time in years, they discover that their memories of the past hold secrets to what really happened all those years ago.

At the center of this mystery is their mother, Mary-Ann. A warm, loving mother who used to create stories for her children (or little goblins, as she called them) and collected them in an illustrated storybook called The Book of Goblins. They would read these stories together and run around their home, pretending that they lived in this fantasy world. Despite the happy exterior though, their mother kept many painful secrets from her children, and over the course of the game Tyler and Alyson must learn about her past to try and make sense of what happened when they were children.

The themes of a parent trying to put on a happy face and keep her children protected from the harsh truths of the real world really hit home for me. As parents we often need to hide our pain and worries from our children, letting them enjoy the innocence of being a child without the burden of the adult world to worry them.

The episodic series plays out in much the same way that a season of Life is Strange did, with a focus on conversational dialogue options that effect the way in which scenes play out, as well as a supernatural element that adds a twist to the story. In Life is Strange those powers came in the form of the ability to rewind time and telekinesis, in Tell Me Why the powers are a result of the connection these twin siblings have with each other.

Growing up, Alyson and Tyler could always communicate with each other telepathically, something they called their “voice”, but now as they reconnect as adults they discover that they also have the ability to project their memories of the past for the both of them to see. This new ability allows them to revisit moments from their past to gain new perspective on things that happened and to discover small details that they wouldn’t have noticed as children at the time. You’ll also come across moments where each of the siblings remembers the details of a memory differently, in these instances you need to choose which memory they believe to be correct, altering the direction of the story, and possibly the relationship between the Tyler and Alyson.

You’ll also come across some puzzle elements which require you to read through the Book of Goblins to find clues hidden within the stories. The stories are short and charming, and would be enjoyable to read on their own, even if it wasn’t required to advance the story. It’s a nice touch and helps to reinforce just how much care Mary-Ann put into them and how much these stories meant to the family.

Like most games of this nature, it’s success or failure hinges on getting players invested in the story that they’re telling. Tell Me Why succeeds in this not only because of how captivating the main mystery is, but because the cast of characters that they introduce are both believable and likable. Tyler and Alyson are interesting characters with a complicated relationship that I found myself increasingly invested in over the course of the game. I feel like creating great characters is one of the biggest strengths of Dontnod games, and the quality of the writing and includes the supporting cast as well. Alyson’s co-worker Michael in particular was a character that I wanted to learn more about, even after the credits rolled.

Dontnod also did their research to ensure that the characters and even the town itself felt as real as possible. The character of Tyler is a transgender man, and the developers relied on trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming members of the team to help ensure that they got the character just right. Actor August Aiden Black, who plays Tyler and is himself a transgender man, also played a big part in making sure that the dialogue felt real and true to the character. It’s great to see a studio really put in the effort to ensure that they represent the character respectfully and honestly.

Taking place in rural Alaska, the developers also took care to represent the indigenous people of that part of the country correctly, working with the Huna Heritage Foundation to portray the culture responsibly. All of these measures add up to create a world that feels authentic and characters that are genuine. Dontnod created a game ripe with diversity, and you can tell that it was done with care and an interest in telling a unique story, not just to check a box or to score points.

Being only three chapters instead of the usual five for a Dontnod game, when it was all over I felt like I wished I could have stayed in that world longer and gotten to know the characters better. I think the game lacked a little bit of that emotional punch that the Life is Strange series had with me, possibly due to just not spending as much time with Tyler and Alyson as i did with the other characters. In the end though I think that the game’s shorter length is in service to the smaller, more personal story that they are telling. I guess it speaks well of the writing that I didn’t want it to be over in the end.

Tell Me Why is another beautiful story from one of my favorite game developers who are at the top of their game. Tyler and Alyson are wonderful and interesting characters and the world of Delos Crossing is beautiful and full of detail. For fans of Life is Strange there probably doesn’t need to be much convincing, if you loved those games you’ll surely enjoy this one. But I’d also encourage those who maybe shy away from these types of games that focus more on narrative than complicated gameplay to check it out. Games that open a window to a unique world full of diverse characters can not only tell amazing stories, but they can open your mind in ways that will last long after you put the controller down.

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