If you’ve never heard of DONTNOD’s newest game, Tell Me Why, you’re probably not the only one. The game was released to the public in August 2020, but it hasn’t yet earned the attention of popular YouTube and Twitch gamers. In partnership with Square Enix, DONTNOD Entertainment rose to fame after its three installments of the series Life is Strange, all identified by the use of supernatural abilities and heart-wrenching stories that constantly keep players on their toes. Despite the amazing artwork and the inclusion of marginalized characters in its newest game, several have criticized DONTNOD for its “sloppy” work and “poorly handled” thematic gameplay.
Tell Me Why features a pair of twins, Alyson and Tyler Ronan, that discover they can communicate with each other telepathically and relive shared childhood memories. At a young age, Tyler admits to killing his estranged mother in self-defense and is sent to a juvenile rehabilitation center where he transitions from female to male. All the while, Alyson continues to grow in her hometown of Delos Crossing, Alaska. Together, the twins return to their childhood home in hopes of selling it and putting the past behind them. They attempt to work through their trauma by reliving memories from their past and by questioning the townsfolk about their mother. The game questions the reliability of memory, especially in childhood, and calls attention to our human tendencies to avoid our problems and push away loved ones.
Fans and critics alike have left fairly favorable reviews of the game, praising DONTNOD for its voice acting, narrative design, artwork and well-rounded, complex characters. Tell Me Why has won several accolades, including two Gayming awards for authentic representation and best LGBTQ character, the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding video game and four other prized awards in this year alone. Still, many can’t help but compare it to the esteemed Life is Strange series and criticize Tell Me Why’s inconsistencies and irritatingly slow pacing.
I. Character Building & The Trans Experience
When it comes to character design, DONTNOD does it best. With each game it puts out, the characters get progressively more genuine. Some of its best work paid off in Life is Strange 2, where the story of two brothers — Sean and Daniel Diaz — brought awareness to racism and the horrific happenings at the U.S.-Mexico border. DONTNOD continues to tell stories through its characters in Tell Me Why, rather than letting the actions and dialogue do the bulk of the storytelling. The fully fleshed-out characters alone depict the harsh realities of living in poverty while simultaneously battling mental health struggles and prejudice, even if some characters did not feel as developed as others.
Tell Me Why made history for being the first triple-A game to have a playable transgender protagonist. The game does not shy away from Tyler’s gender identity and shows how being his true self affects those who knew him before transitioning. To ensure that the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters was authentic, DONTNOD consulted with the media monitoring organization GLAAD. As someone who hasn’t experienced what it’s like to be trans, I cannot fairly critique how honest a picture Tell Me Why paints of the trans community; however, several representatives have made their opinion known.
“The transgender narrative is not a story a lot of people are exposed to and this game will give a massive platform to it,” August Black, the trans voice actor for Tyler, told VG247 magazine. “Tyler has so much to offer and his experience as a trans man is just a part of it.” Black also expressed that having a character that appears transgender provides more inclusivity than most video games offer, and that having a character that is out of the closet and embraces their transition gives trans individuals the connection they may not find anywhere else in their lives.
Nick Adams — the director of transgender representation at GLAAD — also celebrated Tyler as a “fully-realized, endearing character whose story is not reduced to simplistic trans tropes.” Many critics share Adam’s opinion but offer some criticism for those looking to explore trans characters in the future.
Michael Goroff from EGM acknowledged the importance of Tyler’s character while also calling attention to the stereotypes and hypocrisy it portrays. “Yes, Tyler’s identity as a trans man is important to him,” Goroff wrote, “but it’s also just one aspect of his personality.” Tyler is more than just a trans man. The game seems to devalue some of his other traits, such as his adventurous spirit and his fierce loyalty to his sister, Alyson.
Megan Fox, the founder of Glass Bottom Games, shared something similar in an article from gamesindustry.biz. Fox praised the game Dragon Age Inquisition for the creation of the character Krem, whose “transness isn’t even mentioned unless you dig into his character. Krem’s characterization isn’t A Trans Man. That’s just part of his origin story.”
It is commendable how much DONTNOD embraces and flaunts Tyler’s trans identity. Personally, from my own gameplay, I believe that Tyler’s personality neither revolves around his gender nor the trauma he’s endured. It’s shaped him into the person he is — as it does to us all — and it does not define him by any means. The creation of Tyler is a beacon of hope and has raised the bar for more LGBTQ+ inclusivity in video gaming, but a little attention to other characters might boost its ratings in this category a bit higher.
II. The “Aggravatingly Slow” Plot
Some players have voiced their opinions about the sluggish pacing and the lack of action-packed scenes that DONTNOD is famous for. Over the course of three episodes and roughly 8.5 hours of gameplay, players follow the Ronan twins as they attempt to uncover the reasons why their mother would one day lose her mind and try to kill her kids. This investigation remains at the focal point of the game’s mystery. Unfortunately, the momentum does not continue to build from the first episode and spends a little bit too much time with the exposition, thus making the finale seem underwhelming.
“The conflict in DONTNOD’s latest game is almost entirely internal,” Goroff critiqued. “The result is a game that’s just as emotionally poignant as the Life is Strange series, but maybe lacking in standout moments and the kinds of cliffhangers that make the wait for the next episode nearly unbearable.”
In comparison to some of the most graphic Life is Strange scenes, which include characters being tied up and drugged in a murderer’s basement, and sequences where one faces off with an army of police at the country’s southern border, the majority of the scenes in Tell Me Why are much quieter and more introspective. However, there are still hints of the DONTNOD that fans know and love; in the second episode, for instance, players sneak around searching through private police files and try not to get caught. And no one can deny how shocking it is when the twins’ mother is stabbed and drowns off of the dock in the backyard.
Paul Tamburro is hypercritical of Tell Me Why in his review for GameRevloution; he wrote that the creators seem “determined to slow down anything resembling action until the game’s final stretch.” He also directed readers’ attention to the required, interactive chores, like choosing which snacks to get at the grocery store and putting sticky notes on furniture. These mundane errands were surely placed to provide a lull for players before they have to use their minds on trickier puzzles, but it only slows the game down more.
III. Dry Dialogue and Downplayed Decisions
Tell Me Why has also been criticized for its dialogue options. When prompted with a discussion, players get to choose between two or three directions to take the conversation. Usually, the choices range between something mean and snarky or something excessively agreeable and friendly. The dialogue choices and other decisions made throughout the game affect the game’s outcome.
Some players did not feel the dialogue was as important and impacted the ending as much as in DONTNOD’s other games. In the first Life is Strange game, players have to remember key details about a student’s life in order to talk her out of jumping off of the school’s roof. Similarly, the things Sean says to his younger brother in Life is Strange 2 determine how respectful and cooperative he will be in the finale. In comparison, Tell Me Why spends a little too much time chatting with minor characters versus conversing with main characters.
“Tell Me Why is full of plenty of choices, but the situations rarely made me feel conflicted and the consequences weren’t severe enough to make me feel invested,” Janet Garcia wrote for IGN. “The story [was] pulling me in too many directions,” she continued. The answers to riddles and puzzles were never as thrilling as the curiosity from the beginning.
Garcia does, however, praised DONTNOD for pulling players into the drama by having input into the memory system. In many situations, the twins remember certain scenarios happening differently and the player has to decide which perspective they believe is true. There isn’t a “right” answer. The player chooses which memory fits the story they desire.
In my opinion, choosing to believe one twin’s memory felt like a betrayal to the other twin. Siding with one twin invalidates the experiences of the other. Too often, the game leads you to choose what Tyler remembers, which ultimately gives you the “better” ending — where the twin’s bond is strengthened. Again, the developers are glorifying Tyler and ignoring Alyson, which adds misogyny into the equation. It didn’t feel like the decisions made before the game takes place should be left in the hands of the players, who weren’t there to witness it themselves. All things considered, the decisions and dialogue in Tell Me Why did not have a big enough impact to wow its players.
Overall, Tell Me Why is a game that everyone should at least try, especially since all three episodes are free on Steam and Xbox Game Pass. DONTNOD deserves praise for its efforts to create honest character representations, its careful handling of the story and the breathtaking artistic scenes of the snowy tundra in Juneau, Alaska. The story about the union of two twins facing their childhood trauma and decoding the mystery of their origin stories is intriguing and insightful. Confronting the pain in your past and forgiving yourself will allow you to be free. The overarching message is incredibly poignant now when empathy and compassion seem to be rarities in the human race. DONTNOD is definitely headed in the right direction and — with Life is Strange 3 just around the corner — players cannot wait to see what it comes up with next.