The latest title from Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment, Tell Me Why, delivers a smaller but just as captivating story about a pair of twins — Tyler and Alyson — who can communicate telepathically with one another and relive their memories.
They're are reunited after being pulled apart a decade prior following an altercation that resulted in their mother’s death. As they clear out their childhood home in Delos Crossing, Alaska, they discover something that transforms how they perceive this childhood trauma. This leads them to question everything they thought they knew about their friends and family as their supernatural powers emerge.
Only the first episode of Tell Me Why has been released thus far. The full scope of all three chapters is even more intriguing than it seems at first, with an intimate story uplifted by a diverse and well-developed cast of characters. Tyler is also an openly out transgender man, so for him to have a leading role in a major game published by a console manufacturer like Xbox feels like a huge step forward in terms of representation in games.
Even if occasionally lackluster gameplay and sub-par animation subtract from the game’s overall magic, Tell Me Why still offers a refreshing narrative with character archetypes we almost never see in mainstream media.
Going back to your roots
While slow-paced, Tell Me Why manages to keep you engaged thanks to its memorable characters, each with a lot of depth. This story feels more personal than all of Dontnod and Xbox's other offerings. There aren’t any world-ending stakes here. It’s a tightly knit mystery and character drama about a few people in a small Alaskan town with a few supernatural elements mixed in.
Alyson and Tyler were separated 10 years before the events of the game because their mother, Mary Ann, seemingly attacked Tyler after she found out that he cut his hair for not identifying as a woman. Now in their early 20s, the Ronan twins are reunited and discover that the truth behind what happened may be far more complicated than they remember.
So Tell Me Why in some ways flips the script on what we've unfortunately come to expect from tropes that so often showcase violence against transgender people. Tyler and Alyson learn that many of the people they were closest to in Delos Crossing, like the owners of a local store and the Police Chief, may not be what they seem.
Over the course of the three episodes, players learn more about Alyson and Tyler’s mother and the people of Delos Crossing. Tell Me Why also explores the limits and flaws of the superpower allowing the twins to communicate telepathically and visualize memories in real-time. While side characters never take over the story, many of them do have their own interesting histories and fleshed-out motivations that make them feel like real people that exist beyond their supporting roles.
Keep in mind that this is a very slowly paced mystery, rolling out more like True Detective than an episode of CSI. This first episode in particular doesn’t have much narrative momentum, but after a bit of early meandering, the story picks up and feels more coherent when you get the full picture. For that reason especially, it feels best played in a binge or with short gaps between episodes. If that's appealing, wait until all three episodes are out on September 10 before you play it.
Life is still strange, just not as exciting
Tell Me Why’s full three-chapter story is one of the best in 2020, but its gameplay and presentation aren’t nearly as exciting. Gone are the time-bending powers of Life is Strange. The Ronan twins’ supernatural memory abilities are much more personal, and the gameplay reflects that, for better or for worse.
The choose-your-own-adventure style of dialogue that Telltale and Dontnod games are known for remains, along with the butterfly effects these choices cause for the many character relationships. You’ll spend a lot of time wandering around various parts of Delos Crossing as Alyson or Tyler, whether it be their childhood home, the local store, or the police station. It's a lot of taking in the scenery and talking.
Genuinely intriguing puzzles help mitigate these more passive sections. Using a book of fairy tales from Tyler and Alyson's childhood, players must decipher the meaning of certain stories or art with them to solve puzzles. It makes for a novel and rewarding bit of puzzle-solving that also provides a feeling of familial intimacy and leaves you wishing that more games had puzzles just like this.
Beyond that, Tell Me Why is a standard narrative adventure game with an Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture-like memory mechanic: Alyson or Tyler can re-experience childhood memories that are triggered by specific locations around Delos Crossing.
These scenes are animated with more abstract models, but that’s okay as Tell Me Why’s visuals and presentation are a bit lacking for a 2020 game anyway. While many of the game’s various frame rate and texture issues or bugs will probably be patched out before all three episodes are released, Dontnod’s typical style is starting to show its age.
Character models all look dated, with animations that are stilted and don’t always sync up well with what the character is saying or doing. Excellent performances from the actors and occasional moments of natural beauty definitely save this part of the game, but Tell Me Why lacks some of the technical polish you’d expect from a Microsoft-published game.
Those that can ignore the lack of visual polish and some boring gameplay will still find a lot to enjoy with the story, though.
True innovation in representation
It’s a bit surprising that a major publisher like Xbox is the first to focus on transgender representation in such a mindful way. Tyler’s arc as a transgender man coming to terms with his rough childhood avoids many of the derogatory pitfalls that LGBTQ+ representation often fall into.
While his journey does have its hardships, the narrative structure never punishes outright Tyler for being transgender beyond that initial plot hook. If players so chose, Tyler can enter into a healthy and supportive romantic relationship, and there are no dire consequences hanging on the horizon like in so many comparable stories.
Tell Me Why’s diverse cast also includes representation for oft-ignored cultures in media, specifically Alaska's native Tlingit, along with the Filipino Catholic community, which are surprising to find within its small cast. The entire cast delivers exceptional performances, particularly Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Erica Lindbeck and August Black as Alyson and Tyler, respectively.
No other mainstream games, not even The Last of Us Part II, have told a story featuring LGBTQ+ characters that’s as respectful as Tell Me Why. For that alone, it is a game worth playing, though its gripping mystery and great performances will be what makes you stay. We recommend you wait until all three episodes are out so you can play it at your own pace, but even if you don't, you won’t regret experiencing this story. 8/10.
Tell Me Why is out now for Xbox One and PC.
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