(Disclaimer: SPOILER ALERT! While we’ve done our very best to avoid any story spoilers for the game, the initial plot outline is made here in order for us to effectively ‘frame’ our review to you, the reader. We consider it spoiler free, outside of that main outline.)
Welcome to Delos Crossing. Something horrible happened back here in 2005. And we’re about to find out what actually occured in this cold, distant place in Alaska.
Telling a touching story in video games has luckily become more ingrained in the video game industry. DontNod Entertainment has been one of the best developers consistently bringing interesting storytelling to the interactive world of entertainment. And to spoil this review in advance, Tell Me Why is no different. Besides telling an interesting story of a torn apart family and the death of a young mother in a small and close community, DontNod have been able to tell real stories by real characters who aren’t defined by only one aspect of their character and history. The nuance that has been brought to the table in Tell Me Why is commendable.
While DontNod certainly has been able to tell a good story with Tell Me Why, it hasn’t been able to remove the video game annoyances often found in story focused projects, but more on that later. This is the XboxEra review of Tell Me Why.
Tell Me Why is about a brother and a sister in a small village in Alaska. The winters are cold and harsh, the town is often reliant on aeroplanes passing by with supplies, and there isn’t much to do in the town. But one night something happens which will be talked about for a long time in this close community.
We’re back in 2005. Tyler and Alyson Ronan live with their mother Mary Ann in a small cottage by the lake. Tyler and Alyson are twins and don’t have any other friends besides each other and the stories they’ve been creating together with their mother. Escapism is a large part of this story, both in relation to adults and children. One night changes everything for the Ronan family as Mary Ann is stabbed and falls in an almost frozen lake which ultimately leads to the separation of the twins.
The player enters the story when Alyson gets to pick up Tyler from Fireweed, a home for troubled youths where Tyler has lived for the last decade. This is the starting point of our journey, though you’ll be witnessing flashbacks from the past many times during this 9 hour interactive piece of entertainment. This is the moment I’ll learn about the town, Delos Crossing – and the reason, or reasons, of the death of Mary Ann Ronan.
Dialogue options and story
This is a typical DontNod experience, with dialogue options which will impact your relationship with either Tyler or Alyson. Meanwhile, the choices you make will have an effect on the people around you as well. But, truth be told, during my playthrough of Tell Me Why, I never had the feeling my choices really mattered. Sure, my choices impacted the relationships between characters in the small town of Delos Crossing, but it didn’t feel like it impacted the overall storyline all that much. Doing multiple playthroughs is possible and will give you different perspectives on the story, but when playing this a single time, your choices seem to lack impact on the overall storyline. Obviously, you notice you’ll get different cutscenes based on the choices you make.
The writing was decent enough. It didn’t feel corny or shallow, though it sometimes lacked impact. The night of the incident was repeated so many times during our 9 hour experience with the game that at one point it gave a ”get on with it” vibe.
Overall, the story itself was great. It was easy enough to empathise with the main characters, their actions made sense throughout the story-line and the way two characters in their twenties are reliving a world they remember from when they were children makes for an interesting perspective. If you are into DontNod games like Life is Strange, you’ll appreciate what they’ve done here.
What I found most commendable about Tell Me Why is how they’ve been able to tell a story with a transgender protagonist, without making it about solely, or even largely, about this subject. The way DontNod and Microsoft, with the help of Xbox research, GLAAD (who specialize in scriptwriting for LGBTQ characters), CheckPoint (who provide mental health support for gamers) and the Huna Heritage Foundation (who’ve helped with a realistic portrayal of Alaskan cultures such as Tlingit) have been able to create a story with great representation, without focusing on any of those specific topics should be applauded. Tyler is portrayed as a character with multiple layers and motives. Being a transgender character is only one of the many aspects of his life and identity.
Story-wise Tell Me Why will probably keep you engaged. The characters in the game are well developed and serve a purpose in the overall story, while still feeling like a natural fit in the world that has been built by DontNod. The biggest gripe with the overall story is the fact it ambles along a little too slowly at some points. When playing there are moments when I was doing all kinds of busywork (for example, getting an ID from the living room and some payment documentation from the bedroom to put into a file in the kitchen) for no purpose at all regarding the story. Things like that feel like the developers wanted to build a 10 hour game, but ran out of content in the process. It’s part of the gameplay annoyances we spoke about earlier.
At these moments you’re reminded you’re playing a game, not watching a movie. And while it’s great players been able to enjoy stories like these while giving the player control, it also creates issues regarding pacing. These moment to moment pieces of gameplay never rise above your typical walking simulator moments, except when it comes to the puzzles.
The puzzles in Tell Me Why are really well done, though be it a little too easy at times. They are refreshing pieces of gameplay between all the narrative and the walking sim gameplay. They fit into the story really well and no puzzle is ever the same. The way the developers have been able to mix these puzzles with the story has given the game a real unique feel.
DontNod have created a fantasy world within a real world. And the puzzles in this game all maneuver between those two perspectives.
The most important gameplay and story element of Tell Me Why is that of bonds and shared memories. Tyler and Alyson can speak to each other via some kind of telepathy. There seems to be a bond between the two twins, which gives them this.. superpower? A DontNod classic, it seems. It does offer some interesting dialogue options when speaking to other people in the game. Tyler and Alyson can decide together what their strategy is, when in a conversation with someone else which leads to more diverse dialogue. This means you won’t always have the standard evaluation of conversations. It just happens on the fly.
More important for the story, and in my opinion the more interesting ‘power’ the twins have, is the idea of shared memories. Tyler and Alyson can relive memories together whenever they feel emotional or nostalgic. This is how they solve large parts of the mysteries in Delos Crossing.
Art direction & sound design
While this game is by no means a technical showcase, it does a good job in not breaking the immersion too much. Sure, at some points you have a coat flapping while there is no wind, but it doesn’t happen too often that it becomes annoying. DontNod could improve on the hair tech, as I feel that’s what’s holding the game back in regards to immersion visually. Most of all, the way the developers have been able to depict Alaska is stunning. From whales jumping out of the water to amazing views and vistas, it’s a true hommage to Alaskan heritage. The buildings, the artwork and everything you see in the world feel like they belong in that place. Even though I’ve been reviewing this game in the middle of summer, I’ve felt like I was in snowy Alaska at times.
Before we come to our conclusion in this review, I’d like to give a shoutout to the music and audio design in this game. While the developers have overused the main score of the game a little too much, other music in the game is adding a lot to the atmosphere.
Tell Me Why lives and dies by the story it’s trying to tell. If you’re not grabbed by the story, chances are you won’t enjoy the game very much. Sure, the puzzles and walking sim gameplay could keep you entertained, but this is a DontNod game at its core. Fans of games like Life is Strange will have a new adventure to enjoy and truly lose themselves in. The way DontNod has dealt with certain topics within this game can only be appreciated and gives us hope for more developers to take these next steps in creating fully fledged LGBTQ characters. With the main lesson being; a character is more than their sexuality or gender.
All in all Tell Me Why is a nice 9 hour journey in a new world that’s able to keep you entertained and engaged. And if you want, you can try out different story branches by making other choices. But if you don’t like DontNod games, you should think twice before jumping in this story in Delos Crossing.
Episode 1 of Tell Me Why is available on Xbox One, Windows 10, Steam and Xbox Game Pass on August 27th. Episode 2 is releasing on September 2nd. Episode 3 is releasing on September 10th. This is a review for all three episodes.
A copy of ‘Tell Me Why’ was provided by Microsoft to XboxEra for review.