As a cisgender white male (him/his) it’s not my duty to speak on the behalf of others but instead to use the innate privilege I have to amplify their voices. If I’m honest with myself though I haven’t really done a great job of that, instead mostly erring on the side of cautious support rather than outright activism. Still I believe that where there are opportunities for a wide audience to experience, at least in some minor way, the way that others who don’t fit society’s normalities that it is worth exploring them so that we can better understand our internal biases and what might be influencing them. If I’m honest though that’s not what drew me to Tell Me Why in the first place, more it was that another game from Dontnod Entertainment who brought us Life is Strange. When I found out that this would also include a trans character (who is also voiced by a trans actor) I was certainly intrigued to see how it represented that experience.
You take the role of twins Alyson and Tyler who, after a tragic incident in their childhood, are saddled with the burden of having killed their own mother. The game takes place about 10 years after the incident when Tyler graduates from Fireweed, a local youth rehabilitation center, and is set to come home to start his adult life. Before they can do that though the twins need to clean out and sell their old home so that they can get a fresh start away from the burdens of the past. However as they begin the process of going through their old things it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to the story of why that particular tragedy befell them that day and they set out on discovering the truth from the town’s residents, none of whom are particularly willing to talk about it.
Tell Me Why is decidedly last gen in its graphics with the models, animations and texturing all being a bit simplistic by today’s standards. The focus was definitely much more towards building out the environments and adding detail in there rather than focusing on more detailed graphics at a base level. This does work for the parts of the game which are out in the open, the sprawling vistas of both the naturescapes and the town showing an incredible amount of detail. However you’ll only explore a small fraction of that and it becomes clear very quickly just how dated the graphics are. Stranger still is that the game will default to 30fps no matter what kind of hardware you have, giving you the impression the game is dated in both graphics and underlying code. That’s not the case of course as soon as I took off the limiter the game ran buttery smooth for the rest of the experience. Still for a studio that has some level of resources dedicated to it (especially with this being an Xbox Studios game) I was expecting to see current-gen level graphics. Not that that’s the point of this game, but still it seems like a weird thing to do for a veteran developer shop like Dontnod.
Whilst the most apt genre for Tell Me Why would be adventure it’s only barely scraping away from being a walking simulator for a large part of its play time. You’ll be spending a great deal of your time walking through the levels, looking at objects, talking to other characters and generally just milling about until you hit a puzzle. The puzzles are all self contained, most not even requiring you to hold an inventory of something in order to be able to solve it. The slight twist Dontnod threw in was the twin’s ability to use their “voice” which is essentially a kind of psychic bond that allows them to talk and share memories vividly with each other. This is the main driver for the game as the twins relive their past and begin to remember things that drive them to ask questions about what happened on that fateful night.
Walking simulators live and die by their pacing and Tell Me Why gets it mostly right with each section of the level moving along at a leisurely pace; slow enough to enjoy if you wish but not so slow as to make you impatient. There are some little niggles like items you’ve already viewed not disappearing or indicating that you’ve already looked at them, something which a lot of similar games will sometimes use as an indication that you need to interact with it again. That’s never the case here though and so you can sometimes find yourself replaying dialogue you’ve already heard a couple times when you’re trying to track down a puzzle clue or the option you need to progress. Some sections are also a bit heavier on the non-relevant items than others, which can make them feel a bit more of a grind than they need to be.
The puzzles are pretty simple, most of them requiring you to just look around for the right item or memory to trigger the next section. There are a few that require reading through the “Book of Goblins”, basically a collection of stories that you and your mother wrote, which is probably as challenging as it gets. Most of them are pretty obvious although some require a bit more lateral thinking. However none of the progression blocking problems rely on you being able to figure these things out, instead giving you a different option to progress (which often means getting no achievement for that puzzle). Whilst I never needed to make use of that it’s good to know it’s there if you’re really, truly stuck on something.
The game is also episodic but each chapter came out so quickly that by the time I got around to it all of them are already available. The episodes were released pretty close to one another which makes me think that this wasn’t a game that necessarily needed to be episodic but just was because that’s how Dontnod has done them in the past so, hey, why the heck not for this one? Personally I’m still not seeing the need for episodic content releases for games like this anymore, especially for veteran developers who have the people power required to actually get the thing done before release date.
That being said though there still a few areas needing a bit of polish (forgetting for a second the 30fps cap and the last gen graphics for a second). Interacting with things is a bit of a hit and miss affair, the option often not highlighting unless you’re over the exact point required. This gets all sorts of finnicky if there’s multiple items right next to each other which can trigger the aforementioned repeated dialogue issue multiple times over. Triggering other character’s behaviours is also a bit janky, especially if you do something slightly out of order. Most things are accounted for but sometimes you can break a sequence by clicking on something at the wrong time and interrupting something another character was doing. Thankfully leaving the area and coming back seems to set it right again, but it’s just another thing that needs a bit of love given to it now that the game is content complete.
Of course the main draw card of Tell Me Why is the game’s story and the representation of its LGBTQ+ characters. I honestly can’t comment on how well it does the representation but given they consulted with GLAAD and have a cast that contains them I’d hazard a guess that chances are good that it’s not complete garbage. The small town dynamics definitely lend credence to the way the story plays out as I don’t think it’d work as well in any other setting (given how into each other’s business everyone seems to be). I definitely felt for the characters and the last moments of the final chapter definitely had me rethinking my entire experience with the game until I made the final decision. I’m being deliberately light on details here as to say anything is likely to get into spoiler territory quickly but suffice to say I think it hits its main points well, even if overall it didn’t really leave much of a lasting impression with me.
Tell Me Why is another solid story first from Dontnod Entertainment and one I hope sets a trend for more to come. It’s not the most well crafted game out there: with its dated visuals, simplistic puzzle mechanics and a few sections still needing some polish post release, but the overall experience is one I think worth playing through especially now that all the episodes are out. I feel that the developers have achieved what they set out to do here and I hope that it encourages other developers to create more titles in this space.
Tell Me Why is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $39.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8.3 hours playtime and 66% of the achievements unlocked.