Tell Me Why might just be Dontnod's most grounded and human experience to date. Ever since they stepped into making interactive dramas, directly competing with the likes of Quantic Dream and Telltale Games, their creative output has managed to stand on its own with human characters and genuine emotional struggles.
But rather than mix elements of the fantastic like time travel or telekinesis like in their Life is Strange series, this installment goes for a lighter touch. Which is a good thing, since this three-episode story tackles some genuinely difficult subject matters, including death, trauma, anxiety, and the effects they can have on a community, friends, and even your closest family.
Episode 1 of Tell Me Why starts this dynamic off admirably. You play as Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twin brother and sister returning to their childhood home in the small fishing village of Delos Crossing, Alaska. It has been years since the two have seen each other again, and they haven't exactly returned home to catch up. They have grown up into very different people, something their old friends and associates noticeably struggle with. On top of all of that, they are planning to sell their mother's old home, hoping that it can give some closure to her tragic death 10 years ago.
The first thing that comes to mind about this first episode is how lean it is compared to Dontnod's other experiences. Reducing the number of episodes from five to three means a lot less ground needs to be covered, and with it comes a tighter focus. Deviations like subplots or side activities are practically non-existent, which lets the main narrative play at its own meditative pace.
There are at least two spots in Tell Me Why's first episode where Tyler and Alyson just sit down, take in the scenery, and talk about what is going on. If it was any other experience, it would come off as indulgent and pretentious, but the subject matter the game explores does carry a lot of weight.
Within this three-hour-or-so experience, a lot is set up. Tyler has been out as a transgender man for several years, leading to a lot of double takes from locals who knew him and his mom, as well as some low-key small town prejudice. This was a plot point that Dontnod consulted several gender and mental health experts on, and in a medium that too often uses LGBTQ characters as either token representation or well-meaning but poorly implemented inserts, and the result is absolutely stellar.
Furthermore, there is the inherent emotional burden of returning to a point of adolescent joy that has been forever tainted by great personal tragedy. Finally, there is a great need for answers regarding how their mother died and what secrets she may have kept from her kids—secrets that people close to her were compliant in hiding.
That is a lot to handle for any creative endeavor. Tell Me Why not only expresses it in the story's cutscenes, but includes dialogue options and moral choices. The closest thing to a supernatural element the game introduces is the twins' ability to mentally communicate with one another, a sort of talent they've had since they were kids. This spills over into how the game visualizes childhood memories, where the twins remember certain events playing out differently. Tyler might see things from a more defensive and confrontational standpoint, while Alyson leans more into an empathetic mindset.
This is part of the Bond system. Depending on what memories you choose to believe or how you interact with certain characters will have a notable effect on Alyson and Tyler's relationship as well as how the story progresses. Even in Episode 1, some of these choices are hard to parse. A highlight comes near the end where Alyson has to side with her brother or her foster father, who just happens to be the police officer that handled their mother's murder case. The conflict almost comes to blows, and the emotional stakes are palpable.
The closest thing to a complaint I have about Tell Me Why is practically a staple of Dontnod's writing: its relentlessly twee approach to environmental storytelling and diegetic puzzle-solving aids. In this game's case, the Ronan family's extremely creative upbringing led to their own homemade book of fairy tales titled The Book of Goblins. As adorably hand-drawn as it is, flipping through kids' handmade fairy tales for clues to a puzzle gets annoying really fast.
But even if the use of corny and overly sentimental personal art wasn't something the studio has built a lot of its charm on, in Tell Me Why, it comes with a distinctly melancholic tinge—the old adage “you can never truly go home again” in gameplay form.
Tell Me Why Episode 1 is mostly about setup, but what it chooses to focus on can be emotionally draining. If any of the above-mentioned subject matter is potentially triggering for you, this might be a contentious experience. However, it is clear Dontnod have done their homework when it comes to emotional literacy and thematic storytelling, leading to some affirming and beautifully cathartic moments. Where they go next only gets rougher from here, but thankfully they put in the work to set one hell of a foundation.
TechRaptor played Tell Me Why on PC via Windows with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also out on Xbox One and via Game Pass. Episodes 2 and 3 release on Sept. 3 and 10, respectively.