How we remember things begin to get a little hazy with the passage of time and age. Details are harder to recall, or you remember moments with such clarity while the rest kind of fade into the background. Dontnod Entertainment’s recent video game Tell Me Why explores the memories we remember or the ones we like to forget. How do you move on from the past when your own mind won’t let you until you confront the truth of what really happened?
The game centers around twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan, who reunite after being separated for 10 years when Tyler confesses to killing their mother Mary-Ann in self-defense and is sent to a juvenile detention center. During their time apart Alyson gets adopted by family friend and police chief Eddy Brown, while Tyler has transitioned into a man. Aside from the twins catching up on lost time with each other, they’re also in the process of selling their old childhood home in Alaska. Returning to the house they grew up in drags out old memories and traumas that eventually force them to face what happened to their mother that led to her mental breakdown.
Tell Me Why is notable for being the first video game to ever feature a transgender character. The game is told over three episodes and gives players the chance to play as Alyson and Tyler. Similar to the Life is Strange series, making certain decisions will impact how your story unfolds and the twins’ bond to each other. I don’t want to spoil anything about the game, but I definitely enjoyed my experience with it.
The voice acting and dialogue in Tell Me Why are much better and a step up from some of the cringe worthy ones found in the first Life is Strange. Probably because the characters are adults and not teenagers. Listening to Alyson and Tyler talking to each other made it feel as if they were real people, and depending on how you play it, their connection as twins felt natural and unforced. I also thought Dontnod Entertainment handled the characterization of Tyler and his experience as a transgender man really well. The fact that they consulted GLAAD to help shape Tyler in a way that may be true to what a trans person goes through is a step in the right direction.
Video games are a great medium to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” by inhabiting people whose lives are vastly different from our own. They did it for Life is Strange 2 with Sean and Daniel Diaz, and I’m glad developers like Dontnod Entertainment are committed to making games more inclusive with the stories they decide to tell and the characters we get to play. Aside from Tyler, I’m particularly impressed with the attention to detail and research that went into their other supporting characters.
Tessa Vecci is a Filipina American woman who was once close friends with the twins’ mother Mary-Ann, and helps run a store and restaurant with her husband Tom Vecci. As someone who has grown up in a Filipino household and is familiar with the culture, I got a kick out of what would only be known to Filipinos. Small things like one of the twins mentioning turon (a type of Filipino dessert egg roll filled with sweet plantain and jackfruit) to Tessa’s devotion to her religion (most Filipinos tend to be very religious since the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country) was a wonderful surprise to see represented in a video game. The same care is also shown to the character Eddy Brown who is Tlingit, and place some references to the customs and culture important to the tribe he represents. These things may not seem like a big deal, but it matters to the people who very rarely see themselves in the entertainment they enjoy.
What surprised me was how short this game was, but I don’t think this is a negative for Tell Me Why. If anything it keeps the story tightly focused and I’m relieved when it won’t take me months to finish a game, even when I really want to. The episodes were also released each week over three weeks. I read somewhere Dontnod Entertainment came to this decision to release the episodes a lot sooner after they received complaints that the length of time it took to see the next episode in their Life is Strange series was too long of a wait. I think this one was a good call to make. I didn’t mind waiting for the next episode of their game to come out, but I have to admit that I often did forget what had happened and what decisions I made from the last episode when I played it.
The gameplay introduced in Tell Me Why was pretty interesting in how they play around with the memories of the twins. Whenever the twins got a strong emotional response to something it would trigger a memory you would have to get near to “activate” it. One of the twins may chime in and say they remember the events a little differently than the one we saw from the perspective of the twin we’re currently in control of. Once the player sees both versions of the memory, you’re then prompted to make a choice between whose memory you believe is the most accurate telling of the same scene.
The memory choices are never easy to make because there’s really no right or wrong answers with these. Either twin could possibly have the better memory or both may be completely wrong in how they remembered the event that happened when they were kids. It becomes especially pivotal at the very end of the game where you have to make an impossible decision of whose memory you believe—yours or someone else’s? It was a fascinating theme running throughout the whole game, and it made me think about how I go about remembering things from my past that are now far removed from me the older I get and the more my memory becomes less sharp.
Tell Me Why is not a story comprised of a grandiose quest to stop a bad guy or save the day. Instead, it’s made up of smaller, personal regrets and the way people deal with them in order to move forward. I’m happy with the way my story ended in Tell Me Why, but it did leave me with some unanswered questions that the Life is Strange series didn’t do. And maybe that’s the point. Alyson and Tyler both had to come to a place where they can let go and move on with their lives without the ghost of their mother hovering over them.
If the conclusions the twins arrived at gave them the closure they needed, despite never really knowing what the whole truth was, then they have to be okay with that. It’s kind of like how life works, we’re never going to get all the answers we want.