Tell Me Why Review: Not Defined By What’s Broken

My relationship with my mom is complicated – and for the past year, mostly bad. Early on in my transition, she pulled out the rug from me in some major ways, ways that still hurt even to think about. In tandem with the countless half-truths, outright lies, and acts of manipulation I’ve seen her participate in for 26 years, the weight of it all became too much to bear.

She was my best friend for most of my life. Now, I haven’t talked to her in over a year.

Tell Me Why forced me to grapple with a tough question, though. If I couldn’t ever talk to my mom again, could I live with that? Could I ever forgive her for the things she put me through? Could I see the value in what she did do for me, and hold that tighter than what she didn’t? Through the span of Dontnod’s three-episode story, I saw my struggle reflected in Tyler and Alyson in ways I didn’t expect – painful ways. And by the end of their journey, I felt a weight lifted from my chest as the siblings found their own resolution.

Tell Me Why is a profound work of emotional honesty that shook me to my very core, and could very well be my new favorite video game of all time.

Rebuilding The Past

The game’s basic narrative arc follows Tyler and Alyson, two siblings separated at a young age due to a tragic lapse in their mother’s mental health. Tyler is put away in a youth home for defending himself, and Alyson is left to grow up alone in Delos. When they’re reunited, ten years later, they vow to sell their old house together and strike out for a fresh start. But early on, they stumble onto something that forces them to reevaluate their lives – and their mother – in an entirely new light.

Told over the course of three episodes, Tell Me Why is a game that trades heavy in emotional trauma and moral ambiguity. Yet, unlike Dontnod’s previous works, this game earns both its subject matter and its nuanced handling of it. Tackling the messy nature of transitioning (Tyler is a trans man who began his transition at a young age,) the murky quagmire of parental abuse, and the slippery slope of mental health is no easy feat. But by sticking to a smaller, more personal scale than games like Life Is Strange or Remember Me works in Tell Me Why’s favor. There’s more room for that subject matter to breathe, and more time for it to steep without there being apocalyptic stakes at work. Yes, supernatural elements still rear their head (ones that I won’t spoil here,) but they feel like a background detail as opposed to a foreground focus.

The resulting narrative is a delicate work of profound humanism that plays out on a small scale. Every character is given their due, and a space to work out their feelings. Whether or not you choose to validate certain feelings is up to you, but Tell Me Why makes those decisions feel weighted – like they matter. Choosing whether or not to believe a character in this game feels more important than whether I stopped a raging storm in Life Is Strange, managed a plague in Vampyr, or toppled a sinister corporation in Remember Me.

Every little conversation in this game has stakes to it – even the ones you can’t influence.

Related: At Its Best, The Last Of Us Part II Is A Chilling Depiction Of The Cycle Of Abuse

Playing With Fate

Mechanically, Tell Me Why is a smoother, more polished version of the Life Is Strange experience. It’s still a modern point-and-click adventure, one that rewards curiosity and thorough examination with more narrative depth and detail. There’s really not much to it, and if you have the time, it’s definitely worth taking the slow road and really digging into everything Dontnod has to show you. Who knows – maybe you’ll find some stuff that surprises you, like I did.

Without giving away what the actual supernatural stuff in this game deals with, I can say that it only affects the mechanics in the most minor of ways. It’s more stuff to click on, more complicated choices to make, more pixels to hunt. However, I much prefer that over the game giving me nebulous busywork to contend with. For people bummed out by Vampyr’s dreadful combat, or Remember Me’s finicky memory rewinding, there’s nothing quite that daunting to contend with here.

It’s because of this that I would argue Tell Me Why is Dontnod’s strongest work yet. There’s no need to rely on half-baked gimmicks or ill-conceived mechanics. Instead, the gameplay trusts the story to carry its weight, and the story trusts the gameplay to provide the ideal conduit to experience it. The resulting product is one that feels confident, complete, and compact.

Understanding The Past

At the end of Tell Me Why, I’m not so sure Alyson and Tyler forgive their mother. I don’t think they’ve overlooked the neglect, the instability, the raw pain. But I do think they want to. I think they understand why she did what she did, and I do think they find some peace with that. How they handle that going forward is up to them, but when they finally do leave home and put the past in the rearview, I feel confident that they’ll have a better go of it with that fraught chapter of their existence

That resonates with me, as the siblings’ choice was one I had to make in the past year. I had to leave home, make a lot of terrible decisions, and build out an entirely new family in order to begin confronting my past. And even though I’ve suffered a lot because of it, from having zero dollars to my name to alcohol addiction to a few near-death experiences, I’ve ultimately come out a better person for it all. Above all, I’ve become a person that can reckon with her past while not letting it define her future.

In the game’s third and final episode, Tyler and Alyson come across a note that reads,

You can’t let yourself be defined by the parts that are broken. You gotta work with what you’ve got.

Ultimately, Tell Me Why taught me how to not be defined by my past, and gave me the tools to thrive in the future.

In a time where I needed hope perhaps more than ever, Dontnod delivered it. For that, their masterpiece has firmly cemented itself as my absolute favorite video game I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

A PC copy of Tell Me Why was provided to TheGamer for this review. Tell Me Why is available now for Xbox One and PC.

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