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October 2021

Tell Me Why

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Adventure
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Release Date: Aug. 27, 2020


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Xbox One/PC Review - 'Tell Me Why'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 9, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Tell Me Why is a gripping, true-to-life narrative adventure. After ten years apart, twins Tyler and Alyson reunite to sell their childhood home. They soon realize their past is not what they remember.

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With Telltale Games gone, Dontnod Entertainment has seemingly become the new leader of the cinematic adventure game, where cut scenes and the narrative play a larger role over the puzzle-solving. Dontnod has accomplished this with original creations instead of licensed ones. Its first foray into this, Life is Strange, was best described as a coming-of-age story with sci-fi elements and dialogue that was reminiscent of Kevin Williamson or Diablo Cody. The developer's subsequent entries in the series tried to tackle more serious subjects while keeping the characters at the core of the tale. Its latest offering, Tell Me Why, represents an adventure game break from its Life Is Strange series, but it's executed just as well.

Before continuing with the review, we should note that although Tell Me Why is episodic, we were given a code that granted us access to all three episodes at once. We're reviewing the game as a whole and not one episode at a time, but we are taking care not to spoil any of the major plot points or anything major beyond the first episode. Unlike Dontnod's past efforts, each episode follows a weekly cadence, so for those who would rather experience the game in one shot, the final chapter will release on Sept. 13. Compared to the long wait between episodes for its older games, especially Life is Strange 2, this cadence is much better at getting people involved without the risk of gamers losing interest or details in the process.

Tell Me Why starts off on a rainy night in 2015. In a police station located in the sleepy town of Delos Crossing, Alaska, a child sits and waits while her sibling recounts the horrific events leading up to the death of their mother — who seemed set on killing the child, prompting them to act in self-defense. Ten years later, the twins Alyson and Tyler reunite to sell off their childhood home. An event that was supposed to kickstart a new life unearths a mystery, so they try to understand what drove their mother to harm a child.

Before going over the story, it is important to note that Tell Me Why is from the new school of adventure titles, which means an emphasis on story and lots of walking around to pick up specific objects to trigger the next set of cut scenes. When compared to other adventure games, there are more traditional adventure game elements at play here, including puzzles. In the first episode, you need to consult the Book of Goblins, a storybook that you grab early on and keep throughout the game, to decipher the symbols to open a door. The number of puzzles doesn't compare to a more traditional point-and-click adventure game, but there are enough to surprise players who are used to the Telltale offerings.

Like Life is Strange, the big gameplay hook is the use of supernatural elements. The twins can speak to each other telepathically, and a few dialogue choices are only available when doing this. A more active ability lets you see memories that take shape from specks of light. The process doesn't require much more than entering a different state to make your character more sensitive to those memories, seeking out their location, and holding down a button so you can focus to briefly bring it to life. It functions similarly to the rewind mechanic in Life is Strange in that you use it to get more of the story and divert the tale's direction thanks to the "choices matter" directive that most modern adventure games have. This is a more impactful approach, though, since it doesn't result in wild mood swings or vast tonal changes in the narrative.

Except for some finicky trigger points that should bring up button prompts, the game mechanics work well enough to accommodate players who are new to this style of adventure gaming and those who can't get enough of it. These types of games are driven by the strength of their stories, and Tell Me Why is strong in several areas. One of those happens to be the dialogue, which sounds more natural this time around since the protagonists aren't adolescents. There are some pop culture references, but the script isn't chock-full of them, and the slang sounds fine thanks in no small part to the game being set in 2015.

The characters feel realistic, with all of them being multidimensional and not adhering to stereotypes. Everyone, from the police chief and adoptive father Eddy to Alyson's friend Michael, show the ability to grow and change as the game progresses. Tyler will get the most scrutiny, as he's one of the few openly transgendered protagonists in games. The team at Dontnod has gone with a balanced approach; his status isn't just a bullet point, but it also isn't focused with a heavy hand. His transition as a child is mentioned heavily but not as a result of the mother's death, and there's no violence due to the transition; the rest of the characters are either confused at first or readily accept him from the start. Compared to how other titles treat people from the LGBTQ+ community, this feels more wholesome.

Part of that approach also comes from the fact that Delos Crossing isn't treated as a stereotypic small town. There is talk of a reluctance to change, but it isn't outwardly shown either passively or through hostile means. There's an acceptance of different cultures, from the many native Tlingit that populate the area to the Filipina who runs the cafe with dishes like tocino and bibingka. The many flyers you find positively promote the various cultures, and the town exhibits a level of respect for others.

Individually, those elements work well. Collectively, the experience plays out quite realistically, so none of the reactions come across as overblown or absurd. The fluid objectives don't feel out of place, and the sidebar of exploring both Tyler and Alyson's feelings throughout this adventure keep the game grounded. The introduction of supernatural elements only feels jarring in the beginning. The game plays around with the idea of memory being fluid, which means that a choice can have some gray areas. In short, the experience has depth, so don't be surprised if some sections tug on your heartstrings.

While the writing puts Tell Me Why on the level of current episodic television, it also inherits the drawback of having a slow intro. The first episode establishes what's going on, but it plays out as expected. It picks up in the episode's final few minutes, but from there, the second and third episodes go on a tonal roller coaster. Moments of levity and character-building make way for serious plot advancement and high drama. At least none of it feels abrupt, as each mood leads to another quite naturally.

It is unfortunate that the experience suffers from bugs. Some of the bugs are pretty minor, such as the camera sometimes clipping into the nearby characters. There was at least one instance of a character performing a T-pose for a moment before dropping into the environment, and clothing sometimes flapped in the wind even though the characters were indoors and didn't have a wind source. These minor issues are humorous rather than game-breaking. About the only instance that required a trip to the main menu and replaying from there involved having one character block a doorway by moving toward it, while your own character tried to move away, which caused both characters to be stuck. Thankfully, none of these things occurred often, but they were present and, according to both Microsoft and Dontnod, should be addressed by the time each episode is released.

The presentation is excellent. Character models are well crafted, with both minor and major characters receiving quite a bit of detail in their clothing and faces. Most of the animations are quite realistic, with the only exception being some of the lip movements. The snow-covered landscapes of Delos Crossing look gorgeous, while some of the scenes are picturesque thanks to the camera capturing the natural landscape at just the right moment and angle. Thanks to the memories being represented by speckles of light, the particle system is also impressive, and all of it is done with no slowdown or drops in frame rate.

Much like Life is Strange, the sound plays a big part in setting up the proper mood. The soundtrack plays nice indie songs at key moments, while the score is generally subdued to provide atmosphere without being overwhelming. The few key moments that require the music to control the mood do so masterfully and become more impactful. Meanwhile, the voice work from all of the characters is well done, especially when it comes to conveying different emotions. Like the story, the emotional range feels realistic, and moments don't feel overblown.

There are some platform differences between the Xbox One and PC. The game is capped at 30fps on the Xbox One and Xbox One X, while the PC can go with a 30fps lock, a 60fps lock, or uncapped. Granted, this isn't necessarily the type of game that requires high frame rates, and the 30fps gives the game a cinematic appearance, but it is something to keep in mind if you're chasing high frame rates. The other difference comes from the consoles' use of a traditional HDD versus the option for an SSD or NVME drive on the PC. The most obvious difference is in the loading times, which can feel quite lengthy on mechanical media when you're going between locations, but its impact can also be felt in a few other places. Scroll fast enough through the Book of Goblins, for example, and you'll see the images pixelate for a couple of seconds before clearing up. The descriptions for the wooden figure collectibles either pauses for a second before continuing or just stops playing altogether, something that's not seen on a PC equipped with an SSD or faster drive.

Tell Me Why is a memorable experience that's done well. The adventure portions are a good reminder to adventure game fans that the classic experience of logical puzzle-solving is alive and well, but the narrative becomes the driving force for completing the title. From the natural reactions to the characters to the assurances that the subjects of culture and transgenderism aren't just there for show, everything is elevated to the level of some of the best television dramas. For those who want something that's still considered new in the gaming landscape, Tell Me Why is a title that's well worth checking out.

Score: 9.0/10

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