One of the greatest strengths of Dontnod's storytelling throughout Tell Me Why has been how it has sidestepped certain common narrative pitfalls, particularly in terms of mental health and gender identity. After all, good intentions are nothing without good execution. Now that it is all out in the wild, I am utterly impressed with how the whole experience flowed together, like a prestige TV miniseries. It is simply put a fantastic refinement of the episodic narrative experience that keeps building on its own themes and foundations until the credits roll.
Note: This feature will spoil crucial plot points revealed in episodes one and two of Tell Me Why, and potential light spoilers for Episode 3 but nothing major. Read at your own discretion.
Episode 1 revealed that despite major difficulties with making ends meet and pressures from certain peers, Mary-Ann Ronan was supportive of Tyler's identity, albeit in a passive, implicit manner. This was not a major lifestyle choice made from trauma, but a natural decision made by Tyler. It also revealed that on that tragic night, while Tyler was institutionalized for claiming he ended up killing his mother in self-defense, it was actually his sister Alyson; a lie to give her a better future.
Episode 2 continues with more twists and turns with how the community of Delos Crossing both acted and reacted to the economic anxieties of the Ronan family. After diving into records, it was revealed that Alyson's adopted father, Chief Brown, called child protective services on her mother, and that members of the community corroborated an unsafe environment. This moment of stress played a key role in that fateful night.
This revelation utterly taxes Tyler and Alyson's relationship. The sheer clash of what they believed to be real and the actual facts blending and mixing between their memories, the stories they entertained themselves with, and the cold facts they continue to unearth—some of these facts are so concerning it even leads to the twins separating by the end of the second episode.
Just when you think Tell Me Why will go to more conventional storytelling tropes, it keeps its focus grounded in human wants and a noticeably topical atmosphere. It's a story that is just as much about finding closure and affirmation as much as it is about the unreliable nature of nostalgia.
While the final episode does continue a lot of these themes and takes the characters to a natural, player-choice-driven conclusion, there were a few parts that didn't completely work or started to lean on artificial video-game tropes.
The tone is set right away when the episode opens on Alyson having her very memories turn on her—a constant barrage of personal attacks driven by guilt, escalating into a full nightmare sequence. The next scene has her running outside and using smart phone's app-guided breathing exercise to work through the resulting panic attack.
What was once comforting is now seen as hostile, a dire shift that has greatly affected Alyson and, to a lesser extent, her brother.
This does help bolster what is the weaker part of the episode: following up on the mysterious attack that happened to the barn and unraveling the final reveal that someone else may have been present and had a role in driving Mary-Ann to a violent end.
This is where some of Tell Me Why's video-game artifice gets in the way of the character-driven decisions so far. There are too many contrived breadcrumb trails and red herrings meant to funnel the twins to one final confrontation and moral decision. It's the kind of game logic where a random photograph holds the secret to an entire treasure trove of lingering, unanswered questions. It feels a little too forced and a little too neat in a story that is all about the messy and tragically human ways we deal with troubles in life.
Thankfully, Tell Me Why's conclusion does contain a lot of what I loved as well. There's an extended scene of Tyler and Michael icefishing together that hits the right beats, and the entire epilogue and resolution (at least the one I got) was a satisfying but harsh emotional twist of the knife.
As I mentioned before, Tell Me Why might just be Dontnod's most focused and refined drama to date. They took a risk shortening the whole experience to three episodes rather than the standard five, and to have the episodes release a week apart as opposed to several months.
Practically speaking, this meant their scope had to be severely reduced. There are maybe five unique locations in this entire game tops, but it makes the entire experience akin to classical theater. The entire focus is on the twins' journey, and by necessity the whole thing has to be lean and to the point.
The weekly release schedule helps keep discussion and discourse about the game's events fresh in players' minds—memories are short, culturally speaking—and it helps every single installment settle before the next one arrives. If this became the new norm for Dontnod's interactive dramas going forward, I will gladly look forward to each and every one of them.