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‘Tell Me Why’ Starts Slow but Leaves You Wanting More

A labor of love from Dontnod

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Tell Me Why: “Chapter One”

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment | Publisher: Xbox Game Studios | Genre: Adventure | Platforms: Xbox One, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: Xbox One

Tell Me Why is the latest narrative adventure from DONTNOD Entertainment, the studio behind the beloved franchises, Life Is Strange, and Vampyr. This new three-part narrative adventure— described as an intimate thriller— is being released over the next three weeks. Microsoft/Xbox were kind enough to provide a copy of the full game for review. In order to avoid future spoilers, I will be writing one review for each chapter. What follows is a non-spoiler review of “Chapter One”.

****

Set in the fictional small town of “Delos Crossing” Alaska, Tell Me Why follows twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan, who reunite for the first time after their mother’s tragic death ten years ago and use their special bond to unravel mysteries of their troubled childhood.

As you would expect from most point-and-click games, the entertainment value of Tell Me Why resides purely on its narrative. Much like Dontnod’s previous work, there are a few moments in which gameplay takes center stage, and like most walking simulators, the story branches out depending on the choices you make. According to the developers, it’s possible to take different narrative routes but no matter what output you get, sacrifices must be made— and like most games that offer players a choice, the results of your decisions – much like life itself – aren’t always satisfying.

The problem with Tell Me Why— at least “Chapter One”— is there just isn’t a big enough hook or mystery to sing its praises— at least not yet. Apart from the cold open and a cliffhanger ending, the first chapter features little or no suspense, and never once does your decision-making feel like it can place any of the characters in harm’s way. Unlike Life Is Strange, the choices you make rarely seem to have any impact on the story at large, and despite the game trying really hard to make you think it does, in the end, almost every decision you make doesn’t seem to matter much.

Dontnod's Tell Me Why Review

Gameplay

Dontnod has always experimented with gameplay and has made memories a central pillar of its mechanical and narrative design. Tell Me Why is no different. Much like Vampyr and Life is Strange, Tell Me Why is focused on the idea that two people can experience the same event but recall it so differently. This time around, the gameplay is anchored around a supernatural link between the Ronan twins that allows them to replay their memories in order to solve a mystery— a device similar to Frogwares’ The Sinking City which uses the mind palace (or better known as, Mind’s Eye) to recreate events from the past and help players investigate a scene. This technique which the developers refer to here as “bond” allows players to unravel the truth of the events surrounding their mother’s death. Collecting these clues doesn’t take much work, but your decisions will influence Tyler and Alyson’s relationship for better or for worse.

Dontnod introduces a new key mechanic to explore its characters, story, and world.

What I appreciate most about Tell Me Why is how it understands memories are not always remembered the exact same way. We tend to think of memories as information stored away in our brains for future use. In fact, most memories just sit there gathering dust and are never activated. It isn’t until you call an event to mind that you create a mental representation of what happened, and the details one person may choose to focus on will not be the same as everyone else. Beyond individual brain differences, there are various reasons why two people might have conflicting memories of the same event. The most common, however, is an emotional response— and this is something Tell Me Why understands all too well. For example, in one scene, we are shown an argument in a food market from both Tyler and Alyson’s perspective— only if we were to believe what Alyson remembers, the argument seems far more heated than that of Tyler‘s recollection.

Tell Me Why also examines how children are more susceptible to forming false narratives based on early memories and how repressed, recovered, or suggested memories may occur. The game does a great job of exploring how experiences and events as we remember from our childhood can ultimately shape who we become as adults. Despite a slow start, Chapter One does a great job of toying with the notion of memory and perspective, allowing players to decide which of the twins to believe.

Dontnod's Tell Me Why Review

This shouldn’t be a surprise but Tell Me Why places a strong focus on its characters— perhaps more so than any of Dontnod’s previous games. There is really, only one puzzle to solve in Chapter One and most scenes play out in long stretches of dialogue between the central characters. It isn’t a massive departure from the type of core play that we’ve come to expect from the French game developers, but it should be noted that the creators themselves have said they decided to take a naturalistic and simpler approach to some of the design elements. Yes, you are free to explore Delos Crossing at your leisure, but there is only so much you can do and so far, you can go. For the most part, Tell Me Why really does unfold like a short film, and for long stretches, it feels players have little control over what happens next. At times it can be frustrating in that you can walk ahead and find an item but not be given the prompt to activate a clue until you backtrack, discover something else and come back to that same item. In other words, while a player is free to roam around, there is a specific route you need to take to unlock memories, clues, and cutscenes.

Tyler is the First Playable Transgender Lead

Tell Me Why as been generating a lot of buzz due to the fact that it is the first game from a major studio to feature a playable transgender lead character— but what makes this even more special is the studio’s approach to how they decided to include Tyler. For starters, Dontnod developed Tell Me Why with guidance from a number of LGBTQ, cultural, and mental health advocacy groups in support of its characters, story, and themes. Secondly, Tyler is a fully-realized character (voiced by trans actor August Black) whose story is not reduced to simplistic trans tropes and is instead a multi-dimensional character that I am sure many other transgendered folks will relate to. And finally, Tyler being a transgender man, is not the center of the story. The real focus here is the relationship between the two siblings. For an industry that has long struggled with representation, inclusivity, and diversity, Tell Me Why should be applauded for not only making an effort but also getting it right.

Closing Thoughts

Tell Me Why is clearly a labor of love and as we’ve come to expect from Dontnod, it features a great script that combines extraordinary visual inventiveness, humour, and pathos. Despite a slow start, this is sublime storytelling, a textbook example of how indies can tell groundbreaking stories in a way that most triple-A studios simply can’t match. Don’t expect complex gameplay; instead, sit back and enjoy the ride. The stunning artistic design, great soundtrack, chemistry of the leads, and their authentic dialogue make it a pleasure to tag along.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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