Tell Me Why is a Herculean milestone for video games and a way-point for expressive, unique storytelling. After my time with the game, I felt my capacity for empathy expand and my respect for the breadth of the human experience multiply.
I first heard about Tell Me Why at the Game Awards this year when it won the “Games for Impact” award at the event. Some of my favorite games from 2020 like Spiritfarer and If Found… were both on the shortlist for the award. Tell Me Why was actually the only game in the category I hadn’t played before, so I was immediately curious.
The game’s creators, Dontnod Entertainment, are well known for dealing with serious, contemporary issues in their games, most notably with their runaway success Life is Strange in 2015. Dontnod games wrap players in stunningly lifelike worlds through not just meticulous and homey environments, but with real, complicated characters and intelligent writing. Tell Me Why is undoubtedly Dontnod’s best work yet.
The many threads that make up Tell Me Why’s story are complex, and tightly wound around a tragic event ten years before the game begins. Twins, Tyler and Alyson Ronan, are reuniting after a decade apart and trying to sell their mother’s old house. As the twins explore their childhood home, they have been apart from for so long, certain facts about their history come into question.
Tyler and Alyson seek to confront their own trauma and explore memories they had long forgotten throughout their small Alaskan hometown. Their crusade for the truth, however, risks to split the twins even further apart. The twins, in their own ways, battle with self-acceptance and feelings of insufficiency and it’s up to you to decide if the two confide in each other, or not.
Like other Dontnod narrative adventures, Tell Me Why lets players make choices that will affect their story. Players can choose how to interpret memories, and how to treat the people of the game’s fictional town, Delos Crossing. Tell Me Why’s gameplay, in traditional Dontnod fashion, is a balance of cutscenes and exploration with player-made decisions spliced in between. Tyler, Alyson and the entire cast of Tell Me Why’s dialogue drips with emotion and every cutscene is finely crafted with cinema-style framing.
What truly elevates Tell Me Why from its cinema counterparts, however, are those exploration sections where players can take their time and meaningfully interact with environments. “Interaction” can mean basic walking around, quipping one liners at random objects (which never gets old), but Tell Me Why’s themes of childhood trauma and “rebuilding” memories also prove to be conducive to the agency unique to video games.
Agency, while inherent in “playing” a game, sews a connection between the world behind the screen and the one behind your eyes. Tell Me Why uses a player’s agency as a metaphysical extension of the story. Confronting trauma doesn’t happen all at once. Seemingly unimportant things like having the player press a button ought to be recognized as important; because they are. By sharing your experience with Alyson and Tyler, Tell Me Why is a marvel of empathy. This game masterfully uses elements unique to games to represent the process of grieving and confronting harsh truths.
Tell Me Why deals with several serious themes like family violence, suicide, LGBT acceptance and addiction. Issues and conflicts are not so clear cut. Narrative games like Tell Me Why are regularly criticized for having essentially two paths, the good and evil, while advertising that “every choice matters” when they really just funnel into two outcomes. Similar games like Heavy Rain, or Until Dawn are not particularly subtle in showing that a players’ choices will ultimately lead to a “good,” or “bad” ending. The main differences between play-throughs in those games is usually supporting characters who lived because you pressed square fast enough. The choices Tell Me Why asks players to make are not as easy as “stealing is bad” or “don’t be mean.” Could you love a trans person? Is a chosen family as real as your blood family? Would you rather let go of, or confront a past traumatic experience? How far would you be willing to hurt yourself for your family? Guilt, jealousy, anxiety, escapism and regret cloud every decision in Tell Me Why with a profound fog.
Tell Me Why reminded me what makes video games unique. The most inherent piece of “playing” a game, agency, can be used to mean so much more than moving left or right. By holding a controller in my hand, Alyson and Tyler’s journey was as much my own as theirs.
Tell Me Why is available for Windows 10, Steam, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.