‘Tell Me Why’ Review: More Narrative Excellence From ‘Life Is Strange’ Makers
Alyson and Tyler Ronan haven't seen each other for ten years. We witness their reunion in the opening moments of Tell Me Why. It's a quite exceptional scene - this brother and sister are twins, and as any set of twins will tell you (I speak from some experience, as I have twin brothers), they have a connection that means it's rare indeed for them to spend so much time apart. But as extraordinary as this scene is, it's amongst the most grounded you'll see throughout Tell Me Why's opening chapter - its first of three, which releases today.
That's because this is a Dontnod game - and as you'll know from the French studio's Life is Strange series, what seems unlikely in the regular world is always made rather more mundane by more supernatural happenings. This first manifests itself as a literally unspoken bond between the pair that allows them to communicate telepathically (I checked with my brothers - twins can't actually do this). So, you'll soon be able to have interactions with NPCs in the game where Alyson or Tyler will speak to the third party, but the twins also exchange comments and observations in secret. These options are toggled using the left and right triggers before selecting a dialogue option.
But this voice, this bond, has a darker side to it, which begins to creep into proceedings, physically, come the climax of chapter one - which much like an episode of Life is Strange, will take between two to three hours to finish, depending on the choices you make, your penchant for exploration, and how many memories the pair share you bring to life through activating certain glowing (and pad-buzzing) spots. These recollections reveal that Tyler and Alyson don't quite remember their shared upbringing, before they were seperated, in the same way - and it's through this doubt that Tell Me Why's strongest narrative pull takes hold of you. Is the account you both believe right now actually how it went down?
As a story-focused experience, Tell Me Why isn't a game to dig too deeply into in a review, because spoilers are a thing and you will really want to go into this as freshly as possible - especially if you loved the adventures of Max and Chloe in the original Life is Strange, or the brotherly camaraderie of Sean and Daniel in its sequel. But, to paint a picture of what's going on, in the broadest-possible strokes: the Ronan twins go back to their childhood home in Alaska to sell it, since it's been sat abandoned (although, maintained by a family friend well enough for it to not be particularly dusty) for a decade, but discover that what they thought they knew about their mother, and a dramatic confrontation between her and Tyler, might not quite be true.
Tell Me Why taps into very relatable themes: misremembering events of years gone by, and hanging onto half-truths and outright lies long enough for them to have taken root as exactly what happened, in your memory. Its twin protagonists are both loving to each other and able to flare up and argue, qualities that I'm sure any player with siblings will recognise.
The other characters they meet, around the fictional town of Delos Crossing, feel well-rounded and believable, no two alike, and there's a subtle touch to how the game handles its transgender beats. Tyler is a man in the game, and has identified as male for most of his life, but as his mother says to him in one flashback: "You'll always be my daughter."
Much was made of Tell Me Why's introduction of gaming's first playable transgender character at release, but while Tyler is reminded of his past on more than one occasion, and his mother's appreciation of his identity is a key narrative theme that runs through proceedings, it doesn't feel like his identity is used as the most prominent aspect of the story.
It's there, it's an important part of what makes Tyler who he is, and it adds colour and weight to each revelation without ever being the biggest hook; but as someone who's not lived that life himself, I can only comment on its handling of Tyler's situation as an outsider. This is a game where, if you really want to know how it fares in relation to the reality of transitioning, you should read assessments by transgender critics (and I'll be sure to add some, if they're available, at the end of this review).
There is cautious nuance and storytelling steadiness throughout Tell Me Why. It never hits the dramatic heights of Life is Strange, but then, it's not about the saving or sacrifice of a whole town. Its stakes are dialled down, but no less affecting in their delivery. It's a slow-burner, but it's very comfortable in its skin, too. Poking around in police stations and grocery stores doesn't sound too thrilling on paper, but the back-and-forths between the twins keep even the most unremarkable situations fizzy, even before they (and you) unlock a memory or two, in the location in question.
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There is fantasy beyond the fantastical elements of the game's (relatively) contemporary setting, too, as we get to learn about Tyler and Alyson's creative past, when they'd pretend to be goblins and write fairytale-like stories involving themselves and other characters - frogs and pelicans and mooses, which may or may not relate to real people who orbited their family group, back when. Pay attention to these tales, as some of the game's puzzles rely on them.
There are slight annoyances in the way Tell Me Why actually plays. Interactive elements of the environment - press A to open a drawer, for example - can be oddly fiddly to line up with, and it's not uncommon for the other twin you're not controlling to go and stand in a doorway you need to pass through. At times the visual prompts to press a certain button, or even important text, can appear washed-out against the backgrounds. Character animations can feel a little stiff, but there is an aesthetic consistency to the whole game that ensures that humans never look out of place against where they're standing.
Indeed, there are moments in the game where you'll just put your pad down and enjoy the views, as the Ronans' home backs onto a frozen body of water surrounded by snow-capped mountains. An early ferry crossing in chapter one also allows you to drink in the sights, and sounds, of Alaska, as a humpback whale beautifully breaks the surface of the water on the port side. With crunchy snow and ice under boot and thick scarves and padded jackets on characters, Tell Me Why does a great job of placing the player in America's frozen north, and makes it look like a very appealing holiday destination, indeed.
With its three chapters releasing across three consecutive weeks, Tell Me Why shows that Dontnod has learned from the criticism of Life is Strange's more erratic release schedule, and that will hopefully see more players reach this game's ending - assuming they muddle through some of the first chapter's more ponderous moments (uh, getting into the house is a chore). It might have fewer episodes in total, but it feels no less complete in comparison to its predecessors. And while it plays incredibly similarly to the Life is Strange games, the characters of Alyson and Tyler don't really come across as a part of that world. Rather, they feel closer to our own, where time travel really isn't a thing (right?), but muddled memories and people not getting their stories straight most certainly are.
A lot of families hide pasts that, well, those living in the present day would rather not talk about. The Ronan twins' past is one touched by darkness, by actions and individuals who they have, understandably, pushed to one side. Going through this journey of rediscovery with them is a sometimes shocking but often joyous experience, and if you're someone who loves a tender yet twisted narrative adventure, Tell Me Why absolutely deserves your attention.
Pros: Slow-burning storyline that digs into very relatable themes, supernatural elements feel well connected to the 'real world', wonderful vistas to fall in love with
Cons: Some control quirks where interactive elements aren't easy to bring up, first chapter is a little slow to get going, if you accidentally interrupt a line it won't be repeated (which other narrative games manage)
For fans of: Life is Strange, The Wolf Among Us, Afterparty, good books and warm fires
Tell Me Why's first chapter is available today, August 27th, for Xbox One and PC, with chapter two following on September 3rd and chapter three on September 10th. Review code covering all three chapters was provided by the publisher, Xbox Game Studios. A guide to GAMINGbible's review scores can be found here. If you want to see what other writers with more first-hand experience of its themes have to say about the game, I recommend you read Stacey Henley's review for Gamesradar+, Sam Greer's chapter one assessment on PC Gamer, Jade King's review at Trusted Reviews, and Leon Killin's review on Gayming.
Featured Image Credit: Xbox Game Studios