Tell Me Why is not a perfect game. But it is an incredibly important one.
Dontnod, a studio famous for story-driven games such as the superb Life is Strange and the less superb Vampyr, is back again with another emotionally gripping narrative for players to get wrapped up in.
The company's latest outing takes gamers to a far-flung corner of Alaska called Delos Crossing, which provides a breathtaking backdrop to the events of the plot. The story centers on the childhood home of two twins named Alyson and Tyler Ronan. The siblings have not spoken since their mother died under confusing circumstances a decade prior, but are thrown back together when the opportunity to sell their former home presents itself. It's in that childhood homestead that the pair must come to terms with their painful history — particularly Tyler who has since transitioned from female to male as an adolescent — through a series of shared visions and artistic puzzles.
I promise you that this game is a lot more fascinating and gripping than it sounds when described like that — but to explain to you why would be to spoil the experience and I would sooner you not play the game than have its plot ruined for you.
Tell Me Why is not a game of vicarious thrills. It is not a game meant to make you feel victorious. It is not a game that will be particularly fun to watch as a Let's Play video. It's a game that quietly and intimately asks you to be a better person.
“Tell Me Why is not a game of vicarious thrills.”
As is the case with most story-driven games, especially in an episodic format, the mechanics revolve around environmental storytelling, dialogue options, and quite a bit of reading. These devices can be polarizing to people, but if you give yourself over to the medium you will be handsomely rewarded. In much the same way as an intimidatingly thick novel might grant you an escape, Tell Me Why is so effective at immersion that you'll be left asking for more — if only just to stay in its world a bit longer.
It's a strange thing to be playing a game set in 2015 rural Alaska while quarantined in my Manhattan apartment in 2020. This is doubly true of a game as good at world building as this one. For the several hours I spent in the digital north, I truly began to feel the way I felt on a recent trip to Vermont: Peaceful. There is no finer escape than nature right now — even a digital facsimile called Delos Crossing. Tell Me Why is the result of the painstaking work Dontnod put into fleshing out the game's town and its inhabitants.
Speaking of those inhabitants: As exciting as it is to see a Trans person in a game (especially one who specifies that they haven't yet had gender confirmation procedures), to say that Tyler's queerness is why I (a non-binary person) felt so connected to him over the course of the story would do us both a disservice.
Tyler, like many of the game's characters, is unique because I've never seen a character with a central motivation like his in a video game before. Rather than trying to save a princess or kill the zombies or survive the wilderness, Tyler (and to a lesser extent his twin sister Alyson) spends his entire adventure seeking closure over a childhood he was forced to misspend. Portraying something that new — and nuanced — is an enormous risk on the part of developers in the traditionally conservative gaming industry, but it pays off spectacularly. The game's mechanics may have been done before, the game's art style may have been done before, the game's episodic format has certainly been done enough times to sour for many players, but its story is something wholly original and unique which, despite all odds, sets it apart in a sea of digital whodunnits.
“Its story is something wholly original and unique.”
A lesser game would have exploited one of its main characters' Trans identity for shock value or held it for a last-minute reveal. Tell Me Why, which saw its developers consult with queer media watchdog GLAAD on the title's queer politics, doesn't need to. Tyler is a fully fledged, complicated man with a compelling enough inner life that, while his queerness certainly informs his worldview and is by no means ignored, is able to be the kind of character with whom any gamer can find an aspect to empathize. Pursuing that kind of writing may seem less challenging than making a game entirely centered on preaching Trans identity politics, but it is in fact an order of magnitude more difficult. And, if you ask me, far more useful in actually moving the Trans community forward.
The game also features a number of indigenous characters who were created in collaboration with the Huna Heritage Foundation. One of the most beautiful elements of the story was the dizzying number of original works of art created specifically for the title by Huna Tlingit artisans. Thanks to its environmentally focused mechanics, the game pushes you to appreciate that work on its own terms rather than simply using the community's art as superficial window dressing.
For all the gushing I can do (and have just done) about the game's story, characters, and world-building, the game is not perfect. Story-driven games in particular still seem to struggle with making character models that climb out of the uncanny valley. There's a time-traveling-shared-visions mechanic which adds a supernatural element to the story that feels completely unnecessary and was put to far better use in Life is Strange. There is also too much talk about "goblins" (don't ask, you'll see).
But at its best, Tell Me Why challenges you to find empathy for people you don't want to, to analyze your reactions to characters and plot points, to consider that there may be shades of gray that you shouldn't necessarily come to a conclusion on. In its way, it's more than a game. It's a venue to meet groups of people you may not come across in your own life — certainly not during a period of quarantine — and be challenged to learn about and empathize with their unique experiences.
“Tell Me Why challenges you to find empathy.”
Tell Me Why is a game that a lot of people in this polarizing time could benefit from experiencing. Please play it.