There’s an important milestone in every adult’s life when they realize that their parents aren’t just monolithic figures known only as Mom and/or Dad, but people in their own right who have hopes, dreams, thoughts, and desires that have nothing to do with their children. That’s not exactly new territory in other art, but it’s a rarity in games. In the few that do explore that idea, it’s usually Dad who gets the attention. That makes Dontnod’s Tell Me Why a fascinating anomaly right off the bat. It is, without question, a shattered portrait of a single mother, pieced back together by those who knew her best. The framework of the game screams narrative murder-mystery, but the game takes a Knives Out approach to that; the question of who killed Mary-Ann Ronan is answered by the end of the first episode. Why she died is a far more complex question, and the answers depending on unreliable, traumatic memories throws another wrench into the mix.
The memories in question mostly belong to Mary-Ann’s twin children, Tyler and Alyson. The facts from the start are these: Mary-Ann and her kids live in a tiny middle-of-nowhere town in Alaska called Delos Crossing. The family is poor, relying on handouts from other folks in town, while all the entertainment comes from either nature itself or Mary-Ann’s fantastical imagination teaching her kids how to tell stories with and to each other. Over time, however, Mary-Ann’s mental health deteriorates, culminating in a fateful night where Mary-Ann suffers some sort of mental break and attacks Tyler, who is later accused of killing her in self-defense. Tyler is sent away to live in a group home, while Alyson is taken in by a family friend, a cop named Eddy. Fifteen years later, Tyler and Alyson finally reunite to go back to their old house and clear it out to be sold, only to unearth some harrowing truths about their mother and their hometown–and everyone’s roles in how Mary-Ann died.
There are quite a few mysteries to be unraveled in Tell Me Why, but calling Tell Me Why a mystery suggests the game is more action-packed, twisty, and turny than it actually is. It’s actually closer in tone and mechanics to Fullbright’s Gone Home than Dontnod’s own Life Is Strange. There’s still quite a lot of Life Is Strange in this game’s blood, though. Most of Tell Me Why involves simply walking around, pressing A when you come close to anything highlighted to hear characters expound on a particular object and continue the story, making dialogue choices for characters along the way. The developers’ design ethos is familiar, they’re excellent at making towns and communities that are awash in detail, places that feel rich, lived-in, and full of history and culture. That’s particularly special in Tell Me Why, given the cultures represented here that are rarely if ever presented with this kind of TLC, if they’ve ever been presented at all. In particular, the way the indigenous Tlingit tribe is simply woven into the fabric of Delos Crossing, and doesn’t call out to itself as exotic or foreign is just excellent. There’s much to be said about the existence of The Other being portrayed not as a strange curiosity, but a fact of life in a narrative.
The issue with Tell Me Why is that it occupies an awkward space where it actually doesn’t scale things back enough. It’s a game that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself when it’s not giving you characters to converse with or story-advancing items to examine. There’s just so much meandering around with item collection, random chores, and puzzle-solving–none of which are terribly difficult or tricky, but neither are they particularly engaging, or fun, or even germane to the larger plot. The game hits the sweet spot occasionally. A sequence where Tyler and Alyson have to sneak into the police department archives and piece together a complete record of the night their mom died before someone actually shows up has a nice bit of tension to it. There just aren’t enough sequences like that to justify how much legwork it takes to advance things along.
The game is at its strongest when it leans into its best mechanic: The twins’ mildly psychic powers, because a Dontnod game isn’t complete without a supernatural hook. They can talk to each other and share/visualize memories without speaking. More often than not, the game uses it in a way you’d expect from exploration games of this sort: When you’re walking around the house or other locations, a particular area or object creates a hazy visual re-enactment of the twins’ childhood memories. Tell Me Why goes a step further than just using them to convey exposition–these memories are hazy because they, like real memories, aren’t reliable. Many of the big choices in the game revolve around how selective memory can be, choosing which version of a moment to believe and why, and what believing a certain version of a story can do to a relationship. That’s rather powerful given the intense emotional nature of much of the game, and has Dontnod returning to a more thoughtful method of branching decisions we haven’t seen it dig into since 2013’s still-underappreciated Remember Me.
The main issue is there’s just not enough gameplay-wise that exists on that level. There are maybe two moments that might qualify as action quick-time events; one’s a fishing mini-game, and the other involves helping Alyson slow her breathing during an anxiety attack. The dialogue choices are very often binary, changing the mood of a conversation rather than the drastic changes your decisions in Life Is Strange can bring on. Despite a murder being at the center of the game, what passes for big “J’ACCUSE!” moments often come down to rather melancholy scenes of regret and emotional honesty, with the major choice often coming down to whether to forgive someone or not.
On its face that doesn’t sound like a game-breaking negative, and really it isn’t; Tell Me Why eschews high stakes in favor of emotional payoff, which can be just as gratifying in the right hands. There just isn’t enough of it in this game to justify a three part series of episodes three hours long, and the game reaches catharsis at such a languid pace, each episode feels much longer. Tell Me Why runs in circles around the same emotional touchstones for too long for much of its play time, and it takes its sweet time getting to the point of any given scene when the facts we need to know about each character have either been well-established or easily guessed.
Having said that, when Tell Me Why does have a point to make with the less crucial plot points, it’s in favor of giving depth and shading to all the things that we should see more of in games, especially when it comes to how it portrays indigenous cultures, religion, sexuality, mental illness and yes, as the game is extremely eager (and rightfully so) to remind us, the presentation of mainstream gaming’s first playable trans protagonist. Tyler Ronan, in particular, is indeed a revelation. The fact of his gender is played as a simple facet of his life, and not the source or byproduct of any of the game’s varying traumas. Tyler is allowed to simply exist in this game, as a complete human being, just like every other character in it.
It’s commendable keeping Tyler’s gender out of the conversation when it comes to this game’s primary conflict, but it creates a bit of a vacuum in the plot. It’s a story in search of an edge, of a more effective conflict, of something to truly hurt so the healing lands better. There’s a softness to the core plot of this game, despite the death and pain at the center of it, one that leans heavily into absolving the support systems that failed Mary-Ann Ronan and left her two children damaged. The game seems dedicated to never letting any trace of evil creep into the narrative. It’s an extraordinarily grounded, restrained story, which makes the elements that don’t give our protagonists the answers they seek feel more like wheel-spinning. The puzzles and collection bits that are typically the bread and butter of this type of game make an awkward fit with the rest of the narrative. It’s a game of so much empathy and respect it can’t stand to see its characters handle their flaws in any way but the best possible way, even when you make the choices that shun the people of Delos Crossing.
And even still, there’s something to be said for that type of story, one that allows players to explore heightened emotions with the blows that come so harsh in the real world, but padded and safe here. The saving grace of the game isn’t Tyler, though, as mentioned, his presence is a strong and welcome one. It’s actually Mary-Ann herself, one of video gaming’s scant few mothers and perhaps the one character allowed to be more than just her neuroses, her failures, or even her children. All the townspeople of Delos Crossing have their complexities, but there’s far more nuance in the things we learn about her over time, the tragic benefit of exploring her life in the past tense as opposed to every other character’s current state. Tell Me Why’s entire narrative hinges on completing our picture of Mary-Ann, and the promise the game makes and fulfills is that this person certainly lived a full but complicated life–and the messy end she meets is everyone’s burden to bear, whether they choose to carry it or not.
Mary-Ann reminds me a lot of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, a girl known primarily as a victim. It’s only until the movie Fire Walk With Me that we know just how much was going on behind the eyes of that idyllic photograph we saw of her every episode. In Tell Me Why, our clearest, enduring image of Mary-Ann Ronan is the dead woman whose childrens’ lives were destroyed after her death. Finding out everything beautiful, intelligent, and loving that was going on behind those eyes is the most powerful thing in Tell Me Why, and matched in how her life created two strong, empathetic children who knew her well and didn’t even realize it. There’s a lot of empty disengaging space to be filled in in this game, but with a little patience and sympathy, what it does provide you is worth the effort.