Tell Me Why review: Heartfelt teen drama hits all the emotional notes

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Just when you thought you’d seen the last of episodic storytelling in video games, developer Dontnod Entertainment is keeping the flame alive with their unique brand of interactive teen dramas. The studio had already solidified their success at doing so with two Life is Strange titles, but now they’re looking to push the envelope once again by featuring the first ever playable transgender character in a major game.

Pacing issues aside, Tell Me Why is another gripping tale unafraid to tackle tough subject matter, made all the better by a locked-in release schedule that means you aren’t waiting long to see what happens next.

Tell Me Why almost entirely takes place within the picturesque Alaskan town of Delos Crossing, the amiable locale where twin siblings Alyson and Tyler started growing up before becoming separated for the next 10 years after the passing of their mother, Mary-Ann.

This passing is the inciting incident behind the twins’ return after years away from home and each other, an incident that could allow them to finally come to grips with their childhood trauma.

A lot can change in 10 years, especially people, and watching Alyson and Tyler reacquaint themselves with one another after a decade apart feels genuine and honest. While the twins talked through letters and the internet, those distanced methods of communication are often cold and challenging. It isn’t until the pair come face-to-face that they can even begin to relate. While at first their interactions are relatably awkward, it doesn’t take long for the pair to act as twins do: one montage sequence even sees them darting and dancing around their childhood living room.

Of course, as they begin to rekindle their sibling relationship with each other, you’ll learn more about their lives. You’ll discover that Alyson’s been trapped in a rut, stuck in the game’s small, snowy town that the modern world forgot. On the other hand, Tyler has fully transitioned during his time away from home, truly becoming the person he is today.

I had my skepticisms regarding Tell Me Why’s handling of a transgender character, but despite my point-of-view as a cisgendered person, I definitely came away with a greater understanding on what the process or transitioning is like by the story’s end. If nothing else, Dontnod should be commended for this effort;  you can tell they’ve done their research. Some interactions areawkward at first; those who knew Tyler as a child must rediscover an old friend, one who appears very different to how they once new him, but as Tyler continues to find himself, so do the old and new residents around him.

If you’re worried about trans representation within Tell Me Why, Dontnod has included a spoiler-filled FAQ so that you can learn more about how Tyler’s character is treated in the game. If you wish to learn more, click here

From a gameplay perspective, Tell Me Why doesn’t do a lot differently from Life is Strange. As Tyler and Alyson begin to uncover their spoiler-filled family mystery, you’ll be tasked with investigating various locations of the town – including your childhood home, the local store, and police station – gathering clues and making all-important dialogue choices. Any potential tedium is avoided, however, thanks to environments boasting an incredibly accurate ‘lived-in’ feel. Books are littered on shelves; drawers are full of things to rummage through and almost every nook tells its own story.

Aside from this, Alyson and Tyler share a unique twin connection called The Voice, which not only allows them to converse in each other’s heads to avoid eavesdropping, but also lets them recall prior events as memories. This ends up being a vital tool in solving the purpose behind their mother’s death, as at various points in the story shadows of the past will appear before you and inform your decision making. It wouldn’t be a Dontnod episodic adventure without an element of the supernatural, after all, though it luckily doesn’t take away from the spectrum of emotions Tell Me Why explores.

Usually with episodic games like this I’d be quite limited in the opinion I could give as it’s been standard practice for developers to create new episodes as they go. Tell Me Why thankfully scraps that idea: all three episodes have been created ahead of time with a weekly release schedule in mind. For this review we were able to play through the entire story and it was a much better experience because of it. Character motivations are upheld, locations stay familiar, and plot points remained still fresh in my head. It helps that the arc fits perfectly with a Netflix-style binge.

Speaking of Netflix, it’s worth mentioning that Tell Me Why isn’t afraid to get quite hammy at points. For as sensitively as themes like loss, identity and gender are delved into, the story takes some wild turns – to the point that a literal mystery box plays a crucial part in the final episode. I understand it’s important to keep players hooked on the drama, I just wish it could’ve been done without as many clichés.

Tell Me Why’s final episode does suffer from a few pacing issues, particularly near the beginning. Without delving into spoilers, the twins are separated for a short while in a segment that feels a bit too much like padding. Whereas the first two episodes has them working together, finding out more about each other as a result, most of the important plot revelations are already known by the start of episode 3 and this lengthy dwindling offers up nothing of note.

This still isn’t enough to prevent Tell Me Why from being a well-executed and heartfelt tale about the importance of growing up and moving on, whatever your circumstances might be. Not once did I fail to recognise either Alyson or Tyler as three-dimensional characters and it’s impossible not to be invested in their family’s story, even if some circumstances they’re placed in are overtly melodramatic. Most importantly, the trans experience is expertly handled here, as a stellar example of how video games can sensitively handle a complex character that few get right.

More about the topics: Dontnod Entertainment, Tell Me Why, Xbox Game Pass, xbox one