Tell Me Why is the next narrative adventure game from Life Is Strange 2 developer Dontnod Entertainment, and it tells the story of two twins — one of whom is a transgender character — and the childhood tragedy that they must unravel. Through this narrative, the developers succeed in making the point that diverse perspectives matter even when your memories can lie to you.
This is a storyteller’s game for players who love to make momentous choices while stepping into the shoes of characters that they come to know intimately. This modern-day story dwells on whether or not the twins should dig into their uncomfortable past and hazy memories to arrive at the truth of a traumatic event that separated them for a decade.
The game focuses on identical twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan. Tyler, voiced by August Aiden Black, spent 10 years separated from Alyson (voiced by Arica Lindbeck) in a place called the Fireweed Residential Center after the death of their mother. As young adults, the twins are reunited and are planning to sell their family home. They also seek to understand the tragedy that separated them so long ago in the fictional Alaskan wilderness town of Delos Crossing. I reviewed it on PC.
Made to be accessible
This game isn’t for the crowd with twitch reflexes. It’s an accessible experience that any adult can play (it’s rated mature for drug references, mild blood, strong language, and violence) and enjoy for its complex characters, mystery, and good writing. Critics will say it’s a boring “walking simulator” without much action, but that didn’t bother me. You won’t find challenges such as button-mashing tests and other things that might turn people off who just want to experience a good story.
For the first 30 minutes of the game, I didn’t have to do anything consequential. I was soaking in the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, and I felt engaged with the unification of the twins and how they got to know each other after being apart. You’ll read through lots of things like old letters that shed light on the mystery and solve a few puzzles like encoded combination locks. But you’ll come across nothing more challenging than occasionally finding things in the environment.
Warning: This review has spoilers –Ed.
A soap opera or a deep mystery
During some moments, I wondered if Tell Me Why was a simple soap opera about a family that didn’t get along. From the small glimpse we get of the tragedy at the beginning, the mother Mary-Ann Ronan didn’t appear to accept the transgender transition of Tyler, a character who was born female. Back when he was 10, Tyler cut off his long hair and Mary-Ann went off the deep end. Tyler didn’t understand why Mary-Ann seemed so enraged, but he assumed that she had read his diary where he wrote about his wish to transition to being male.
Since this is a game from Dontnod, the creator of the Life is Strange series, it does have a supernatural element. The twins have the ability to Bond, or communicate with each other telepathically, without speaking. They can hold a conversation while talking to someone who may have something to hide. They can also stumble upon certain places around their childhood home that trigger memories, which replay as partial memories like old videos. This Bond produces a mental strain and it threatens to create a rift between the twins. It reminded me of Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls.
If you find the right spot, you can replay a memory. But sometimes Tyler and Alyson have different memories of the same event, and you have to decide which one is correct. Your choice in reconciling the memory may have an emotional effect on one of the twins. This mechanic gives the game its mystery, as you don’t always understand why the remembered scene is important as you piece together the missing links. If you choose the right memory to believe, it will lead you on a different path than another that might be misleading. I appreciated that this part of the game gave me a button to push, and it was a bit of a challenge to find the exact spot where I had to make something appear. And it wasn’t ploddingly slow in latency, like some of Dontnod’s games have been in the past.
As the twins search for answers, they get to know fellow townspeople better, like the strait-laced Eddy; the store owner Tessa, who is religious and not very tolerant of Tyler’s transgender status; Tessa’s easy-going husband, Tom; or the alcoholic handyman Sam Kansky, who is still mourning Mary-Ann. Each encounter with them isn’t easy, but you have to push to figure out how to extract more secrets from them.
That’s where Tyler and Alyson’s search for truth becomes more difficult, as they explore a Rashomon-like mystery where every witness remembers something slightly different. The player has to decide which memory is correct, and these lead to some of the major decision points in the game.
Microsoft is the publisher, not Square Enix, so the game doesn’t carry the Life is Strange franchise name. And it isn’t being published as a long-term episodic game, with months in between episodes. This three-chapter game is unfolding over three weeks. The final chapter debuted on September 10. As people finish the game more rapidly than they would a normal episodic game, I’m curious to see how their decisions stack up against my own.
An imaginative childhood
The game features sweet memories that the twins have of their childhood spent playing as “the crafty goblins.” While their mother, the “wise princess,” could be stern, she fostered this imaginative play, telling them fairy tales that she had created to keep them entertained in an age when video games and televisions were out of reach.
The girls snatched items from their home and hid them in a goblin hideaway under the house. The kids have a book full of fairy tales, The Book of Goblins, with a bear, a frog, the creepy Mad Hunter, and other animal characters. These fairy tales come back as puzzles to solve as the twins try to understand what their mother was trying to say to them through the allegory of the stories. I enjoyed the way the puzzles were intertwined with the facts of Mary-Ann’s life.
Playing with the kids is a charming part of the game. As young adults, the twins have grown up to be likable. Alyson has a good friend in her store co-worker Michael, and he becomes a source of companionship for Tyler in a town where acceptance would normally be challenging.
I also enjoyed when the game explored the Alaskan native culture of the Tlingit people. It has several Tlingit characters, such as the adoptive father Eddy Brown, the police chief who makes a peace offering early on in the form of a ring. Tyler can throw the ring off the ferry or put it on his finger. It shows a bit of Tlingit culture in a trip to a graveyard, but I wished this part of the game went deeper.
All told, it’s a pretty short experience, with three chapters that last a total of nine hours. If it were a movie, that would be a miniseries. But as a game, it feels like it goes by so fast.
A well-told story
In the end, it’s a good story. I appreciated learning along the way that everyone has different perspectives, and if you collect enough of them, you can get a bead on the truth. I agonized over a couple of decisions where I had limited insight, but for the most part, I made the same choices that the majority of other players did.
I appreciated that Tyler is a nuanced and thoughtful character, not someone painted in hyperbolic or stereotypical ways. He didn’t, for instance, have to fight a battle for gender freedom with a town full of transphobic people. Being transgender is part of the story, but it’s not the entire focus.
The developers chose to include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline number and the International Association for Suicide Prevention website. That’s a nod toward the issue of mental health, which has become so severe in the pandemic and is a subject that’s relevant to characters in the game. Characters have panic attacks, family squabbles, delusions, and suicidal moments. They dig out secrets that most people would prefer to keep buried. And sometimes the twins push each other too hard.
The game handles these moments well, and it gives them their due. It doesn’t rely on stereotypes or tropes to find easy answers, and it could be a source of comfort to those who can empathize with these problems. That’s why I liked the tale. It treats all of its characters with a kindness and empathy that unsheathes their complexities.