If you’re already on the Dontnod adventure game wagon, Tell Me Why is the latest game to follow that trail. It just doesn’t really know how to stick to a straight path to get to anywhere satisfying.
Partnering with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios as a publisher, Tell Me Why is the latest adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment.
It follows in the now familiar footsteps of Dontnod’s Life is Strange series to tell a story about American small towns and the varied people who live there.
This time it’s a story you’ll be experiencing as the Ronan Twins in the cold north of Alaska. Tyler and Alyson. Separated after Tyler was imprisoned for killing their Mother ten years ago, they reunite in order to reconnect, deal with old wounds, and maybe get some closure.
Alyson spent her ten years having a “normal” childhood in their home town after being adopted. But she’s listless and doesn’t know what she wants from life other than to get away.
Tyler spent his ten years in a youth facility. Working to a bachelors and mentoring fellow at risk youths. He just wants to be a park ranger at a National park where he can look after animals and nature.
Both of them are very well portrayed by their respective actors. Alyson has an especially compelling edge to her voice that clips through in many of the conversations about her mother. Tyler affects an air of detached sarcasm, but when he starts talking about things that are important to his character, this softens and opens him up.
As part of that character, and something which the team was very communicative of in their marketing, Tyler is Trans. It’s not a small part of the story, with it somewhat tied up with the inciting incident.
First things first, I’m not the person to talk about this, and you should go read from a much more valid perspective than mine as to whether this is a good/sensitive/meaningful depiction.
But it is a major part of Tyler’s character and is intertwined with the narrative experience in both subtle and explicit ways.
There’s also a lot in this story about mental health. Some of which is very literal, some of which gets tied into a Dontnod style supernatural metaphor.
At one point the response to a rather graphic panic attack becomes gamified. This was a choice which left me more than a little uneasy.
There’s a noble intent in presenting these types of topics in a game that’s this supported and funded. However, it also reduces them to trite experiences. In a game that’s actually got very little in the way of minigames and choice, it feels odd to see this reduced to a timing based button press. Especially when the next one you’ll see given this much attention is fishing.
This kind of sums up how the whole game will play out in the Dontnod adventure game fashion. There’ll be conversation driven scenes where you’ll sometimes be offered a choice in your responses, then the game will shift to a small map to explore. Very rarely there’ll be a mini game, mostly it’s very basic puzzle solving through reading some text and applying contextual clues.
In terms of the dialogue and choices, options are presented in a naturalistic style. If there’s any response to give, it will float off to the side of the frame. The player holds down the left trigger and then chooses their option before a timer runs down. Choose nothing and it’s silence. In theory, I like this. It often doesn’t interrupt moving around a scene and the point is clearly to not obscure the action or slow the player.
There are some minor readability concerns though. The issue is that the subtitles still appear in the lower middle of the screen, holding your eyes there. There were occasions where I nearly missed a conversation option because I was reading the ongoing dialogue and investigating objects, and just didn’t see the prompt to respond. It’s not a massive issue, but considering how little interactivity there is, it is a mechanical mistake that couldn’t afford to be made.
The “special” gameplay mechanic here is memories and your bond with your sibling. There’s a low level “twin power” going on where, as children, the twins were always able to share thoughts and feelings through “the voice” which now allows them to revisit old memories. These then play out as actual 3d displays in the area being explored. So you’ll remember hiding a key as a kid, then follow the “memory” till you see the hiding place of the key.
It’s a mechanic that’s been done before in many games, with a slight wrinkle here.
You’re playing with two characters, remembering childhood events. So sometimes you’ll have conflicting memories of how things went back in the day. Then depending on the character you’re playing as, you choose which memory you believe to represent the “truth”.
So far, so Rashomon.
(The game actually loses points for also making this reference explicitly)
There’s a lot of the story framed in the understanding of two ten year olds trying to explain the actions of their mom trying to hurt them. Everything ends up playing out from there as they then apply an adult understanding to the mystery.
It’s an interesting spin on the variations of this mechanic (Obra Dinn) that I’ve seen before. The issue is that while the mechanic is technically set up to allow for either option to be chosen, one is “better” in that it brings you closer to your sibling. Unless you’re deliberately playing to break your bond, there’s very little reason to choose the option that upsets your sibling.
Beyond that, well, there’s just not very much interactivity in this game. One of the gameplay/puzzle sequences is just counting objects in a stock room under a timer. To be fair, the puzzles come around in a big way for the final sequence of the finale, but that doesn’t actually help matters. It just means that sequence feels out of place as a result.
For what it lacks in game design, it does make up in environmental designs, music and art. Tell Me Why is easily the prettiest Dontnod game to date.
The overarching theme of the story features the made up stories of the twin’s childhood. You’ll have access to a journal filled with these children’s stories from the first episode, which I must admit I just sat and read for ten minutes. They’re gorgeous. All of these are rendered in a picturesque fashion. Soft curves and sharp angles as if they’ve been drawn in crayons or paint. They are all uniformly beautiful.
Even back in the “real world”, Delos Crossing and Alaska are stunning.
The environments are maybe the best they’ve been in these games. Filled with texture and depth, beyond even the traditional click on highlighted objects gameplay. There’s lots of little things that really communicate the characters of the people who live in these places.
It’s a much more condensed setting than Dontnod’s last few efforts, which helps play into the three episode structure. There’s only 5-6 environments total, with the majority of the game taking place in and around the twin’s childhood home. It’s a place you’ll return to in multiple scenes as you try to clear the house in order to sell it. As a narrative choice, this is really well done, as the player gets familiar with the area at the same time as the siblings are clearing it to say goodbye. Tell Me Why compresses a lot of activity into these small spaces, in order to focus in close on their characters
Similarly, The music in particular ends up feeling particularly small scale especially as the game lacks the traditional Dontnod diagetic music moments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in a game that’s already glacially paced, there really wouldn’t have been space for them.
Tell Me Why doesn’t suit bombast or the traditional use of licensed tracks. There’s a lot of melodic piano and strings that primarily gets used liberally for emotional resonance.
For all the changes in formula though, it’s still another particularly outsider take on American culture from the French Dontnod. Life is Strange was Coastal Oregon school and suburban life. Life is Strange 2 was an all American Latino road trip through forests/desert. Tell Me Why is Rural Native Alaskan Wilderness. (I’d imagine the Rust Belt and East Coast are next on the list)
The game starts with the siblings on the only ferry into town. There’s constant talk of bear attacks and people needing guns to defend themselves while they fish or hunt. Small town Americana at its smallest. It’s not all stereotypes though. There’s obviously the usual amount of that with the characterisation, but broadly, no one’s really portrayed as good or bad for living this way. In particular there’s multiple indigenous cast members in varying roles throughout the game. (and again, please go read from someone who actually knows about these things)
Once more, it’s not something I’m placed to say is done with any particular success, but it doesn’t immediately send any red flags. It is, at the very least, out of the ordinary to see and thus interesting from the point of view of someone (like me) with no stake in that representation.
This is clearly a game with a tighter focus than most of Dontnod’s titles. In some respects, it’s a welcome change. Less scenes in an episode means less chance for chaff that will land badly, or filler material to spend time. But equally, it means any time spent on a given idea has to feel meaningful and important. Tell Me Why spends so much time building up the actions of the game in Cutscenes. They’re well shot, they do a good job of communicating character. But the problem is that Tell Me Why is already a very passive game. The memories you reproduce, tend to be locked to one specific location. You’ll literally stop moving to watch the story unfold. It’s less exploration and more information.
In terms of how the game progresses, there’s not enough even enough information to be narratively satisfying. The story struggles under the weight of trying to give equal time to Tyler, Alyson, their mother’s past and the mystery they’re uncovering. Each of the individual stories is actually reasonably strong. There’s enough material there that I’d have loved to see explored more fully. But because of the fact the game is only three episodes long, there’s just not enough space to work through each of them equally. The finale with a hitherto unmentioned aspect of Alyson’s character and the epilogue in particular feel rushed and very unsatisfactory.
It’s a theme that repeats across Tell Me Why. For all the attempts to make something narratively rich and interesting in some ways, the game stumbles in ways that it really doesn’t need to. For all the beautiful art and lush environments, there’s UI issues that don’t work or pacing problems. There’s some really interesting and fresh characterisation. But it’s wrapped up in a narrative that doesn’t get anywhere thematically consistent or actually meaningful. There’s a lot of ambition and promise in Tell Me Why. But it never delivers close to as much it should. I think the Ronan Twins and the cast of Delos Crossing are great Characters. I just wish the story and game matched them.