Tell Me Why is a quiet revelation. Developer DONTNOD’s output in the 2010s has been consistently good but has also shown the telltale marks of a team still figuring it all out. With Tell Me Why, DONTNOD has fully come into its own, utilising years of trial and error and refining it all down to an art.
It’s smaller in scope than you might expect but across just three episodes Tell Me Why delivers on a decade of promise and pushes the genre into sophisticated new places. It is a profoundly mature tale of loss and love made in such a way as to set a new benchmark for representation and storytelling in games.
Please Note: The review code provided to us by Microsoft granted access to all three episodes of Tell Me Why and as such the conclusions drawn here are based on the complete narrative experience. We will not be spoiling anything in the below review but references are made to the game’s content, themes and queer representation.
Tell Me Why Review
Tyler and Alyson Ronan are twins defined by their connection and shared experiences. After the tragic death of their mother, Mary-Ann, in 2005, the twins are separated for a decade, ostensibly for their own good. Alyson remains in the small Alaskan town of Delos Crossing with her uncle, confined to a place that stimies progression and breeds that peculiar kind of well-intentioned apathy. Tyler finds himself at Fireweed, an institution for troubled teens where his only genuine connections are his counsellor and a small collection of indie-rock records.
The time apart has changed both twins though. Alyson has cocooned herself in an Americana malaise, losing a sense of direction amid retail jobs and local cobblers. Tyler, who called himself Ollie (his first chosen name) the last time he saw Alyson, has fully transitioned not only as a man but one with purpose. While we see the two as children are inseparable and linked, the young adults they have become have strayed far from their initial bond, making Tyler’s homecoming a shock to both systems.
It’s early winter in 2015 and it’s time for them both to try to properly move on from the events of their childhood. The old wooden house, the only thing to their mother’s name, needs to be packed up and sold so Alyson can move to the big city and Tyler can take his degree and put it to good use elsewhere. But things aren’t quite right, echoes of the past are haunting the twins like unreliable spectral narrators of their own lives – their memories are trying to tell them something but not always the same thing.
Tell Me Why is built around these memories, utilising a loosely explained psychic link between the twins to manifest them as visual moments. When they were young they would often “imagine” being able to hear each other’s thoughts and feelings, but this childhood fancy returns to them upon coming home and what they discover through it looks to change their entire understanding of the past. Unlike Life is Strange’s time rewind mechanic, Tell Me Why only sparingly uses this supernatural element.
In certain scenes you’ll be prompted by vibrations to hold down the right trigger and A to recall a memory, watching it play out in front of you in gold spectral light form. Episode One uses this the most but over the course of the next two, it is not discarded as such but takes a backseat to the more grounded human drama of the narrative. It’s a baited hook and a thematically rich one at that, but Tell Me Why is largely more concerned with reality than preternatural goings-on.
The rest of the interactive elements are about what you’d expect from a DONTNOD narrative-focused title. You’ll be placed in rooms, buildings or limited outdoor locations and able to meander around, interacting with objects, prompting Alyson or Tyler to narrate to themselves or others what they’re thinking. There are also a handful of fantastic puzzles to solve using a childhood storybook as well as some cute, one-off mini-games peppered throughout.
The gameplay isn’t too far removed from previous DONTNOD titles but its use in Tell Me Why remains impactful. The game has countless instances where the base mechanics are used to explore moment to moment character work and the small instances that often define our lives. Packing up the house for sale and yelling between rooms about which things need to be dumped or donated, grocery shopping and being the snack decider, or even ice fishing as the sun fades away – all of these moments and more can be played with, creating a subtle but everpresent link between the player and the twins.
The lack of major innovations to the genre, or even the DONTNOD formula, might be disappointing to some but its minimalist approach is a rare case of true less is more. Tell Me Why plays with the toys in the box in fairly safe ways but it also never misses in this regard. Instead, it ends up feeling like the trappings of the genre with the excesses trimmed down and the most essential elements at the forefront.
In fact, this reserved approach to mechanics only works as well as it does because Tell Me Why has an iron grip on its storytelling. Three episodes, at approximately three to four hours each, is a markedly conservative runtime for most modern games. Especially when you take into account how much time in Tell Me Why is dedicated to just existing in a space, not necessarily moving the plot forward. It’s a focused experience and one that eschews much of what you’ve maybe come to expect from a modern game’s storytelling. The dramatic moments are gingerly deployed and land harder because of it; gone are the days of apocalyptic storms and cataclysmic decision making.
You’ll still make choices, of course, but the repercussions from them are far more interpersonal than world-changing. The inciting incident in the twin’s lives aside, the bulk of the narrative is subdued and quiet, giving time to issues and quasi-antagonists I’m not sure I’ve ever seen explored in a game before. Again, it’s difficult to discuss without delving into spoilers but Tell Me Why is a welcomed earnest look at how and why people make the mistakes that they do. There is a small hiccup in the third episode regarding a “revelation” you’ll see coming a mile off but it is thankfully brief and doesn’t detract from the quality of the rest of the narrative.
And it is, ultimately, the people of Tell Me Why that make it as special as it is. The entire cast of characters offer uniquely compelling studies in the good and bad of humanity, seldom ever just one aspect of our duality. Alyson’s friend Michael, a queer Tlingit man, stands out the most of the supporting roles, exploring the game’s core themes of found family and self-worth in an impossibly charming way. His relationship to the twins is the basis for much of Tell Me Why’s conversations around LGBTQI+ acceptance and mental health issues, both of which are done so with care and respect.
At the centre of all of this are the twins themselves. Tyler and Alyson are shockingly well-realised leads, feeling the most authentic of any characters in a DONTNOD has ever created. They share the narrative equally, which allows both to be explored in-depth and with very different results. Alyson’s story is a slow burn that eventually goes supernova with a haunting exploration of guilt and anxiety. Tyler’s almost works in reverse, from an explosive opening to a balanced and beautifully bright sun.
Excuse the flowery language but actually discussing what makes the twins such incredible protagonists without story details is bloody hard. Individually, they are two of my favourite characters this generation and together they bring Tell Me Why to life in so many ways. Erica Lindbeck’s work as Alyson is thoughtfully layered and Logan Black’s Tyler is heartwarmingly sincere. The entire cast does a fantastic job but Black and Lindbeck especially deserve high praise for embodying a brother and sister dynamic which rivals Luke and Leia.
It is worth noting here that my feelings on Tyler Ronan aren’t going to be able to adequately grapple with trans representation. DONTNOD has been consistently open with players about how Tyler was written with the help and approval of trans voices and is himself played by a trans actor. While I trust the developers, and those who helped craft his character, it ultimately isn’t up to me to tell you if it achieves what it sets out to do. There are some story spoilers pertaining to episode one that stops me from fully engaging with this topic but Tell Me Why is extremely careful to not deploy harmful tropes or trauma-based storytelling in this regard.
Tell Me Why supports its narrative and mechanical refinements with possibly the best art direction and overall aesthetic DONTNOD has ever delivered. The smaller scope of the game allows for more attention to be paid to the handful of locations you’ll visit and the end result is a collection of densely detailed spaces. Delos Crossing uses the stark natural beauty of Alaska to the fullest extent with stunning vistas and skyboxes forming the background for shops, homes and nature trails. Each of those places themselves being equally beautiful in their own lived-in way with the low hum of life in the sound design also elevating the tone.
If it falters anywhere it’s in the informal use of actual cinematography, instead opting for player-controlled camera work during many static conversations. It feels like a missed opportunity to continue the excellent work done in cutscenes, which use many cinematic techniques to great effect. While we’re talking camera work too, I so desperately wish this game had a Photo Mode. There are countless small moments that I wanted to capture; fleeting bits of sunlight in Alyson’s hair or a sly smile from Tyler that deserve to live on in my screenshot folder.
But these are minor gripes with an otherwise flawlessly executed presentation. Tell Me Why truly does feel like the culmination of DONTNOD’s heavily stylised past efforts, only now more comfortable in its choices. The game’s score is reserved and moody, punctuated by excellent use of licenced indie-pop songs that seamlessly blend diegetic and nondiegetic moments. It has a vibe unlike anything I’ve seen before and it does so by knowing that less is more. It’s easy to be cool when you’re not trying so hard to be.
In this sense and so many others, Tell Me Why shifts the goalposts for the narrative adventure genre and delivers one of the year’s best titles. It is unapologetically political in its intentions and messages, never shying away from telling a story few games would dare to do this boldly.
Stellar writing and performances are paired with refined mechanics and an overall vibe that makes the whole thing seem effortless.
It feels as though DONTNOD has finally arrived and Tell Me Why is a crowning achievement in everything they stand for.
Tell Me Why was reviewed on the Xbox One using digital code provided by the publisher.