Tell Me Why Review
Once upon a time there were two mischievous little goblins. They worked tirelessly to help the beautiful princess keep her hideaway in the woods liveable and together they were hard-up but happy. Everything felt almost like a fairy tale… until it got very real. Tell Me Why is the story of what happens after once upon a time, and of the dangers of romanticizing the past.
People will talk a lot about Tell Me Why’s transgender main character, Tyler, and rightfully so. This is the first time a trans character has been in the spotlight of a game from a major studio. That’ll get a lot of praise, and maybe a bit of hate. It’s almost shame that it’ll take the focus of so much discussion, because the characters here are as real as they come. This isn’t an “LGBT game”, whatever that might be, and at no point did it feel like it. It’s a game like any other, dealing with issues we all can understand.
But it’s more than that. It’s a culmination of two generations of this kind of narrative-focussed adventure game. If The Walking Dead legitimized this genre, Tell Me Why perhaps brings it closer to perfection than it has ever been. This is what a grown-up story feels like in video game form. This is the bar.
It’s not perfect and it won’t convert anybody who has struggled with the genre in the past. Despite all that, this is a more than fine addition to the Xbox Games Studios output.
Tell Me Why it hurts
These games live and die on their characters, and Tyler and Alyson are a perfect entry into their world. Apart for a decade, they are reunited to clean up and sell their childhood home. Getting to know them through memories of their time there and their interactions together is a joy, but it quickly becomes clear that their past isn’t all it seems to be.
This is helped through the addition of a series of fairy stories that they used to share with their mother. As youngsters they’d act out the characters of the mischievous goblins, using it to make chores more fun.
And the more time they spend together, the more the pair fall back into their old inquisitive ways. Soon they are questioning everything that has led them to this point.
Their ‘voice’, which allows them to share thoughts, memories and feelings, lets them see old memories as though watching a movie. Sometimes their memories are different, sometimes wildly so.
Delos Crossing, Alaska is well-realised and interesting. You feel the oppression of small town life – of everybody knowing everybody else’s business and families that spend generations in one spot, unable to leave but unable to make anything for themselves. The minor characters add a lot to this. They’re all three dimensional and each have their input in the twin’s mystery.
Those just in it for the mystery may find themselves a little underwhelmed by the final revelations, but I think it would be impossible to be underwhelmed by the journey there.
Twins on trial
Like all of Dontnod’s games, you control the twins as they explore, speak to or characters and pick up items. There are collectibles to look out for, but honestly it’s just quite pleasant hearing descriptions of items and reliving old memories. Because of the nostalgic nature of the game, you find yourself becoming increasingly interested in where these guys have come from. It’s not always an easy ride.
Tell Me Why is a slow burner, where the reward is finding out more about the world surrounding you. There aren’t any action sequences where your chasing bears through the woods or fighting off attackers, and frankly I’m glad for it. What I like best about how the game is structured is how down to earth it is. It doesn’t have the need to be a soap opera, or to treat its player like a hyperactive child. Characters suffer, but they don’t suffer just for the sake of being interesting. That is the mark of good storytelling.
Along the way you’ll come across puzzles, none of which are difficult to solve. They’re a nice distraction, but rightly don’t end up being a barrier to progress. In fact, hints are almost immediately available, and you’re able to brute force many of them if you choose. One of the things I didn’t even realise I cared about was just how accessible Tell Me Why is, but the second you read phrases like ‘dyslexia-friendly subtitles’, you know the developers care about making a title that anybody can pick up and play.
Video and sound
Tell Me Why is a gorgeous game. The locations really lend themselves to the story, and there are moments that are simply beautiful. Textures are awesome and placement of the camera in cutscenes usually means you have several cinematic angles to choose from. Moving the analogue stick in cutscenes often feels like you’re directing rather than playing.
I was often very impressed by what I was seeing on screen, and would have been more impressed if HDR had been included. HDR is advertised on the store page, so I can only imagine it just wasn’t ready for early builds. It means I have no experience with it to judge, but I can definitely see some potential.
The only downside was the occasional graphical glitch – hair going through clothing or moving seemingly on its own was the worst offender. For a game that has such wonderful attention to detail, there was the odd occasion that didn’t live up to what I’d come to expect, like the occasional newspaper made up of a headline and then thick black lines instead of copy. When your game is so sharp, especially in 4k, there’s no excuse for having a paper without any actual words.
With that said, most the documents you can pick up in the game are readable, which, again, only serves to make it more obvious when something is wrong.
The audio is brilliant as well. Performances are outstanding and I found myself enjoying the music. There are a few times when the sound department went above and beyond too. Effects on music between the real world and the twins’ shared memory are extra impressive.
Tell Me Why – Conclusion
Gaming fans will hear a lot about Tyler over the coming weeks. No matter whether it’s framed as a deserved positive or as a bigoted negative, Tell Me Why’s biggest achievement is that while everybody else is talking about it, it’s not. The focus isn’t on That Trans Guy, but on a likable character. That can’t have been an easy line to walk for a character who will be scrutinised by detractors of all shades. You risk accusations of pandering or causing offense if you do it wrong. Dontnod didn’t do it wrong.
What we have here is a nuanced story that rings true. It’s not just in its storytelling and characters that Dontnod have set a new standard. Weekly releases for episodic games from now on. No excuses.
It’s so often easy to get hyperbolic about video games. Every story is a wild ride, every AAA blockbuster is eye-melting. Tell Me Why isn’t a wild ride, it doesn’t need gun fights, sexual encounters and mindless twists to hold your attention. It’s great to know video games have matured to the point where they don’t need to be.
The first episode of Tell Me Why is available now. Episode 2 will release on September 3 and Episode 3 will be available on September 10. Microsoft provided an early access code unlocking the full story for this review.