Writing important and impactful stories and translating them into a video game is an increasingly complex challenge nowadays. And that's not because there's a lack of talented development studios, but rather because the stories and themes found in contemporary games touch upon issues which were previously unthinkable or not widely explored, with the same care and the same emotional power as we've seen in other media. We saw it recently in The Last of Us: Part II, but also in Dontnod's new episodic game, Tell Me Why. The latest title from the French studio, exclusively for Xbox One and Windows PC, unravels in a skilful and natural way in an intertwining story that aims to explore different aspects of contemporary society that still struggle to find appropriate representation without resorting to stereotypes. Fundamental issues such as gender identity, mental illness, or the profound state of abandonment into which many (too many) in our society find themselves in are addressed here with depth and awareness, which makes Tell Me Why a truly precious experience in a sea of action and adventure.
There is an increasing need to tell stories like the one told by Dontnod in Tell Me Why because they represent an alternative, but necessary, way to explore issues often overlooked by traditional media. We won't go into the specific details of the plot because that would mean spoilers that could compromise this almost overwhelming game experience. However, what Dontnod is able to do in this three-part drama is offer a terrifying insight into provincial life, but in an extremely real and authentic way. From the obsession with religious gatherings to the dirty little secrets you'll find in any small community, Tell Me Why is a merciless exploration of various points of view, even if it tries to tone down its darker moments through the bond shared by the Ronan twins.
In fact, the only relief you'll find in Tell Me Why comes via the relationship that the two twins, who have long remained apart, try to restore as they rediscover each other. But it's not an easy path, as each of them carries baggage after the unforgettable night when their mother, Mary-Ann, died. They have been away for too long, especially during adolescence, when the character and personality of a person begin to be forged. To be able to rebuild that relationship (or at least try to), Dontnod relies on some well-worn choice-driven mechanics, although here they take on a more prominent role because these moments are not limited to keeping the story going, but they also help you find out more about the personalities of the twins.
Yet there's one thing that Dontnod, which has always been skilled in terms of character building, has flawlessly achieved in Tell Me Why: it avoids resorting to stereotyped or preconceived representations for its characters. The studio never takes the easy road, rather the studio tries to more deeply explore the personalities of the characters who, because they are so relatable, have nothing extraordinary or unnecessarily over the top about them. They are human and, for this very reason, they also have the right to be fragile, to be an asshole, and even a little boring at times. In fact, it's hard not to get deeply involved with the various people we meet in the story, especially when some of their secrets begin to emerge.
Another aspect that deserves recognition in Tell Me Why is the careful use of environmental storytelling: given its limited running time (each episode takes between three and four hours to complete), it's advisable to spend some time exploring the various rooms in the Ronan household or the various areas that form the background to the different sections of the game. In addition to some delicious Easter eggs from previous Dontnod games, the exploration proves to be really useful in terms of finding out more details about the past the siblings and their mother, Mary-Ann (as well as all of the characters who gravitate around the story).
In short, from a purely narrative point of view, Dontnod's new project works perfectly, and in my opinion, it's even more sensible than Life is Strange 2, which from my point of view, remains one of the studio's weakest works to date. I also really appreciated the three-episode formula, as it concentrates the experience well without diluting things too much. The pacing, however slow it is at points, is always handled in the right way and you never run into those "filler" moments you'll find in other games by the studio.
If you have played any of Dontnod's previous episodic adventures than you should be familiar with the core gameplay here. You are given several options to select between during dialogue, and you are tasked with making some difficult decisions during pivotal moments of the story. It's very much like a video game adaptation of a choose your own adventure novel, as your decisions have weight and will be carried over into subsequent episodes.
From a more strictly technical point of view, Tell Me Why represents a step forward compared to Dontnod's more recent productions. I never encountered errors or drops in framerate; on the contrary, the game runs smoothly. In artistic terms, it continues down the path started in Life in Strange, but above all in Vampyr, albeit in a more realistic style here, in some respects it abandons the watercolour-inspired style seen on several occasions in the very first LiS - which I preferred, to be honest. However, I think the choice to adopt a more naturalistic visual approach is a way to get closer to the themes that the game wants to tell, which means the supernatural component seen in the studio's earlier games is less prevalent or, at least, it has less impact on the story.
The same "power" possessed by the Ronan twins, which allows them to relive certain memories and crucial moments before their mother's death, is actually more of a way for their subconscious to come to the surface. There's an important difference between what the twins remember and what they want to remember, and, as you can see playing the game, it will also be a fundamental turning point for the ending of the entire game. For this reason, as I said, it becomes essential to explore every environment from top to bottom, as every smallest clue reveals important background that will lead to the conclusion and final choice of the last act.
Tell Me Why is undoubtedly one of the most mature products developed by Dontnod. The French studio has delivered a game that builds on the work of the past, whilst also maintaining certain cornerstones that have made the developer popular in the genre. My only real criticism, now that I have finished all three episodes, is aimed at the music, which isn't up to the level of those in past games, where the soundtrack almost served as an extra protagonist; here it slips quietly into the background and fails to make the same kind of impact. I did, however, really appreciate this more concise three-episode formula, which allows the player to better focus on the story and its protagonists, without unnecessary filler to pad things out.