Tell Me Why Review | ‘A mystery that’s best left unsolved’

Paul Tamburro
Tell Me Why Info

genre

  • Adventure

players

  • 1

Publisher

  • Xbox Game Studios

Developer

  • Dontnod Entertainment

Release Date

  • 08/27/2020
  • Out Now

Platform

  • PC
  • Xbox One

rating

Tell Me Why review for PC and Xbox One. Dontnod Entertainment’s latest adventure Tell Me Why features two telepathic twins in its lead roles communicating via reading each other’s thoughts, yet this isn’t as unbelievable as the interactions between its characters. A small-town story about two siblings trying to learn the truth behind a traumatic childhood event, its central mystery is undermined by an awkward script that doesn’t trust you to figure out its world for yourself. Instead, it is frequently derailed by its own contrived exposition, heavy-handed metaphors, and painfully slow interactive scenes.

Dontnod’s success with Life Is Strange has seen the studio return to another humdrum US town, this time with a pair of 21-year-olds with supernatural abilities. Tyler and Alyson Ronan have reunited following a traumatic childhood event, with Tyler traveling back to his Alaskan hometown to gain some closure on his old life. This includes the ongoing sale of their old home, which has remained abandoned since their mother Mary-Ann was killed in a tragic incident when they were kids.

Tell Me Why keeps things low-key despite its protagonists’ superpowers, with it instead focusing on the interactions between the Ronans and the few townsfolk around them. Tyler and Alyson slowly (and I mean slowly) unravel the reasoning behind their mother’s actions, growing more aware of the woman she was rather than the woman they had believed her to be. Throw in the twins’ unexplained telepathy and it makes for an interesting mystery, but Tell Me Why is so bogged down by plodding scenes that meander into nowhere that even its short three-chapter story outstays its welcome.

We’re told that the twins’ relationship is close, but we don’t see much evidence of that aside from in their childhood flashbacks. Instead, all scenes intended to show us their bond feature them wandering around an area, looking at things, and then discussing a memory. They refer to their mother as Mary-Ann as a way of detaching themselves from her, but while the twins tell each other that she was a terrible mom, all evidence points to the contrary. This is presumably intended to keep her as a blank slate for players to make up their own minds, but considering mostly all flashbacks depict her as loving and doting, it’s difficult to believe our protagonists’ assessment of her. What the player is told is different from what they are shown, and while Dontnod is perhaps trying to make a point about the reality of a person being clouded by our memories, it isn’t handled convincingly.

Exploring the supernatural

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Tell Me Why has supernatural elements, though they feel tacked on to facilitate more interactivity. Tyler and Alyson’s telepathy has always allowed the twins to communicate using their thoughts, but suddenly it also allows them to simultaneously view one another’s memories, too. This remains the lone plot point that isn’t examined in excruciating detail, but also the one that could have benefited from a greater explanation. Both twins react to this new development with all the surprise of someone who has cracked an egg with a double yolk inside, rather than two people discovering that they can now see each other’s thoughts.

Viewing these memories requires you to first analyze them using the right trigger, then focus in on them by holding A. You have to stand in a sweet spot to get this to work as intended. Occasionally, Tyler and Alyson will have different memories related to an incident, and you have to decide which memory is the one you choose to believe. These memories are often worlds apart, though are in-line with the differences between the protagonists and their relationships with the people around them. As Alyson says, she doesn’t want to burn bridges with the people she loves before she leaves her hometown, whereas Tyler understandably feels abandoned and betrayed by the people he thought loved him.

Living in a fairytale

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Notably, Tyler is the first transgender protagonist in a game from a major publisher (Xbox Game Studios). Dontnod worked with GLAAD in order to ensure Tyler’s character was portrayed accurately and thoughtfully, and this level of care shows. Though Tyler has suffered trauma, this isn’t inextricably tied to him being trans, a pitfall many stories focused on the trans experience fall into. Dontnod doesn’t frame Tyler’s difficult childhood as the reason for him being trans, though shows how the difficulties of being trans — particularly in a tight-knit, blue-collar community — has a damaging impact on that person coming to terms with who they really are.

One of the other more successful elements of the game is the fairytale world created by Mary-Ann, which served as the basis for Tyler and Alyson’s childhood games. With Mary-Ann referring to the twins as her ‘Goblins,’ she creates this fictional world via the Book of Goblins, which Tyler and Alyson carry around with them. While this book draws incredibly obvious parallels between Mary-Ann’s real life, which the twins are unbelievably surprised by at every turn, it adds another fantastical element to the story that leaves you guessing what is real and what isn’t.

Tell Me Why Review | The Final Verdict

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But my interest in Tell Me Why‘s story was overshadowed by its aggravatingly slow pace. Dontnod remains determined to slow down anything resembling action until the game’s final stretch, refusing to ramp things up in favor of laborious conversations until the finale just lands in your lap. This is exemplified by its interactive chores, with you being asked to routinely carry out mundane tasks such as picking up items from a store, counting the number of tomato cans in a storage room, and putting stickers on furniture. All of this is exactly as enjoyable as it sounds.

While the intention is clearly to focus on the dialogue, it simply isn’t good enough to justify such a narrow focus on it. The fact that this dialogue is completely unskippable, which is fatal to any replayability it may have had, makes it even more frustrating. I didn’t want to be stuck cleaning a coffee table while waiting for Tyler to finish his story about an old sofa — the intricacies of these character’s lives aren’t interesting enough to warrant such detail.

Tell Me Why and Dontnod deserve praise for the game’s carefully considered representation of trans protagonist Tyler, but unfortunately, the game struggles on all other fronts. It tries to make you care about its characters by way of explaining everything about them, leading to jarring interactions and tons of useless exposition. While its strong performances and central mystery ensured I still wanted to see how it all played out, I was also left disappointed by its underwhelming conclusion. Ultimately, it’s a small-town mystery that’s best unsolved, and it’s more interesting before all of its loose threads are haphazardly tied together.

REVOLUTION REPORT CARD

2.5
Rating
Box art - Tell Me Why
Strong performances across the board.
Trans protagonist Tyler is a landmark moment for games, and is handled with care.
Plodding story that rarely picks up the pace.
Awfully mundane interactive scenes.
A disappointing finale.
Awkward interactions between its characters.
Supernatural elements feel tacked on to make up for an uninteresting story.