It should come as no surprise that video games have for the most part attempted to recapture the narrative heights of its cinematic counterpart, film. However, one aspect of games that goes underappreciated is its intrinsic connection to television as a medium. A console is, after all, plugged into a television in most instances to output its images. What does any of this have to do with Tell Me Why, the latest game from DONTNOD Entertainment? Well, the game is really an evolution of the television model into video game storytelling in a way I feel no game ever has achieved – even the criminally underappreciated Quantum Break. But let’s back up a bit, shall we?
Tell Me Why is an episodic adventure title telling the story of twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan, as they attempt to uncover a mystery in their past. After an incident separates the two siblings, they reunite after 10 long years to pick through the rubble of the family home, and rekindle their relationship with each other and the citizens of their childhood town Delos Crossing, Alaska.
Beginning with the narrative, Tell Me Why is engaging from the outset, with two incredibly well-defined characters. The set-up is intriguing, and the mystery is one that I found myself dedicated to solving from the beginning. The story fits well into the episodic release structure, touching upon many of televisions hallmarks from cliffhanger endings to brief synopses. This is coupled with DONTNOD’s signature point-and-quick style gameplay with meaningful choices, that drives the narrative forward. If you played DONTNOD’s Life Is Strange series, you should pretty much know what to expect here (the games play virtually identically), but whereas I felt those games at points seemed out of touch with their target demographic (seriously guys, I was 16 when you released that game, we do NOT say “Hella” unless we are referring to the goddess “Hela”), Tell Me Why is incredibly introspective, thoughtful and realistic.
This is particularly exemplified through our two main leads. Beginning with Alyson, she is a kind 21-year-old woman coming into her own as well as coming to terms with her past. She is strong-willed, courageous, creative and kind, but also a bit mischievous and directionless. All of these aspects are captured beautifully by Erica Lindbeck’s stunning performance, which is easily among the finest of the generation. She instills a warmth in Alyson that makes her character shine, making us cry when she cries, laugh when she laughs, etc.
Tyler is just as strong a character. A transgender man, Tyler shares many of the same qualities as his sister such as kindness and creativity but he is, in contrast, a strong, determined young man with a genuine sense of where he wants his life to go. This means he can butt heads with Alyson at points, and may in some instances come across as a bit unlikable, but he is incredibly self-aware of whenever he oversteps his boundaries, and is quick with an apology and a witty remark. He is every bit as great as Alyson, and this is due in large part to August Aiden Black’s performance, who perfectly captures every side of Tyler beautifully.
It also deserves to be mentioned the strides the game makes in terms of representation. While I feel I am not fully in a position to comment on the portrayal, nothing about Tyler’s character struck me as exploitative or misguided. It is also important to note that this game has been made in association with GLAAD, and that August Aiden Black is himself transgender. What I can say, however, with utmost confidence is that Tyler is among the more memorable characters in recent video game history, and at least in terms of his dialogue, is exceptionally written. This is in conjunction with Black’s aforementioned great performance.
Other characters in town such as Tessa, Tom Vecchi and especially Sam, Mary Ann, Eddy and Michael make strong impressions when they are introduced. While not as well-defined as the Ronan twins (with the exception of Mary Ann), each of these characters are well-performed and are strongly written.
Moving on to visuals, and this is easily DONTNOD’s most impressive looking game to date. The combination of realism with stylized backdrops works exceptionally well, and the game just pops. That said, while DONTNOD has made considerable improvements in their facial animations since Life is Strange, they can still sometimes break immersion, with at least a few pivotal emotional scenes not done justice by rather stiff movements. This is a minor complaint ultimately, and the writing and performances help make up for this, but it is an issue that can prove to break immersion.
The gameplay as well, while noticeably improved from Life is Strange, still has some minor room for improvement. The puzzles in Tell Me Why, as well as the environments, are spectacular, but at points selecting objects on the screen can prove a needless hassle. Again, nothing about this is deal-breaking, but there is some opportunity to better this in the event Xbox Game Studios and DONTNOD collaborate again (which they really should).
Finally, I’d briefly like to touch upon the release of this game. I felt that releasing each episode week after week was an amazing decision that kept me engaged, and doing so through Xbox Game Pass is an incredibly novel and accessible approach. It really is another step in making Game Pass the Netflix of gaming it wants to be. I only truly wish that the updates were done automatically so I could jump into the action ASAP, instead of having to boot up the game and then hit the store to download the next episode.
All in all, Tell Me Why on Xbox One is DONTNOD’s strongest game to date. It is quiet, introspect, mature and superbly written and performed, with visuals that are easy on the eyes – the novel release approach also helps things. There are still some factors holding it back from perfection, but I sincerely hope this is the start of a great partnership between Xbox and DONTNOD, as I feel this game is a perfect example of the type of content Game Pass is perfect for delivering. It may not be for everyone, but for many people, Tell Me Why is just what we needed, present company included. This ain’t nothing like a heartbreak.