Tell Me Why Review
It’s been days since I’ve finished Tell Me Why, from DONTNOD, but I’m still thinking about it. To answer your first question, no it’s not another Life is Strange game. But it could have been. It’s got a lot of the same aspects – a choice-based episodic story, duel protagonists, a small town setting, a search for the truth. But it feels different somehow, more mature. The story of Alyson and Tyler Ronan as they dig up the past to find out where their lives went to hell just grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. I would give it full marks in every aspect, except for the disappointing way it ends.
Tolstoy once wrote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Tell Me Why, twins Alyson and Tyler reunite after a long time apart, and embark on a quest to learn the secret of their family’s unhappiness; specifically, they want to know why their mother went mad one night and attacked them as children, resulting in them killing her in self-defense. In their childlike memories, it was an unfathomable, inexplicable event that set in motion a downward spiral – Tyler was sent to a juvenile detention center, and Alyson went to be raised by Eddy, the town Sheriff. As the saying goes, “the truth will set you free,” and they know they must dig up the truth of the past to free themselves and the family’s legacy from its bonds.
However, uncovering the truth is not an easy thing to do in Delos Crossing, Alaska, where the story takes place. It’s a fictional representation of the “typical American small town,” where everyone knows everyone and jovial small talk of fishing and the weather abounds. It’s an archetype we all know so well by now that we almost instinctively expect the polite, friendly surface to give way to the inevitable dark underbelly. As the twins soon learn, something is indeed rotten in the state of Delos Crossing, and they must find out what.
Under the Surface
But Tell Me Why impressed me in how it continually resists cliché. Oh, make no mistake – the still waters of Delos Crossing do run deep with secrets and untold stories. But, as in any good tale, you’ll be hard pressed to find an outright villain here. Instead there are mostly just human beings making choices, and mistakes, and doing the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. You may, if you wish, decide someone is a villain and tell them in no uncertain terms – that is your choice as a player.
Tell Me Why presents some of the most well-developed and believable characters I’ve seen yet in a video game. You can really see the growth in DONTNOD’s storytelling from the original Life is Strange, to its prequel, its sequel and now Tell Me Why. While the first Life is Strange gave us fascinating people to really care about in Max and Chloe, it had its well-known cringy moments of stereotyping and “hella-cool” teen lingo. I saw a real step forward with Life is Strange 2, with Sean and Daniel Diaz and their friends feeling more like genuine teenagers, even if the social-justice message was a bit earnest at times.
In Tell Me Why, there are the signature socially-conscious themes, but they are subtly embedded into the story in a way that feels organic and natural. Tyler Ronan is a transgender man, and this is important to the plot but not central to it. His sister Alyson’s adopted father, Eddy, is an indigenous man, but Eddy’s ethnicity is not his defining quality in the story. Tessa, an old friend of Alyson and Tyler’s mother, is of Filipino background but again, you will only learn this by paying attention to oblique references throughout the game (like the inclusion of “Pancit” on her restaurant’s menu).
The diversity of characters and cultural references in Tell Me Why felt authentic and truly representative of society today, and I felt as a player that a lot of effort was put into making Delos Crossing and its inhabitants feel real. That made the story so much more engaging, and the choices foisted upon me along the way so much more impactful. Making decisions that alter the fate of a character is so much tougher (and more satisfying) when you feel like they are real people, and not just “types.”
A Great Ride That Doesn’t End Well
Sure, there are some annoying moments. Tyler in particular sometimes came across as overly snarky, and the dialogue options in conversations didn’t always match with what I would have chosen in a given situation. I was almost embarrassed at times, being forced to say something rude to another character when I didn’t really want to. And there were still a few times where the twins’ banter tried too hard to sound like “hip twenty-somethings.” But overall, Tell Me Why feels much more authentic than DONTNOD’s previous games.
Yes, these are real people, dealing with some of life’s biggest issues – family, personal identity, and the effects of the past on the present, to name just a few. Tell Me Why handles all of these themes with compassion and care, asking a lot of questions but mostly leaving it to you to decide on answers, if you want them. Throughout the course of the story, you are presented with two differing memories of the past – Alyson’s and Tyler’s – with your role being the decider as to which one is “true.” It’s a fitting metaphor for the personal and subjective nature of truth that Tell Me Why uses as another recurring theme.
That brings us to the game’s biggest disappointment, though. Yes, Tell Me Why does “tell you why” by the end – kind of. But as you have done all the way so far, you’ll have a role in creating that final “why.” You’ll be presented with a choice of endings that each explain what happened all those years ago, each in a different way. By making the subjectivity of truth and even the past foundational to the narrative and gameplay, Tell Me Why paints itself into a bit of a corner by the end. The one time I was looking for a definitive answer, I was told to create it for myself. It also didn’t help that neither optional ending was quite as mind-blowing as I was expecting.
So, that’s why I am still thinking about it even now. I enjoyed playing it thoroughly, except at the very end. You could say that Tell Me Why is about the journey and not the destination, and that journey is indeed a compelling one. And it’s complex; with violence, dysfunction and mental illness featuring prominently, it’s a dark tale in many ways. But it is also one full of hope as well – in the unlikely love that can bring two outsiders together, in the mental bond that literally connects two siblings, and in the liberating power of the truth. You’ll come away from playing Tell Me Why feeling a lot of things – sadness, optimism, confusion, disappointment. I can’t tell you which of these you’ll feel when you play it … but you should play it.
** An Xbox One game code was provided by the publisher **
- Compelling story
- Realistic, well-developed characters
- Impactful choices
- Weak ending
- Limited dialogue choices