Tell Me Why review (spoiler-free)

By Sean Carey,
Dontnod took Life is Strange 2 in a completely different direction to its predecessor. The game was more mature, bold, and dealt with more present themes than Max and Chloe's outing. With Tell Me Why, Dontnod has gone one step further to tell a somewhat deeper story that tackles even more complex topics. While the intriguing and mystery-packed narrative is once again present with Tell Me Why, the overall package doesn't quite live up to previous titles from the developer. Still, it will have you gripped until the credits roll and the mystery is finally solved.


Without wanting to give too much away, Tell Me Why tells the story of twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan, who haven't seen each other for ten years following the tragic death of their mother. The pair grew up as sisters, but Tyler has since transitioned, and while this doesn't define him or the story, it does play a central role in the game's plot. Alyson, whose life has seemingly been on hold since the split from her brother, is planning to move on to bigger things far away from the small town of Delos Crossing in Alaska where the two grew up. After reuniting, the pair travel back to their childhood home in search of closure, but soon realise their memories of certain events don't quite align. They then set out to seek the truth about what happened to their mother over the course of three episodes.

From the get-go, you're thrown into an episodic world of mystery and feel compelled to move forward to find out more about these intriguing characters. Since childhood, the twins have shared a special bond and can communicate telepathically (it wouldn't be a Dontnod narrative adventure without some sort of supernatural element thrown in). They soon realise that this power hasn't faded and can even share and see each others' memories.


Tell Me Why follows the same tried-and-tested formula Dontnod is known for: explore an area, learn about the characters by interacting with objects, converse with others by picking dialogue options that ultimately affect certain outcomes… the standard affair that's been in place since the original Life is Strange (minus the time-bending, of course). The memories that Alyson and Tyler share serve as a primary gameplay mechanic for moving the story forward. While exploring key areas such as the twins' home, a store, or a graveyard, small flashes of light, indicating a memory one of the two recalls, can be interacted with. These flashbacks are manifested as ghost-like forms that play out in front of you. They often provide context and serve as a catalyst to move things along. However, there is a slight twist. Both Tyler and Alyson will have remembered key events differently, and you are then forced to pick between the two differing memories. Your decisions matter here and will shape the rest of the story. It's an interesting mechanic, and one that stops you in your tracks, forcing you to think about your impending choice — something that Dontnod has always been great at. What's a shame here is that the memory choice mechanic, I feel, is vastly underused. You only get to pick between key flashbacks a handful of times. Although the game is somewhat short, it maybe could have done with a couple more of these moments that twist you up on the inside before ultimately forcing you to make a decision you know will drastically change the future.

Tyler and Alyson are both well written and come across as likeable and relatable. With Life is Strange 2, I couldn't quite get on board with Sean and Daniel Diaz the same way as I did with Max and Chloe from Life is Strange. Tyler and Alyson, although not nearly as endearing as Max and Chloe, are still likeable enough to make you really care about their story and bond. However, the significant decisions and plot beats won't hit you with that visceral gut-punch that the LiS games did.


Each chapter explores numerous themes — from mental health to portrayal of transgender and queer persons — all while advancing through the plot. I can't call myself an expert on these topics, but from what I've seen in the game, each major theme has been handled carefully and with respect. Tell Me Why features the first playable transgender protagonist in a game from a major studio, and Dontnod has worked closely with not only Microsoft but also GLAAD (an organisation which fights for better trans representation in the media) to ensure an accurate and fair portrayal. These extra steps taken by Dontnod show. Tyler is a nuanced, multi-faceted character and doesn't suffer from traditional tropes often associated with transgender people in media. It's great to see diversity in video games, especially when it's handled this well.

When you're not talking to others or exploring the various locations, puzzles sporadically dotted throughout each of the game's chapters break up the gameplay. Although sometimes simplistic, puzzles such as figuring out a special code made up of pictures to unlock a door or working out the correct number of circuit breakers to power a house, make for an interesting change of pace from all the dialogue. The majority of these require you to go back through a children's book filled with stories written by the twins' mother to look for clues. The "Book of Goblins" has some decent children's literature tucked away in it, and some of the short stories are a surprisingly good read while trying to figure out a solution to a puzzle. I can't say too much about the book for fear of spoilers, but you'll be referring to it a lot, so be prepared for a bit of light reading.


Visually, Dontnod has done a fantastic job. Landscapes and environments are stunning. It's easy to get lost looking out onto a frozen lake or staring up at piercing Alaskan mountains. From character models to individual items, everything has been made to a high standard, but one area that lets Tell Me Why down is the facial animations. Pretty much every game in the Life is Strange series suffers from a distinct lack of facial movement, and so does Tell Me Why. Some are better than others, but it's often hard to try and figure out what emotion a character is trying to portray. The voice acting then becomes the only determiner in deducing a character's emotional state, and this is also shaky. A key moment which I was surprised by, for example, was nonchalantly shaken off by Tyler in a lifeless tone. At first, I had issues with Tyler's voicing, but as the game progressed, it felt as if the acting improved. This can't be said for some of the side characters who were often wooden or a little awkward. Again, this is something present in other Dontnod games, and I wish the developers could have ironed out the facial animations and voice acting with Tell Me Why.

Summary

Overall, Tell Me Why has an engaging narrative that will keep you glued until the end. Although it's not as emotional an experience as the Life is Strange series, there's more than enough there for you to care about the character's outcomes and work towards a good ending. The memory mechanic provides for some tough decision making, and the light puzzles break up the heavy dialogue and exploration, which makes for a satisfying gameplay experience. It's just a shame that Tell Me Why is dragged down somewhat by poor facial animations and some shaky voice acting at times, but if you can get past that, there's an intense and enjoyable story here that's been crafted and handled well on several different fronts.
3.5 / 5
Tell Me Why
Ethics
The reviewer spent about 12 hours exploring Delos County and unravelling Tell Me Why's mysteries. Achievements were only live for the first chapter of the game, but the list was not viewable. The game was played on an Xbox One S and a PC consisting of an i7 7700k, GTX 1080ti and 16GB of RAM. A code was provided by Microsoft for this review.
Sean Carey
Written by Sean Carey
Hey, I’m Sean! I joined both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies as a staff writer in 2019. I’m a big fan of the Metal Gear Solid series and love a good narrative adventure. Most evenings you’ll find me failing to get a win in Call of Duty: Warzone.