In Tell Me Why, the latest from Life Is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment, you play as brother and sister duo Tyler and Alyson Ronan, who reunite after a decade to return to their Alaskan hometown hamlet and commit their troubled past to memory. The supernatural Dontnod twist, in this case, is that the Ronan siblings can communicate telepathically and stimulate visual memories of the past in the present via the resonance of sounds and the strength of emotions.
The duo use this to their advantage when solving puzzles and trying to manipulate people to seek the truth, but it’s a disadvantage when their recollection differs from one another. In many cases, Tyler will perceive the past in a different manner to Alyson, and this is where player choice becomes paramount. You’ll have to pick which side of the story you believe, and your choices will colour the wider narrative.
This is a clever idea in theory, but in many cases, the “big choice” was crystal clear to me, because I had already uncovered the evidence that proved one of the sibling’s interpretations. I’d rather they were just honest with each other and hashed this out beyond the binary mechanic. Even the game’s final flashpoint fell flat because of this – your mileage may vary of course – but it definitely feels that there’s a right way and a wrong way to progress through Tell Me Why. Across three episodes, there aren’t that many opportunities to branch off and chart your own course, so the storytelling feels stoic.
There’s also so much unnecessary, grating exposition in this game. In one of the first scenes, the siblings are on a boat together catching up when Alyson offers Tyler a gift from a character named Eddy, whom we’ve yet to meet. Tyler turns to Alyson and says: “You mean Chief Brown, as in the police officer who arrested me, and your adopted father, the man who didn’t let you visit me for seven years!”
“The Fireweed administration backed him up Tyler, they thought it was best, for both of us,” Alyson responds. It’s on the nose, groan-worthy stuff. Beyond the exposition though, there are some really lovely smaller scenes between characters spread across the story, like when Tyler is flirting in the storeroom of the local shop, or when the siblings are reckoning with old memories as they clear out their childhood home.
Life Is Strange was mocked for its use of what the writers assumed to be modern teenage vernacular, like “hella” and “shaka-brah”, but at least in that game, it was unique and charming, in a dorky way. In Tell Me Why there aren’t any silly catchphrases, just a lot of back and forths between young people that overwhelmingly feel like they’ve been written by old folks. I’m the same age as the leading characters in this game and my cringe radar was blaring on many occasions – I hope for future games Dontnod might consider getting some younger writers in the room.
The puzzles are similarly lacklustre. I’m really not keen on doing maths to fix a fusebox in the middle of a supernatural game about childhood trauma. The worst part is that there are more imaginative ideas present. The game has a smattering of puzzles intertwined carefully with the narrative where you learn new details as you go, but the rest are naturally very dull.
It made me realise how much this format can wear, especially without a strong narrative to back it up. The lack of a developing diary is also missed in Tell Me Why – I would have loved to see Tyler or Alyson take notes and go through the motions in their own heads as well as within scenes. Dontnod’s famous licensed music scenes are forgettable here too.
It’s great to see a trans character front and centre as the protagonist of a AAA video game, but it’s not for me to say whether the representation is effective. In a wider sense, I found Tyler’s story to be nuanced and moving. One scene where the siblings discuss keeping or ditching old photos of them as children was particularly insightful to his experience, presenting a situation I had never even considered.
Yet for a studio that has a history of dealing with difficult topics carefully, it was strange to see Dontnod drop the ball when depicting mental illness in the sibling’s mother, whose unexplained violent outburst plays a large part in the game’s central mystery. Tell Me Why doesn’t seem interested in exploring this important facet of the narrative, and it ended up rubbing me the wrong way as the story approached its crux. After an awesome cliffhanger at the end of episode one, the game remains quite dull until it hits an exciting stride in the final act, which uses one of the game’s few good mechanics to usher in a series of touching reveals.
Throughout the game, you’ll become comfortable with the “Book Of Goblins”, accessed by pressing the hamburger button on your Xbox controller. This allegorical index of the Ronan siblings’ childhood adventures is relied upon to solve puzzles and is responsible for the game’s most powerful scenes – the machinations of the plot click into place thanks to the teasing context found in this beautifully illustrated storybook. Yet shortly after the game’s best scene, it kills the tension once more as it reveals the big twist, an uninspired, apathetic revelation that wraps up the story on a big bum note – even the epilogue can’t escape the deafening hum of it.
I wanted to see what these characters were up to beyond the closure, so I guess I’d like to see Dontnod flesh this out into a full series, feedback on board. The characters and their lives are really interesting, but the story ultimately fails them.
I came away from Tell Me Why disappointed. It feels like a missed opportunity given the ambitious premise. More than anything, it shows that the Dontnod framework is starting to age, and reminded me that a lot of the reason I kept up with the repetitive object-based environmental storytelling in the studio’s past games is because the wider narrative was so compelling. Tell Me Why has great characters and a few lovely moments, but it squanders its mystery and manages to drag, even across three short episodes.
- Tell Me Why’s cast is full of interesting characters
- The Book Of Goblins storybook mechanic delivers upon its promises
- The game’s central mechanic is interesting in theory, but falls apart in practice
- Boring puzzles and dull scenes ensure the game drags, even across three short episodes
- Too much exposition and awkward dialogue sap authenticity from a struggling story