Having gained acclaim for developing strong choice-based narrative games with 2015’s Life is Strange, DONTNOD Entertainment return with another small town story, and another supernatural twist. While not bearing the LiS titling, Tell Me Why may as well be the series’ third instalment, bearing all the episodic, socially-conscious hallmarks. For the most part, it works as a standalone game, even doing certain things better than its forebears, but some elements feel underdeveloped, and here the Life is Strange comparisons do more harm than good.
Picking up with twin siblings Tyler (August Aiden Black) and Alyson (Erica Lindbeck), Tell Me Why sees the pair reunite in their home town after ten years, following the death of their mother. Much has changed in that time, most notably Tyler himself, a trans man who has started testosterone treatments while away.
The bulk of the story revolves around the night that the twins’ mother, Mary-Ann (Emily O’Brien) seemingly attacked Tyler for cutting his hair short, forcing him to kill her in self-defence. After discovering that their unique bond allows them to not only communicate telepathically, but also show their memories to each other, Tyler and Alyson set out to uncover the truth of that fateful night, and finally gain some closure.
Told over just three episodes, Tell Me Why is a shorter experience than DONTNOD usually offer, with the exception being Life is Strange: Before the Storm, but a compelling one all the same. The fictional town of Delos Crossing, Alaska, is populated with a small cast of interesting and complicated characters, all of whom have something to hide. The story unfolds like a typical investigation, with the twins working their way through the people who knew their mother best, trying to find answers to their decade-old questions.
August Aiden Black and Erica Lindbeck’s easy chemistry makes the twins’ relationship one worth salvaging.
After enduring the cringe-inducing “teen language” of Life is Strange, and the perpetually whiny protagonists of its sequel, the writing in Tell Me Why is a breath of fresh air. The story of two traumatised kids coming back to the scene of their mother’s death is definitely the most mature narrative that DONTNOD have taken on so far. And that’s before you add in the fact that one of their leads is transgender.
Thankfully, everything is handled with sensitivity and respect, with the story and dialogue offering a thoughtful, realistic exploration into both of these life events. That’s not to say that all is peachy in Delos Crossing: there are plenty of twists and betrayals to be had along the way, with the backstory between the twins and revelations about “that night” leading to some major shocks.
It helps that, aside from a few moments where they come across as bratty kids, blaming everyone for their problems, Tyler and Alyson are generally likeable and engaging characters. Black and Lindbeck both do a great job voicing them, and their easy chemistry makes the twins’ relationship one worth trying to salvage.
Tyler in particular is impressively done, as he has the honour to be the first playable trans character in a major studio game. DONTNOD worked closely with GLAAD to ensure that their portrayal of a trans man was respectful and responsible, and it shows. Going even further, Black (himself a trans man) contributed heavily to the script, providing edits if he felt that certain dialogue or actions were not faithful to Tyler’s story, and allowing his personal experiences to act as inspiration for the narrative.
The lack of agency given in the climax of the story leaves the ending feeling rushed and unsatisfying.
Unravelling the mysteries of Mary-Ann’s behaviour consists mostly of collecting clues in the environment, and making dialogue choices. Though nothing particularly new for the genre, there are a couple of details that help to set Tell Me Why apart. The first is the Book of Goblins, a Grimms-esque collection of fairy tales written by Mary-Ann for the twins. Layered with subtext, these stories explore more of Mary-Ann’s backstory, and her relationships with the town locals, as well as providing clues for several puzzles that are spread throughout the game.
The second unique mechanic sees Tyler and Alyson employ their telepathic connection to show each other how they remember a particular event. Each sibling presents their own version of events, usually coloured by how they feel about the people involved, and it’s up to the player to decide the truth.
While an interesting play on the fickle nature of memory, especially surrounding trauma, this feature is too underutilised to feel truly impactful. In particular, there are key moments in the final act that feel ripe for a difficult decision, which are taken out of the player’s hands, and don’t even appear onscreen. The lack of agency given in the climax of the story leaves the ending feeling rushed and unsatisfying, which is a shame as the work building up to it was spectacular.
Also a mixed bag are the visuals. The indigenous Tlingit people have a presence in Delos Crossing, and their culture is represented throughout, with vivid murals and imposing totems, making for some diverse and unique locations to explore. This is hampered slightly by an outdated engine, with juddering movement and out-of-sync facial animations knocking the immersion, despite the art team’s impressive work.
Despite its performance flaws, Tell Me Why is easily the best narrative choice-based game that DONTNOD have released since the original Life is Strange. And in some ways it even surpasses that, especially with the tight, weekly release schedule maintaining pace and tension between episodes. The story is captivating, the characters are deeply human and the world is wonderfully lively, filled with people worth getting to know. If this is the direction that DONTNOD are heading in, then the inevitable Life is Strange 3 just became a whole lot more interesting.
Verdict: 3.5/5 Paddles