There's been a lot said about Dontnod Entertainment's latest story-based adventure. One of its most often-mentioned qualities is that it's a story that features a transgender protagonist. While that's a major element of the narrative, Tell Me Why goes far beyond what it means to adjust to the world as a transgender male. This is a full-blown mystery. And like Dontnod's most recent project, Life is Strange 2, this is a story about sibling love above everything else.
Before going any further, it should be noted that normally we would approach a game like this with a chapter-by-chapter impressions piece. However, to get ahead of the usual disclaimer at the end of the review, Shacknews was given full access to all three chapters of Tell Me Why. For this review, we will be evaluating this as a full story, but we will keep this post spoiler-free.
The Prodigal Son
Tell Me Why follows the story of twin siblings reunited after a decade apart. Tyler Ronan served seven years in a juvenile facility before spending three years working as a counselor. The story sees him return to Delos Crossing, Alaska and meet with sister Alyson for the first time in a decade. The reason they were separated was because Tyler was convicted for the self-defense murder of their mother, which becomes the focal point of the game's mystery.
Tyler and Alyson meet back up in order to help prepare their Alaska home for its eventual sale, so that the two can leave their past behind them. However, Tyler's return home drudges up memories of his childhood. Some are pleasant, but others are haunting, and it's the latter memories that push the twins towards a journey to discover the truth about their last night together.
Flashbacks are frequently used as a plot device in Tell Me Why, as both Tyler and Alyson encounter memories of their childhood. This extends into the gameplay, which I'll go into more detail about shortly. As much as the game is about the twins' present, there are many windows into their childhood. For Tyler, it means seeing himself before his transition. For Alyson, it means looking back at a time when she had her sibling, who was also her best friend. These flashbacks are used towards the greater goal of filling in the missing pieces of that fateful night before Tyler is taken away.
The mystery primarily revolves around Mary-Ann, the twins' mother. There's only one piece of the puzzle made clear at the start of the game. Tyler gets a haircut, Mary-Ann has a psychotic reaction, points a shotgun at Tyler, and then everything is blank. The unknowns surrounding Mary-Ann are a major driver of this plot and Dontnod does an amazing job of fleshing out her character even without her physical presence. By the end of the story, Mary-Ann's character has you thinking about things ranging from mental health, to the difficulties of single motherhood, to how to react to a child coming to terms with their gender identity. There are numerous plot twists throughout the story. What I thought of one character one moment would change within the hour based on new evidence. Tell Me Why is a story that keeps you guessing a lot of the time. It's a compelling tale from start to finish.
Growing up twins
Dontnod takes full advantage of the twin sibling dynamic, building on the idea of twin telepathy. Tell Me Why utilizes one of Dontnod's favorite plot devices, which is the idea of borderline-supernatural abilities without making the story into a science-fiction tale. In this case, the twins' bond allows them to conjure up physical manifestations of their childhood memories, ones that both of them can see. This allows them to fill in missing details and help further flesh out the full story.
If Dontnod had stopped there, that idea would have been great on its own. However, the team later goes the extra mile and incorporates critical decision-making into some of these memories. Sometimes Tyler and Alyson will remember events differently. It's up to the player to decide on which is the "true" memory. They can take into account a sibling's emotional state, clouded feelings, or biases before making their decision or they can operate based on their gut feeling. However, players must take into account that whatever memory they decide on will work towards influencing the twins' relationship near the end of the game. It's a genius idea with my only complaint being that I don't often notice many long-term consequences from these choices. In one case, specifically, a choice I made irked the other sibling, but it was simply water under the bridge by the next scene.
Tell Me Why also features a series of puzzles that brilliantly plays on the twins' childhood. As kids, Tyler and Alyson made up their own series of make-believe fairy tales, even going so far as to keep a book of stories that they wrote themselves. These fairy tales are a major plot point and it's not just because they wrote the characters to be analogues of real people in their lives. Many puzzle solutions are based on those fairy tales and players must pay close attention in order to figure them out. It's more than just a cool concept. Some of the fairy tales are brilliantly written and contain Aesop-style morals and twists. If there's a criticism here, it's that some of the puzzles can get tough and the hints are not helpful. Fortunately, more than one puzzle offers a "smashy-smashy" solution for the impatient.
The other key component of using twin protagonists is that it heavily reduces the adventure game trope of the main character talking to themselves. A vast majority of the time that you interact with an item or examine a clue, one sibling is speaking with the other. It feels much more like a natural conversation and comes across as a lot more real. To add further to this, Tell Me Why operates heavily on a reply mechanic. Most times when somebody talks to Tyler or Alyson, players will have the option to hit a button to reply directly to them or you can stay silent and leave them hanging. If nothing else, this is a fresh change from the dialogue interface one normally finds in these types of games.
The memory remains
There's one other thing that stands out about Tell Me Why above everything else. Without revealing specific spoilers, the idea of conflicting memories becomes a bigger plot point as the story moves forward. In fact, the story eventually reaches a point where it's worth asking whether memories are trustworthy. How much would you reliably remember about events from ten years ago? Can you trust your own memories? And is it ultimately better to side with your memories or is the truth something deeper? Those are the questions the game poses and they're ones worth thinking about.
Tell Me Why stands out as one of Dontnod Entertainment's best efforts to date, which is high praise given their output to this point. It's a brilliant story about twins coming to terms with childhood trauma while exploring the mysteries of how they came to be where they are. The characters are memorable and the dialogue is some of the best to come out of a Dontnod game yet. And at three chapters that average roughly two hours each, the game doesn't overstay its welcome. Dontnod knows just what it wants to say and it says it beautifully.
This review is based on an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Tell Me Why's first chapter is available today on Steam and the Microsoft Store with subsequent chapters available over the next two weeks. The full package costs $29.99. The game is rated M.
Tell Me Why
- Compelling mystery
- Brilliant characters
- Twin dynamic is played up strong with telepathy and memory mechanics
- Dialogue feels more natural than previous Dontnod games
- Using homemade childhood fairy tales for puzzles is inspired
- The ending sequence creates feelings of genuine conflict
- Aiming for Memory prompts doesn't always feel precise
- Puzzle hints can be obtuse
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Tell Me Why review: Fairy tale twin magic