Sat comfortably in developer Don't Nod's wheelhouse of narrative driven adventures about youngsters with a supernatural twist, Tell Me Why inherits all their strengths and their weaknesses. While it has some of the expected charm, after playing the first chapter its stilted dialogue and basic puzzles hold it back from being a truly engaging experience so far. More than that, it really drops the ball on the representation it was so proud to advertise.
You play as two twins, Alyson and Tyler, as the brother is finally being released from a juvenile detention centre for killing their mother in self defense ten years ago. They're now planning on selling their childhood home where the crime took place and eventually begin to uncover secrets from their past that change what they thought their lives were.
This plays out in some dialogue choices (most of which are timed and retain the option to remain silent) and some extremely light puzzle solving (think "find the key to open the door" and you're there) with a lot of, painstakingly detailed scenes for you to explore and examine objects. At times it reminded me of Gone Home as you poked around their old home but with each character loudly explaining the things you find, there's very little for you to do as the player but hit each prompt for more dialogue.
The only twist is the psychic connection between the twins which allow them to speak to each other when apart and to see old memories that offer clues as to how to progress, neither of which hold a candle to the time travelling of Life Is Strange.
The supernatural stuff feels awkwardly introduced, the characters treating it like no big deal but the bigger rub is simply that it felt so unnecessary, as if the game lacked enough confidence to tell a grounded story in the real world. It doesn't help that the supernatural ability itself is uninteresting. The original Life Is Strange's time travel felt like a perfect fit for the anxieties of a teen desperately trying to navigate social spaces and avoid embarrassing mistakes. Reliving old memories played out in front of you doesn't add much to the general loop of gathering clues and objects.
With such bare bones mechanics at work, the emphasis is squarely on the story and the quality of its telling. This is not to the game's benefit.
The opening scene of Tell Me Why has an upset younger Tyler confessing to murdering their mother. Cut immediately to dreamy establishing shots while quaint indie music plays and our cheery twin leads are introduced. A splash screen for the game assures players it was made with a variety of consultants to handle its themes but really it needs a warning for the nearly lethal tonal whiplash throughout. It's a microcosm of the game's awkwardness, veering from cutesy sibling rivalry to childhood abuse to psychic abilities with all the grace of a Flight Simulator newbie's first attempt at a landing.
Don't Nod have never quite escaped the awkwardness of their dialogue (though the "teen speak" is mercifully scarce) and you're constantly met with characters explaining things to people who already know those things solely for the benefit of the player. There are a few moments of natural speech throughout. A moment where Alyson feels ashamed for bringing up the kind of teenage adventure Tyler was denied, is met with passive approval, letting Tyler's feelings, of missing out and the small gulf that sits between the siblings, go unspoken but felt. If only these moments were the norm Tell Me Why's first episode might've pulled me in much more.
Don't Nod have marketed with a lot of emphasis on their inclusion of a trans man as the protagonist of their game, often promoting materials that touted their sensitivity and research. Those concerned that this would be yet another voyeuristic attempt to make entertainment out of trans people's trauma were assured that Tyler's identity would not be the focus of the game and it wouldn't be a game about trans trauma. To put it lightly, they've fibbed on this one but to get into that we need to talk spoilers so consider this a warning.
For the game's early portion, it is made explicit that Tyler and his sister believe their mother tried to hurt him because he wanted to transition (while constantly framing the root of her violence as mental illness so the game isn't all that sensitive with other important subjects). The first episode's big twist? Their mother was actually trying to be supportive of their child's transition.
Whatever root causes the next chapters establish as the real reason for her attempt on Tyler's life, they're still playing with very real experiences for trans people. If anything, revealing that there was another reason is worse since it dredges up all that discomfort only to then bow out of properly dealing with it.
There are games out there, like the incredible If Found, which can tell stories about trans experiences in more authentic ways, with the care and weight they deserve. Those games feel like expressions of lived experiences where Tell Me Why feels, however well intentioned, clumsy. Jabbing your elbows through a tale of childhood trauma and prejudice leads to prodding a lot of sensitive nerves and that can be fine if the destination lands somewhere worthwhile but in its first episode Tell Me Why seeks only to undermine real traumatic experiences with a troubling fantasy of dangerous parents who secretly love their children.
Poor handling of Tyler's identity aside, I'm mostly disappointed at the game's lack of commitment to the place it's created. Small town Alaska is a compelling locale, the instant I saw it I wanted to meet the people there and hear about their lives. Instead so far it's all set dressing to a clunky tale of supernatural teens. None of which is helped by the stilted dialogue or basic mechanics. Tell Me Why is building on Life Is Strange but so far it's taken on its flaws more than its charms.
There's two chapters left to turn things around but Tell Me Why is going to have to pull out all the stops to make up for a bungled first act.
- Tell Me Why door puzzle solution (opens in new tab): Which animals to choose