Xbox One, PC
August 27, 2020
Xbox Game Studios
Dontnod Entertainment is a bit of a golden child when it comes to game developers. Since their first game in 2013, they’ve built a reputation on in-depth characters and interesting stories. From the ambitious gameplay of Vampyr, to the strong narratives in the Life is Strange series; Dontnod’s games are loved by critics and consumers alike. In an age of bombastic shooter looters and open-world stealth games, it’s nice to see someone offering up something different. For their sixth game, Dontnod continue this strong showing with Tell Me Why
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I want to clarify a few things. While the first chapter releases today, with 2 and 3 to being released the following weeks; I’ve been fortunate to play the complete game. So this review will not cover only chapter one, but the entire experience. It’s also worth noting: I’m a trans writer and this game was set to be a big deal when it comes to Trans Representation, so I kind of feel like the cat that caught the canary. But Tell Me Why is a story-driven game. Its main draw is its narrative. So, to make sure you don’t have your experience ruined, this review will be spoiler-free.
Tell Me Why is a game about dealing with grief and reconciling the past. The story follows twins, Alyson and Tyler, as they return to their childhood home in Delos Crossing, Alaska. Together, the twins are determined to uncover the truth surrounding events ten years ago that tore their family apart. But it’s not that simple. The house won’t give up the truth easily, and the residents of Delos Crossing keep their secrets close to their chest. Plus, after ten years, reliving the past may prove to be too painful. As the twins dig deeper, lines begin to blur and they discover that perhaps things aren’t as clear cut as they thought.
The story and characters are the games biggest strength. Delos Crossing feels fleshed out and fully realised. There’s an air of authenticity to it all. As you explore its locations, you get a feel for what seems like a rustic, if somewhat idealised, small town. The same can be said for the inhabitants. Eddy, Tessa, Tom, Sam, and Michael all felt genuine. They speak in a sort of down to earth dialogue. Carrying out a conversation and its progression felt natural. Or as natural as video game conversations could get. There were however some moments that seemed a little forced or awkward. The worst offender was the conversations between Michael and Tyler, which reeked of shoehorned romance. But overall, this is Dontnod at their best.
The graphics are gorgeous. There’s something about the way the game renders the Alaskan wilderness that just takes my breath away. Everything has the rich, watercolour-like quality to it. Every environment feels vibrant and alive. Couple this with the stellar use of licensed music Dontnod is known for, and it all becomes a feast for the senses. But not everything looks this good. It’s clear that more effort was put into some models over others. The twins look fantastic, and Tom, Eddy, and Michael look alright, but Tessa and Sam have a bad case of the uglies. I don’t know if it’s the uncanny valley or what, but there’s something off about their models that fills me with unease.
Alyson and Tyler are the stars of the show, both literally and figuratively. Not only are they the best-written characters in the game, but they’re also the most graphically impressive. Alyson is a disenfranchised twenty-something who lacks direction in life and feels stuck in a small town. Tyler feels like her exact opposite. He’s a driven, determined young man, who thrives of structure and seems to have his life in order. Not only are we shown this through dialogue, but also through their personal effects. Tyler’s room is neat, tidy, and organized, while Alyson’s is a complete mess. But as you get to know them, you realise these characters aren’t just caricatures.
The most in-depth character would have to be Tyler. Tyler is the first playable transgender protagonist in a videogame. And as you play, you realise just how serious Dontnod treated that. A lot of care and attention went into creating Tyler. From consultation with GLADD, to major creative contributions from transgender and non-conforming staff from developer studio, and the publisher, Xbox; Dontnod has done everything they can to ensure that Tyler is a genuine, good-faith representation of a trans character. August Black, Tyler’s VA, also contributed, editing the script if he felt a line wouldn’t do justice to Tyler’s story.
So many trans characters in popular narratives are rooted in trauma and pain. They’re abused, or they’re deadnamed, or misgendered repeatedly. More often than not their desire to transition is shown as being the cause of some kind of childhood trauma. Transitioning, and the lives of trans characters are always depicted as a tragedy in three acts. But Tyler and the narrative surrounding him are different. Tyler is never deadnamed, only ever referred to as Tyler or his previous masc name, Ollie. And He’s never misgendered. And while violence does happen, it’s not his origin story, nor is it a common occurrence. His past isn’t rooted in trauma. he’s not a punching bag for the game’s cheap thrills masked as acceptance. All in all, Tyler feels like a breath of fresh air
I’ll be the first to admit I was hesitant when I heard the game would feature a trans protagonist. I’m so used to watching trans characters be absolutely trodden into the mud for the sake of a story. There’s so much violence that happens in the world towards trans and non-conforming people. You see and hear about it every day. So, it becomes overwhelming and exhausting to see it in our media. And it’s disheartening to think that for many in entertainment, Trans people are only good for cheap drama. Even Lev from The Last of Us Part II, who was a step forward for representation, suffered from this exact problem. We watched this poor guy go through hell and back just because he wanted to be himself.
I’m not saying that being trans is all sunshine and rainbows. It’s hard, and there are a lot of tough times. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster. But there’s good mixed in with bad. And, especially if you find yourself in an accepting community that loves and respects you for who you are, it can be extremely positive. But it seems like pop culture usually isn’t interested in that. That’s why Tyler feels like such a revolution, such a breath of fresh air; His character doesn’t play into any of the tropesor clichés that plague trans characters. He is trans representation done well.
Like a lot of Dontnod’s other titles, Tell me Why has a splash of the supernatural. The twins possess an ability called ‘The Voice’. It acts as a psychic link that allows the twins to share their thoughts and feelings. It also allows them to relive memories from the past. These abilities play into the game quite heavily. Whenever a memory or psychic conversation is available, the screen takes on a hazy filter. the controller will also begin to vibrate like a heartbeat; getting faster the closer you are to the memory. It’s great little visual and sensory prompt; one that clues you in instantly
This power is arguably the heart and soul of the gameplay loop. Whether it’s to solve a puzzle or gather evidence; most of your time will be spent reliving and experiencing old memories. As the game goes on, you’ll have to choose between the twin’s conflicting memories, which will influence how you approach the characters in those memories. Through their psychic link, the twins can talk to each other during conversations with others. This allows them to consult each other on their next step and opens new dialogue options.
“Almost every choice seems to play some part in the narrative. It all builds upon each other, creating this interwoven web of consequences.”
One thing I loved was that choices seemed to genuinely matter. There was never a right and wrong decision to make in a situation, every option felt nuanced and valid. And almost every choice seems to play some part in the narrative. It all builds upon each other, creating this interwoven web of consequences. In the Life is Strange series, the choices seem mostly black and white. But the protagonists of those games are kids and teenagers, and the world seems so much simpler when you’re a kid. Alyson and Tyler are adults, and so the choices they have to make are a lot trickier. Sometimes there’s no right and wrong answer when you’re and adult, especially when it comes to our personal lives. It feels like Dontnod’s adventure games have grown up, and their choices along with it.
The game isn’t without its faults. There are times where controlling Alyson or Tyler feels like trying to maneuver a slow-rolling tank. The AI’s pathfinding was just as strange. Sometimes I would find one of the twins stuck to a railing or inside a couch. Other times I would find myself constantly bumping into my twin when trying to navigate close spaces. Hair would also clip into Alyson’s face, causing hair to sprout out of her mouth and nose at times. The game also has the same problem Life is Strange did, where the frame rate would drop or stutter every so often. It wasn’t bad enough to completely pull me out of the story,, just a bit distracting. Couple this with some annoying, and superfluous minigames, and well. It quickly becomes clear the game isn’t quite a masterpiece.
- A huge win for transgender representation
- Well written protagonists
- Choice driven gameplay mechanics
- Strong supporting cast
- Engaging, interesting narrative
- Tank-like controls
- Graphical and pathfinding glitches
Despite its technical shortcomings, there’s a lot to love here. Considering the strong, satisfying story, and just the leaps and bounds it’s done for trans representation; Tell Me Why is 100% worth your time, moreso than any other narrative based game in recent memory. Its story was moving and had me on the verge of tears. For the first time in a while, I felt seen in a major title. I felt represented. Normally I would have to turn to the indie scene for any sort of good trans rep. But it seems the tide is turning, with Dontnod leading the charge. Whether other studios actually follow suit is unknown. But for now, Tell Me Why is a game way overdue; a captivating story, a huge win for diversity and a thoughtful, heartfelt experience.