Tell Me Why

Developed by: Dontnod Entertainment

Published by: Xbox Game Studios

Available on: PC, Xbox One

Dontnod Entertainment has carved out a niche in the video game industry by creating strikingly-colored third-person perspective adventure games which mostly forgo tests of skill in favor of conversational interactions and environmental exploration. By cleverly leaning on the conventions of YA fiction — supernatural elements, family conflicts and the like — the studio has hit emotional peaks rarely, if ever, seen before in gaming (both the first and the second Life is Strange games left me misty-eyed). The French developer’s latest offering, “Tell Me Why,” doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as the Life is Strange series, but it still feels like an advance for the studio in terms of its moment-to-moment storytelling.

In “Tell Me Why,” players hop between the perspectives of Alyson and Tyler Ronan, twins that can communicate telepathically with each other and share visual memories. At the start of the game the twins are reunited after having spent the past ten years apart following the tragic death of their mother, Mary-Ann. Though most of the residents of the fictional Delos Crossing, Alaska would rather forget about the events surrounding her death, the twins find it hard to let go.

It is clear up front that the official version of what happened the night Mary-Ann died doesn’t add up. According to police reports, Tyler killed his mother in self-defense after she threatened his life with a shotgun. For years the Ronans believed their mother was unnerved by Tyler’s rejection of his assigned gender at birth (female). From their perspective, Mary-Ann snapped after Tyler showed her a new haircut that Alyson had given him, but the reality of the matter is uncertain.

Not long after Alyson picks Tyler up from the youth counseling center where he was sent to live and work for a decade, the two set out to prepare their mother’s house for sale. In the process, they uncover evidence that Mary-Ann was grappling with Tyler’s gender identity. Although they cannot be certain what she thought, they have reason to believe they were wrong in supposing that she rejected Tyler’s wish to be identified as a boy. Their findings lead them to confront one of Mary-Ann’s closest friends, Tessa, a devout Catholic who runs a supply store with her husband Tom. Although the twins have reason to think Tessa does not approve of Tyler’s transition, Tessa’s actual viewpoints do not fit neatly into such a reading.

The developers take care not to reduce any of the main characters to stereotypes. Everyone in “Tell Me Why” is elusive to some degree, which makes it tricky to pin down what transpired in the past. Over the game’s three episodes, players have the opportunity to roam around the small town and quiz the inhabitants on what they know as well as solve environmental puzzles — the most interesting of which make use of a handcrafted fantasy book about a princess and her “Crafty Goblins” that the twins made with their mother when they were kids.

At certain points in the game, the controller will rumble (in a you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder fashion) when one of the twins is standing in the vicinity of an area capable of triggering a visual memory. By holding down the right trigger and the A button and positioning one of the twins in the right spot you can watch a re-created scene from the past. Sometimes the twins remember the same event differently, which Tyler knowingly refers to as the “Rashomon” effect. On the small number of occasions when this happens it’s up to the player to decide which version of events to believe.

The game’s revelatory moments are less interesting than the small contextual incidents surrounding them. I guessed most of the big plot twists, but that did not particularly tarnish my enjoyment. One of the more interesting narrative tricks the game pulls off is that it shows how a person’s “good” intentions can be misperceived and lead to calamitous ends. Indeed, the Ronan’s twins' active imagination, so carefully cultivated by their mother during their childhood, may well turn out to be as much a gift as a liability depending on a player’s choices.

“Tell Me Why” is a game about guarded, imperfect people which, despite its supernatural elements, feels more steeped in the mundane than most video games. Not a bad quality in my book.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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