The new game from the makers of Life Is Strange features gaming’s most prominent transgender character and a murder mystery in rural Alaska.
Somebody at French developer Dontnod is really obsessed with the concept of memory and how we are our own unreliable narrator. From their earliest days with Remember Me they’ve been fascinated with the subject, even as they’ve become best known for Life Is Strange and their, in many ways superior, take on the Telltale adventure format. Tell Me Why continues that journey, while being even more progressive in terms of plot and characters.
Given how little connection there was between Life Is Strange 1 and 2 we’re not sure why this wasn’t just called Life Is Strange 3. It may simply be the fact that this is an Xbox exclusive, as otherwise the set-up is almost identical: young adults discover they have superpowers (telepathy in this case) and rather than donning a cape and fighting crime they attempt to solve their own much more personal problems.
Tell Me Why features no action and very little traditional gameplay, but its storytelling is much more interactive than other story-based games because your decisions have a significant affect on the plot. Although more so than Dontnod’s previous games, Tell Me Why does struggle to make it clear how those decisions have affected the story or on what basis you should be making them.
The other commonality in Dontnod’s adventures is that the protagonists are always from a marginalised group, giving leading roles to the sort of characters that almost never get a look-in when it comes to mainstream video games. In Tell Me Why you play as twins Alyson and Tyler, the latter of who is transgender. The story opens when the pair are 10, with an attention-grabbing prologue in which a young Tyler admits that he has killed his mother because she tried to kill him, and then picks up 10 years later as Tyler returns to his home town in Alaska for the first time.
When he does so the exact circumstances of his mother’s death are very quickly put into question, as the game explores how unreliable memory can be and how people can construct or alter it to suit their needs. So while the first chapter gives the impression that the whole game is going to revolve around whether or not Tyler is accepted by his small town community, that’s really not the case.
Although Tyler does face a few bigoted encounters they’re portrayed as being out of ignorance rather than malice and you’re given the option of how you deal with them. Ultimately though it’s not Tyler or his return which is the focus of the story, as the themes of memory, grief, and the mental health of his mother become increasingly dominant.
Why Tyler’s mother did what she did, and what actually happened the night she died, is the central mystery, as it becomes increasingly clear that there are no certainties – even though the twins have the magical ability to see and hear memories (portrayed in a similar manner to Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture). In many cases they each see a different memory and it’s up to you, as the player, to decide which one you chose to believe.
The problem with making such decisions though is that you’re given very few facts to go on and most of them end up being essentially gut instincts. If that’s meant to be an illustration of how our view of the world is based on little more than faith and arbitrary assumptions then it’s an interesting point but it does make for some frustrating gameplay. Especially as many more ordinary decisions have to be taken with an equal lack of context and information.
Tell Me Why’s narrative branches out in a similar manner to Life Is Strange, with several widely different outcomes possible, but while you’re playing it seems less obvious why and how. Unlike the previous games, Tell Me Why feels linear even when it’s not and that’s exacerbated by the fact that the plot is overly simple, and often lacks direction. The final hour or so is very compelling but the build up towards it is meandering and often… boring.
The telepathy is easily Dontnod’s least interesting superpower and doesn’t really factor into the gameplay at all – Tyler and Alyson might as well be using radios for all the difference it makes, a fact that even they comment on in the dialogue. This is also yet another Dontnod game that has you slowly exploring someone’s slightly dishevelled house, while poking around in their cupboards and staring at the knick-knacks on their fireplace. That was tedious the first time round and by now has become a predictable cliché in what at times feels like Looking At Things: The Game.
It also doesn’t help that while Dontnod characters are always put in very sympathetic situations, in terms of personality they can often come across as abrasive (such as Chloe in Life Is Strange) or simply a bit dull (the older brother in Life Is Strange 2).
Tyler and Alyson suffer from both problems at times, although one of the main issues is that the facial animation just isn’t good enough and it’s often difficult to tell exactly what emotion they’re meant to be conveying. Although the most extreme examples of this are the guy we had a whole conversation with before we realised he was supposed to be drunk and Alyson’s police chief father figure who should presumably be several decades older than her but doesn’t look it at all.
The game’s biggest problem though is simply that it doesn’t have enough story to stretch across its three chapters, even though that’s two less than the Life Is Strange games (thankfully they are being released a mere week apart, so no long waits this time). At around two hours each that’s the length of a TV mini-series and yet frequently you feel this would work better edited down to feature film length.
You could even argue it would be better off as linear media, but the finale is suitably arresting and features that traditional, final decision at the end that all the Life Is Strange games have. Tell Me Why has its flaws, and it often doesn’t play up to its strengths (which includes a surprisingly effective line in horror movie imagery, that suggests Dontnod should consider making a survival horror one day), but the fact that you do have the ability to affect the story – unlike something like The Last Of Us – makes it inherently compelling.
And then of course there’s the fact that the game features a transgender character as the co-lead and manages to do so in a dignified and non-exploitive way (the game has been created with help from GLAAD and the voice actor himself is trans). Add in the ruminations on mental health and additional queer representation, that we can’t go into for fear of spoilers, and this is probably the most socially progressive video game ever made – and all without feeling preachy or as if it’s treading on eggshells.
The end result can often lack drama and momentum, but since video games are all about putting you in the shoes of someone other than yourself it’s refreshing that in this case that’s not just a soldier or assassin but ordinary people with everyday problems. Like all story-based games Tell Me Why struggles to offer meaningful interactivity at the same time as coherent storytelling, but it manages better than most in what is gaming’s most daring murder mystery.
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