Tell Me Why is the first time I’ve ever played a game from Dontnod Entertainment. Story-driven games like this have to do something special to pique my interest usually, and I’m often apprehensive about how much enjoyment I’ll get out of a game that feels closer to a movie than a video-game. The story has to be good enough that the lack of substantial gameplay doesn’t become a problem. I was relieved then that it actually exceeded my expectations and kept me engaged for the whole experience.
The game focuses on two characters: Alyson and Tyler, twins who grew up in a quaint house in snowy Alaska with their mother Mary-Ann. The story begins ten years after the pair were separated following Mary-Ann’s death. The siblings reunite and return home to sell their old house, but things soon start to spiral from there and dark secrets re-emerge.
The ground-breaking aspect of Tell Me Why is that it’s the first game from a major studio with a playable transgender lead. Tyler Ronan is a trans man, and his identity plays a big role in the story. However, it’s not just a game about his transition. It’s an important factor but the game doesn’t have a singular focus on it. Generally, it’s a story about moving forward and finding the truth, and this extends to both of the main characters in various ways. As a trans woman myself I was happy to see that Tyler’s character was well-written. He’s entirely human and believable, and it’s great that he was voiced by a trans man (August Aiden Black) too. Hopefully this opens the door for more positive trans representation in the future.
Rather than make a story about his struggles through transitioning, it begins after he has already opened himself up to the world as his true self. I appreciate that he’s presented to us as a normal guy trying to find his path in life, and the game doesn’t make him a more central character than his sister. They’re both equally important and the story deals with their own personal issues as well as their relationship as close siblings. Some of the situations Tyler finds himself in hit me pretty hard though. There are some uncomfortable moments which I can definitely relate to, possibly more than most. When the game started to detail Mary-Ann’s difficulty with having a trans child and the siblings discoveries about their mother's troubled past, it really had an effect on me. It’s all done with a great deal of thoughtfulness and I have a lot of respect for the developers for doing so.
I was also engaged by how the game tackled themes of sexuality and love. I really connected with how some of the characters felt and it was nice to see a story that approaches the topic from a more restrained, uncertain place. Sexuality is a strange thing for some of us that isn’t always entirely clear, and I think the game did a really good job of showing this in a non-cringy way.
Generally, Tell Me Why is a more mature story than I initially expected, which is very welcome. Throughout the game's 3 chapters it explores themes like relationships, memories, grief and trauma, even delving into how to deal with panic attacks and hallucinations. All of these themes and issues are handled with care and they’re presented in a very real way. This is a deeply personal tale, not a big Hollywood mystery. There are still some major twists and dramatic scenes, but it’s the relationship between the siblings and the interactions between characters that really impressed me. The siblings have a special bond that becomes apparent early in the first chapter, and this plays a big role too. I won’t spoil much because it was interesting to see it develop for myself, but they have a connection that lets them share things between each other in an unusual way. I was very invested in their relationship which is somewhat rare for me when it comes to video-game characters.
The whole game is well-written, and every actor brings a great performance to the table. From the devout-Christian Tessa to the troubled drunk Sam, none of the characters feel like caricatures and they’re all believable and interesting. There isn’t a huge cast, which makes it easier to become invested in their stories because the game dedicates enough time to each of them for you to really get to know them.
The world-building is really great, too. Exploring the white hills or cozy wooden houses of Delos Crossing makes you feel like you're really there among the snow-shrouded trees and icy lakes. It's visually impressive, the atmosphere is fantastic and the environments are full of little details you can investigate to learn more about the characters and the town. It's a fantastic setting for a game like this, as the quiet, peaceful setting provides a perfect backdrop for a very personal tale. There's a sense of community here but also a sense of distance. Everybody knows each other for the most part, yet everyone is still hiding something from someone. The game even features Tlingit culture (indigenous people from Alaska), and the town feels lived-in and full of heritage and tradition.
The “lore” of the game is fascinating as well. You’ll uncover secrets and memories from Tyler and Alyson’s past which build up a detailed portrait of their mother Mary-Ann and what life was like before things went wrong. Many of these secrets are told using a children's storybook she wrote called the “Book of Goblins” which the player obtains in Chapter 1. At first glance it’s just a bunch of short fantasy stories but as the game progresses it becomes clear that many of the stories are relevant to the narrative, and there are various puzzles involving it too. The developers crafted a really engaging way of giving the characters some in-depth history and I was very impressed by how it all comes together.
The puzzles in the game are really the only actual gameplay in it, though. Aside from that, you’ll mostly just be walking around, choosing dialogue options or pressing A to interact with things. If you’re looking for complex, fun gameplay this game isn’t going to provide that. It’s very simple and only really offers a couple puzzles per chapter. There are hidden collectibles to find but outside of that it’s very bare-bones. For a game in this genre it’s expected, but a little bit more gameplay would been nice.
Thankfully, I was hooked by the story and the gameplay still helps the pacing a bit so it didn’t detract from the experience. The puzzles here are entertaining and they all have relevance to the story. You’re not just doing puzzles for the sake of it – they’re usually important for progressing the narrative which makes them worthwhile.
Ultimately though, this isn’t a game that first grabbed my attention with its gameplay. I played it because I was interested to see how a trans story was handled in a major video-game release, and I ended up with a truly engaging narrative that I couldn’t put down once I started it. I needed to know if these characters were going to be ok and if they were going to find the truth. For the most part I was satisfied with the story, and I think it’s a fantastic experience.
It’s a short game overall (each chapter took me roughly 3 hours) so I’d recommend giving it a shot on Xbox Game Pass. It’s a game you probably won’t return to once you’ve completed it but if you enjoy story-driven games, this is one of the best I’ve played and I fully recommend it. The gameplay may be limited but I enjoyed my time with it and I appreciated how it tackled the issues it chose to include. Tell Me Why is a significant step forward for trans representation in media, and it helps that it's a genuinely engaging story too. It gives me hope that more studios will follow suit in the future and deliver similarly respectful narratives like this one.