It's uncommon to find game studios as competent, dynamic, and committed to the cause as Dontnod. The French studio - which rose to prominence with a video game that soon became a real cult classic: Life is Strange - has carved out an important niche in the episodic adventure space. It's a genre that has proliferated in recent years, but which has also slowly faded, forcing the closure of veteran outfit Telltale. The strength in Dontnod's work is found not only in its great ability in terms of writing but above all from the way in which the studio manages to explore topical social and cultural issues, without ever falling into obvious tropes. It's a risk faced by lots of contemporary cultural products (from cinema to literature, via TV and video games), but it's one which Dontnod has managed, in most of their games, to avoid with great skill, instead, giving life to games that have a significant emotional impact and that can help start conversations, not just within the communities directly portrayed, but beyond.
After an almost surprise announcement last November, Tell Me Why's first episode has finally arrived. It's a new episodic adventure game, this time consisting of just three episodes (unlike both Life is Strange games), and designed exclusively for Xbox consoles and PC. The game has not failed to create a stir around itself as one of the main (but not the only) themes on which it focuses is the transsexuality of one of the game's protagonists, the twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan. However, while you're playing it, it turns out that the approach adopted by Dontnod is natural, you never get the feeling that the topic has been forced into the experience. Far from it: one of the aspects that I appreciated the most in this first episode, is precisely the natural simplicity with which this diversity is expressed. Diversity, in fact, is never really perceived as such, and the studio has worked hard to give everything an authentic voice.
In order to be as reliable as possible, the developers have made use of the contribution of real people who have experienced first-hand the difficulties that transgender people run into. This is exactly what you can experience a very painful, but also hopeful tale about how video games can prove to be an important supportive tool for people, but also an emotional journey to learn more about a subject by those who are complete strangers to it. But let's take a step back and try to understand why Tell Me Why is a game that will appeal to those who, first of all, love narrative adventures, especially for the way in which it's woven its story starting from the very first episode.
The story is set in 2015, and it takes place in a forgotten and sleepy village in Alaska. Twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan meet each other ten years after their mother's death to deal with the sale of the house where they lived when they were children. Even opening the front door after all those years turns out to be more difficult than expected: the old wooden house, lost in the heart of the woods, is a bed of memories, some very painful, which have marked the lives of the two twins. While there, choosing what to keep and what to erase from their shared childhood, Alyson and Tyler bring to light a supernatural ability that they have kept buried for years, through which they are able to relive certain memories. However, the mind can play tricks and some important episodes of the last months of their life in that town have now faded for Ronan twins, to the point that each tends to remember these events in a different way. It's through this special ability that Alyson and Tyler try to dig into their past to discover some important truths that have remained buried and abandoned in that old wooden house for almost a decade.
As we said at the beginning, if there's one thing that Dontnod has always been masters of, it's the studio's extraordinary ear for dialogue and quality storytelling. Even this first episode, which serves up twists like you might find in a good television series, Tell Me Why plays with and intrigues gamers, teasing as it drags us into a whirlwind of secrets and mysteries that held me glued until the end of the first episode, leaving me eager to know more right away. Clearly, I won't go into any detail so as not to spoil the experience in any way, but you can sense a certain maturity on the part of the studio, in the ways in which it reveals important details (or not, as the case may be) and, more generally, how it keeps the player engaged at all times.
Tell Me Why is excellently paced and never gets bogged down in useless or diluted moments, as sometimes happened in some parts of Life is Strange and its sequel, which gives us hope for this new three-episode format, which is aiming to significantly condense the narrative structure of the game, without ever being too dispersive. While it's true that there's a certain maturity to the studio's choice of themes, it's equally true that some cornerstones of previous Dontnod games remain unchanged, including a good soundtrack and the direction of the sequences. Music is once again a supporting element, but it's never invasive, and I liked the use of long shots to show off the uncontaminated natural beauty of Alaska, as well as some effective close-ups on the different protagonists during the first part of this adventure.
Another backbone in Dontnod's past games, the choice and consequence mechanics, also endures in Tell Me Why and, even if I don't yet know how it will affect events across the full game, it undoubtedly affects the relationship between the Ronan twins in an impactful way. I can't wait to find out how much my decisions now will affect the overall outcome of the entire experience.
Tell Me Why has turned out to be a fascinating game: it touches delicate topics with great elegance and it's difficult not to be enthralled by the exciting story of Ronan twins. It remains to be seen whether the pacing will be maintained throughout and whether the game will live up to the studio's previous successes, especially after Life is Strange 2 was more subdued when compared to its predecessors (Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm). We don't have to wait long to find out, as the next two episodes will be released weekly, and I can't wait to see what they have in store.
We'll be back with our full impressions and a score once we've seen the credits roll next month.