There are no facts. First-hand accounts have an inherent subjectivity to them, people lie, and memories fade. All of this is what’s meant to make Tell Me Why so intriguing. But while the characters and world are brimming with charm, pulling the thread to reveal the secrets of this fictional Alaskan town’s not so mysterious murder proves to be the least compelling part of the whole adventure.
In Tell Me Why you switch between the perspectives of twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan after they’re reunited 10 years after their mother’s death. Over the course of 8.5 hours (spanning across three episodes), the two prepare to sell their childhood home, which proves to be both a physically and emotionally exhausting task. Despite being completely separate from the Life Is Strange universe, Tell Me Why soon veers into the supernatural in a similar way, primarily through Alyson and Tyler’s ability to talk telepathically and rewatch ghostly replays of key childhood memories together. Made up of golden light particles, the translucent look of these replays give them a mystical and transient feeling.
Through these visions, you get to see more of the twins’ past and sometimes “remember” details from key events so you can confront folks in town and get the answers you’re looking for. Similarly, chatting telepathically allows the two to strategize their next move, opening up more dialogue options or guiding the other through a task.
One of the best ideas is that sometimes Alyson and Tyler have different memories of the same event, forcing you to choose which memory to believe. This pulled me into the drama of these characters. I always went with whichever scenario felt more realistic, based on what I knew of the characters involved. Given who’s involved, would this fight end in tears or curses? Given Alyson or Tyler’s relationships with the people in their memories, who is more likely to be unfairly harsh or too forgiving?
Having to pick whose memory to believe pulled me into the drama in the best way possible.
I found myself almost equally split between choosing Alyson and Tyler’s memories, which is a testament to how fleshed out these characters are. Like real people, I learned to read between the lines, detect their biases, and ultimately make my decision of whose memory to trust.
That said, it doesn’t really matter which perspective you go with. While some characters may protest when confronted with your memory-based evidence, there’s no way to really know “the truth.” This ties in thematically with the idea of truth not being an indisputable sequence of events, but the lack of pressure I felt as a player made my internal debate a bit dull and low-stakes. The selection process quickly turned into a mundane task I had to do rather than a compelling way to twist the twins’ fates.
Forgetting the Nuance
Spoiler alert for the first moments of the story: Upon starting Tell Me Why, you immediately see a flashback that reveals how one twin killed their mom in self-defense. That the killing took place is never in doubt, but the driving conflict of Tell Me Why quickly becomes figuring out what drove a mother to threaten to murder one of her own children.
It feels almost impossible to process and move past something you cannot explain. I imagine that’s what the twins are experiencing as they continuously confront the violence that led to their mother’s demise. Their desperate need to give their twisted tale some sense is understandable, but the search feels unfulling because nothing can unring that bell and there’s no answer that could provide comfort in such a dark scenario.
I expected the curtain to be pulled back on Mary-Ann’s mental health issues but they’re never explored in any real depth.
I also felt that Dontnod fumbled a bit in the depiction of their mom, Mary-Ann. There was a nuance between the light and darkness in her character I felt Dontnod was reaching for, but didn’t quite come across in its execution, which focused on her most extreme behavior.
She certainly isn’t portrayed as a stereotypical abusive mom: Mary-Ann handcrafted all her kids’ toys and sewed their clothes (as money was tight), she read them bedtime stories, she took them on vacation, and by everyone’s accounts, she loved them. However, we also know she was obviously troubled. I expected Tell Me Why to further pull back the curtain on Mary-Ann’s mental health issues but they’re never explored in any real depth.
As far as other explorations of mental health, there’s a depiction of a panic attack and therapy is addressed, but it ultimately all feels underexplored, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps ourselves. It’s not ideal for a story that wants to provide commentary on such issues.
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. There’s an icon that flashes on-screen that tells you if your relationship is positively or negatively impacted by your choice, but that never amounts to much. There are some notable, more stressful exceptions, such as having to correctly recall the date I just saw in order to get a full confession, but these moments are few and far between.
I was excited about the fact that you sometimes get the option to say nothing at all, but that excitement was quickly undermined by the fact that your character will still provide some form of response even if you don’t. For instance, early on you can accept or reject a gift. I didn’t select an option at all but when Alyson fussed about it Tyler angrily blurted out “Fine, I’ll take it. I said I’ll take it.” While that didn’t result in Tyler getting the gift it still felt awkward to have my character respond when I hadn’t committed to anything.
Choices rarely gave me pause.
While the differences may become clearer with multiple playthroughs I wanted to feel that weight immediately: I want to have regrets, I want to feel like I picked right or wrong, I want to sit there and not know what to do, but rarely did choices give me that kind of pause.
This feeling of pointlessness is exacerbated by the fact that more often than not you’re presented with multiple options of what to say to a character instead of being forced to choose a single response that affects your relationship with them or impacts your next dialogue options. Even in one of the final confrontations you’re given two questions you can ask… but you’re able to select both before ending the conversation, and the order you select them in doesn’t change the person’s response at all.
Delos (Double) Crossing
The act of snooping around, reliving memories, and asking the citizens of Delos Crossing the right questions eventually gets them some answers in a way that’s satisfying. However, though the revelations we unearth show that almost everyone failed Mary-Ann in some way, there’s little that’s nefarious enough to be deeply intriguing. Even the big reveal at the end failed to floor me.
To Tell Me Why’s credit, the ending itself is unexpected. Throughout my playthrough I tried to guess how the story would end and my guesses kept changing with each new piece of information. However, my constantly shifting theories felt like they were the result of the story pulling me in too many directions rather than the execution of clever twists that put all the clues together so that they lined up in an unforeseen way. And the answers were never as exciting as the curiosity I had leading up to them.
Puzzling Moments and Minigames
Much of Tell Me Why’s puzzle-solving is tied to reading from Mary-Ann’s fairytale Book of Goblins to parse out key information. These stories are well written enough but having to read an entire children’s story to solve simplistic riddles isn’t all that interesting. Matching animals to the gifts they brought the princess is simple enough that you know the answer you’re looking for immediately, and plucking them out of a four-page story can feel like a chore especially if children’s books aren’t really your thing. Here’s an exception, though: chapter three includes a sequence of several back-to-back Book of Goblins puzzles that are fun to solve because they’re interconnected, and provide meaningful answers to the story.
Minigame moments serve to add a layer of humanity and lightheartedness to the heavy themes.
Other types of problem-solving are a bit more interesting; using the emergency exit map to figure out how to get upstairs or slowly learning new search terms to pull up police files stand out. It was reminiscent of Sam Barlow’s Her Story, in which each video gives you a clue for what to look for next, and created the same thrilling anticipation loop where you were constantly rewarded with new information. And, of course, there are some cliches that would’ve been better left on the cutting room floor (after playing Life is Strange I’m thoroughly over selecting worn-out buttons on a keypad, in general).
Minigame moments serve to add a layer of humanity and lightheartedness to the heavy themes Tell Me Why explores. I’d happily fish with Michael, Alyson’s best friend and coworker, for hours and I appreciated our warehouse plushy fight, even though it was over far too quickly and wasn’t as snappy or dynamic as it could’ve been.
The People of Delos Crossing
Tell me Why has a trans character front and center, and it’s mostly well handled by Dontnod. We learn about Tyler’s identity as a trans man not through the bigotry he experiences or by reading his name from before he transitioned (aka his dead-name) on an old ID card or any other “bet you didn’t see that coming” form of cringe, but by exploring his bedroom as he packs his things and through early conversations with his sister. It makes sense, since that’s the same way we learn about everything in Delos Crossing. Besides which, Tell Me Why isn’t a commentary on transphobia, despite episode one’s occasional ignorant comments from supporting characters and gender role-focused childhood memories.
However, I could have done without the bait and switch; the story invokes transphobia, only to quickly switch gears. It makes me wonder if Dontnod could’ve accomplished the same thing without invoking the trauma story its writers have stated they were actively trying to avoid.
The story invokes transphobia but shifts gears, creating an unnecessary bait and switch.
While transphobia and bigotry aren’t meant to be a focus of Tell Me Why there are some depictions of ignorance and prejudice. There’s an optional scene where one character describes the ways they’ve felt unwelcome as a queer person in Delos Crossing that’s really tactfully done. In contrast, the inappropriate comments made by mom’s old friend, Sam, and subsequent apologies after seeing Tyler for the first time feel more like a dream scenario than a realistic depiction. At times, Dontnod struggles to walk the line between being true to the persecution Tyler may experience as a trans man and telling a story with a trans character that is about more than them facing discrimation as a trans person.
Likewise, with fictional Delos Crossing being set in rural Alaska, Tlingit culture is highlighted in the environment and key characters throughout. Driving into town, we’re immediately hit with a gorgeous mural that grounds us in the culture of that space. And conversations with Michael, a Tlingit man, led to more insights that fit the natural flow of the conversation. Tlingit culture didn’t play a big role in the Tell Me Why’s plot, as the Ronan twins aren’t indiginous themselves, but having key characters from these clans elevated the inclusion above the usual set dressing.
Tell Me Why’s well-written dialogue, mundane yet charming exploration, and whimsical fairy tale angle makes digging into the town of Delos Crossing a good story with decent puzzles. It’s just that the low-stakes decisions and an underwhelming mystery plot left me searching for more depth and consequences in the search for the truth.