Dontnod delivers yet another heart-warming character-driven tale with Tell Me Why.
Dontnod Entertainment have firmly established themselves as one of the best developers in the industry of narrative-drive adventure titles, and garnered a solid reputation of telling heart-warming stories through honestly written characters and character relationships. Tell Me Why doesn’t stray too far from that formula- it’s more of the same and plays on the developer’s biggest strengths, and though much of it often feels low-stakes, it is still another solid game by the French studio.
In Tell Me Why, you play as twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan, who reunite in their quaint hometown of Delos Crossing, Alaska after ten years. The last time they saw each other was when their mother died, supposedly killed by Tyler in self-defense, and much of the game revolves around the twins trying to face their past and figure out what exactly happened, and why things went down the way they did.
"Tell Me Why doesn’t stray too far from Dontnod’s formula- it’s more of the same and plays on the developer’s biggest strengths, and though much of it often feels low-stakes, it is still another solid game by the French studio."
Tell Me Why does an excellent job of slowly making you question your notions about its characters, and it does that with the twins’ mother, Mary-Ann, better than all the others. You start out believing that the Ronan twins’ mentally unhinged mother snapped after years of tension and tried to kill one of her children over nothing, but bit by bit, you see through the twins’ memories and the conversations they have with each other and with other people of Delos Crossing that she was actually a loving, devoted mother, and perhaps things weren’t exactly what Tyler and Alyson believed for a decade they were.
Unraveling the mysteries of their past and learning more about Mary-Ann is the meat and potatoes of Tell Me Why, but it often veers off-course and tries some other things as well. This being a Dontnod game, there are elements of the supernatural in here, with Tyler and Alyson being able to converse with each other telepathically and being able to physically see flashes of memories in the world through their shared power, which they call the “Voice.” Tell Me Why also flirts with the idea of throwing a supernatural big-bad into the mix, but that doesn’t amount to much, and it all ends up tying back into the much more personal and grounded story of the Ronan twins.
On one hand, I appreciate that the focus in Tell Me Why is squarely on these two characters and the relationship they build with each other. On the other, I wonder why these supernatural elements even had to be in the game. Given the fact that the game never really goes all-in on them and give them too much attention, they end up feeling unneeded and at times half-baked, sometimes even raising questions that are never answered. I’m not sure the game would have lost much if those parts of the story had simply been cut out- in fact, it probably would have been much tighter and more concise.
"I’m not sure the game would have lost much if the supernatural parts of the story had simply been cut out- in fact, it probably would have been much tighter and more concise."
As far as the larger story is concerned, the supernatural elements aren’t the only issues. The town of Delos Crossing has a very Arcadia Bay “small town” atmosphere, even though Tell Me Why has nothing to do with Life is Strange, which didn’t surprise me, given Dontnod Entertainment’s faultless ability to make its settings comes to life. Which is why I’m a little disappointed that Delos Crossing doesn’t get as much room to breathe and truly come into its own. With three episodes that are collectively less than 10 hours long, Tell Me Why is shorter than previous Dontnod titles, but I feel that with an additional episode, perhaps the game would have been able to do proper justice to both its setting and the supernatural parts of its story, both of which clearly needed more time to shine.
Thankfully, the one area of the game that matters the most – just as it does in every Dontnod game – does not disappoint. The characters are the heart and soul of every Dontnod story, and the main players in Tell Me Why are some of the best characters the studio has ever written. Tyler and Alyson steal the show, of course, thanks to excellent voice acting and their believable, heart-warming relationship, and their ever-changing dynamic serves as a solid backbone for the entire story. The supporting cast here is excellent as well, with some characters in particular – such as Michael, Alyson’s best friend, or Eddy, the police chief of Delos Crossing and Alyson’s father figure – standing out. Dialog can sometimes be a little clunky, in true Dontnod fashion, but never enough that it took me out of the experience.
Tyler deserves special props, because he’s perhaps the best example of queer representation I’ve seen in a game of this scale yet. The fact that he’s trans is something that Tell Me Why always handles with the utmost care and respect, and it sheds just enough light on it without ever making it seem like that’s the only part of Tyler you should care about. It’s not flawless in how it handles this, and can sometimes feel like an almost sanitized version of the reality that trans people face on a daily basis. But the motive for that – which is a desire to be as respectful as possible – is something I appreciate, and even admire, and this ultimately more than compensates for the slight dissonance this can otherwise create.
"Tyler and Alyson steal the show, thanks to excellent voice acting and their believable, heart-warming relationship, and their ever-changing dynamic serves as a solid backbone for the entire story."
Of course, another key aspect of narrative-driven adventure titles like this one, especially those made by Dontnod, is the choices you make throughout the story, and how the consequences of those choices manifest. Tell Me Why is by its very nature much more low stakes than something like the Life is Strange games, which means that the choices you make don’t ever feel as impactful or weighty, but the crucial moments where your actions can determine whether the Ronan twins are growing closer or drifting apart make up for that, and thankfully, there’s enough of those moments in the game.
Other than the dialog choices, the bulk of the gameplay in Tell Me Why will be familiar to you if you’ve played the Life is Strange games. You explore environments, interacting with objects and learning more about the central characters and places, with the occasional puzzle thrown in here and there. Exploring these spaces is always a joy, thanks to Dontnod’s knack for consistently creating environments that feel truly lived-in, and the puzzles, though nothing special, are almost always designed well enough to be engaging (barring a couple of exceptions, such as one particularly annoying one that has you trying to restore power to the Ronan house by plugging sockets into a fuse box).
Tell Me Why is also a great looking game- in fact, it’s easily the best-looking game Dontnod have ever made. It’s not going to win any awards for technical accomplishments, but it’s a major step up over Life is Strange 2. The icy landscapes of Alaska are brought to life beautifully, environments are brimming with detail, and even things such as characters’ faces and the clothes they’re wearing look great up close. There are some technical issues, such as characters’ animations not matching with voice acting very well, or some audio bugs here and there, but by and large, they’re rather easy to overlook.
"Tell Me Why is a great looking game- in fact, it’s easily the best-looking game Dontnod have ever made. It’s not going to win any awards for technical accomplishments, but it’s a major step up over Life is Strange 2."
When all is said and done, though Tell Me Why doesn’t necessarily disturb the established Dontnod template too much, it executes it well enough that that doesn’t ever seem like an issue. Excellent characters, strong writing, and a deeply personal plot help the player connect with the story. In the end, that most criticisms of the game can be boiled down to “I wish I had had more time to spend in its world and with its characters” should, ultimately, be all that really needs to be said about Tell Me Why.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Excellently written and voiced characters; Tyler and Alyson's bond steals the show; Healthy, respectful trans representation; A major visual step forward for Dontnod; Detailed environments are a joy to explore.
Supernatural elements feel unnecessary and underdeveloped; The setting needed more time to breathe; Some minor technical issues.
When all is said and done, though Tell Me Why doesn’t necessarily disturb the established Dontnod template too much, it executes it well enough that that doesn't ever seem like an issue. Excellent characters, strong writing, and a deeply personal plot help the player connect with the story. In the end, that most criticisms of the game can be boiled down to “I wish I had had more time to spend in its world and with its characters” should, ultimately, be all that really needs to be said about Tell Me Why.