Tell Me Why is the latest adventure from Dontnod Entertainment, and it's a valiant attempt at telling a relatable story from the point of view of a trans man named Tyler and his twin sister Alyson. The sticking point is that it's a murder mystery that feels as though it should never have been a mystery in the first place – with a little communication, the crux of the "enigma" could very well have been solved.
Dontnod Entertainment has told its fair share of emotional stories, though never without a hefty dose of angsty, borderline unbelievable dialogue. The Life Is Strange series is as interesting as it is comical sometimes, and while it doesn't always approach growing up as a teenager with intelligent motives or problem-solving methods, it's more than capable of tugging at your heartstrings. But Tell Me Why fails to do this or connect with players from the outset.
There is special care taken to treat the characters with the proper care they deserve (Tyler is never deadnamed, for example, and misgendering/transphobia is kept to a minimum) but the game still has significant difficulty when it comes to maintaining a compelling narrative. Though it should be given props for trying to weave a story about the transgender experience, it ultimately fails on so many levels that it's hard to call it a success.
Tell Me Why takes place in the fictional small town of Delos Crossing, Alaska. It follows twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan, who have just reunited for the first time in ten years. They're trying to make sense of their mother's death all that time ago, and as they return to their childhood home in a bid to sell it off (as well as the bad memories), but as they get to work, they discover some things about their past that would have otherwise been buried forever.
You see, their mother was murdered, and the circumstances surrounding her death were certainly on the unusual side, as you learn at the beginning of the game. It's believed that she may have been transphobic, as she allegedly tried to attack Tyler (then "Ollie," his first chosen name during his eventual transition) simply for being himself. As such, you have to unravel the mystery behind both what happened to Tyler and Alyson during that time as well as what was actually behind her mother's actions.
It sounds good on paper until you actually start unraveling the real story behind this "mystery." Without spoiling anything, the circumstances surrounding the event you're supposed to solve (that lead into additional mysterious happenings) are based on some seriously shaky foundations and misunderstandings that it's nearly comical (and insulting) to think that Tyler and Alyson didn't think to get to the bottom of before.
The game plays out just like the rest of Dontnod's titles as you explore your surroundings, check out points of interest, and discover clues about Alyson and Tyler's past. There's one huge difference between this game and prior titles, though. The twins share the "Bond," a supernatural link between them that lets them communicate telepathically and replay memories seen in the physical world.
This means that you'll either watch memories of the past unfold in real-time or see versions that both twin remembers differently, so you have to choose which one is the "real" order of events. Your choices lead to branching dialogue and different interactions, and they'll end up changing your relationship with the other twin (you play as each one at various times throughout the game).
This is all well and good, except for several glaring issues. For one, Tell Me Why does not paint the Ronan twins in a very sympathetic light. From the beginning of the game through events that should make them honestly think otherwise, they badmouth their mother, call her abusive, and generally act like entitled brats. It's an odd way to behave when a certain event occurs throughout the first episode that changes everything you think you know about the mystery.
They never stop to wonder if their mother was going through something difficult (i.e. the mental illness she's heavily hinted at dealing with initially), or think about how much she cared about them when she wrote them stories and created storybooks and clothing from scratch, burned the candle at both ends to keep food on the table, and leaned on someone she thought was her best friend to help raise her twins. It's constant cattiness, speaking ill of the dead, and learning that these kids never really even tried to see things through their mom's eyes – which is all the more heartbreaking when the truth comes to light.
More so, though I appreciated that Tyler being trans was mostly handled with respect, Tell Me Why has little to say on the matter to help players understand his struggles with identity growing up beyond vague references to how he felt like he "wasn't himself" or how he couldn't wait to get his top surgery. I understand these concepts as someone close to the LGBTQ+ community, but I don't know if they're points that will resonate with players to help them truly understand what it's like to grow up as a transgender man in a small town.
I don't feel that the game did enough to drive how hard this would have been home to make players sympathize with Tyler and at points even made him feel a bit unlikeable and hard to deal with due to his constant sarcastic comments and chip on his shoulder during situations you would have thought he would have been less filled with anger about – such as his sister being raised by her uncle – who else would have taken her in when there were no parents around?
There's also the matter of exploring Indigenous culture and including other queer characters such as the Tlingit queer man Michael. He's given so little onscreen time or reason to be included in the story beyond being Alyson's friend and coworker that I wonder why he was written into the game at all. It seems like a real waste of time to introduce such a great character and then relegate him to background conversations when there's a rich history to explore with the Tlingit culture as well as a great rapport to be had with Michael and Tyler when they first meet. It's odd that Michael was thrown to the wayside for the most part, as he was a great character and I wanted to know more about him.
Further, some of the game's story beats are downright nonsensical. The idea that a puzzle being installed on the twins' mother's door could keep them out despite the answer to the puzzle being right in front of them in their homemade storybook is ludicrous. It's also unbelievable to me that they could have such varying memories of situations they both saw in plain light to the point that one twin could mistake a conversation for a family friend being rude or sympathetic. Memories can be unclear, but not to this point – at least, not time and time again as the game would have you believe.
It's also strange that the twins "forgot" about having a telepathic bond and seem extremely nonchalant about it when they reunite after a decade, as if this is a completely normal occurrence. There's also the idea that they make totally odd decisions such as breaking into police records because they're told "no" one time because their uncle is busy (that doesn't mean he isn't willing to help), and the idea that the twins are looking to sell their house but turn down a cash offer because they're "not ready, but continue talking about how they can't wait to leave. Their actions don't match their dialogue (or their incessant snark) and it's just exceedingly odd.
The game is meant to be released in three parts with weekly installments, but I reviewed all three at once. I don't think it necessarily needs to be a weekly episodic title, but the excuse was given that players should have time to discuss the events of each episode. I think it's better experienced all at once and treated like a miniature movie, though it does utterly fail at bringing its story points to completion in a meaningful manner beyond that of a dime-store mystery novel that includes a great trans character ultimately squandered as an angry vehicle for "revenge" toward a mother who we're lead to believe "hated" Tyler.
I'm conflicted. On one hand, I enjoyed uncovering the truth with Tyler and Alyson, but I also realize that many of the storylines in Tell Me Why are contrived and even insulting to many players' intelligence. I can't wholeheartedly recommend the game, even though it's groundbreaking to include a trans character as one of its protagonists.
I just wish Dontnod had put more care into crafting this story, and I'm hoping, in the end, the team learns to strike a balance between the believable and the mysterious rather than jumping headfirst into nonsense here and there. I'm all for new trans narratives and characters (I'm so glad we finally got a protagonist like Tyler!), but I think we can do much better than Tell Me Why.