Representation in media matters. All art forms are expressions of the human condition and representing our complex nature and society through art will always have an invaluable place in our lives. This discussion is key to reviewing and talking about Tell me why, the newest game from DONTNOD. All formats have been terrible in representation (when looking at it holistically) with a few notable exceptions, but video games in particular have had a really hard time adapting; from female representation to ethnic diversities and, fittingly, sexual orientation, video games have largely remained stagnant and uninterested in pursuing, challenging, or exploring different perspectives. Having said that, I understand why artists are less likely to pursue these aspirations; obvious social and diversity issues aside, bad attempts at representation will piss off a lot of people and make backwards strides instead, causing more harm which nobody wants.
That is why it is important to remember one thing about Tell me why: It is the start of representation of a particular group, not the standard. From my particular perspective, the trans representation in the game is too safe; there are so many great opportunities to dramatically explore many relevant themes and ideas, but none are taken because the game is too afraid. However, I also believe that representation can only work, when the fundamental building blocks have been solidly placed and artists/consumers feel comfortable to explore some difficult subjects. So, while the game shy away from any real danger or controversies, I feel like the representation of trans people is a solid start; important to note that I’m not the one being represented here and people who are should be heard more loudly. This article from Dia Lacina for Waypoint is a good start (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/y3z4vg/tell-me-why-smothers-its-representation-in-bubble-wrap).
Tyler Roden is just one half of the twins though, and it is now time to look at the game as a whole. Tell me why is a narrative driven adventure game with 3 episodes, telling the story of two twins who after a horrific past, reunite after several years to clear out their childhood home and sell it; while there, memories come flooding in as their past is not done with them yet. Much like their previous games, DONTNOD wants to toy with darker themes and more profound ideas, but in reality, it simply is a digital soap-opera. Through this context, Tell me why is mostly good; it doesn’t really challenge or confront the player in any way, but characters are likeable and presentation is charming, so you are sucked into its drama anyway. The Roden twins are a perfect summary of the game as a whole; while they both have to deal with some serious subjects and history, what they mostly are all about is pop-culture references and being angsty teens. Tyler may be less so, but Alyson is the stereotypical DONTNOD protagonist through and through; this is why I like DONTNOD’s games, these fun characters going through a life changing ordeal, but Tell me Why may be their first game where their problems are thrust into the spotlight and can’t be avoided. In Tell me why, for example, the fact that the plot is basically set up in episode 1 and is then ignored until episode 3, is something most people will pick up on, unlike DONTNOD’s other games. There is a solid story here, but it is 2 hours long, buried in an 8-hour long experience where nothing really happens in; the twins go back to their house, they deal with their memories and relationships, and then you decide an ending and it ends. Thus, for the most part you are talking to people, making decisions, solving puzzles that do not matter and are not really exciting. Life is Strange can be argued for having the same issue, but the time manipulation mechanic makes conversations fun enough to engage in and the supernatural elements of the story always keep the stakes raised high. Tell me why has you talking to people who are important to the characters, but as a player you don’t really care because the stakes are minimal and the game is asking you to make decisions that the characters would have difficulty making, yet the player does not, which creates even more dissonance.
What’s really a shame is that Tell me why’s mechanics are actually a lot better than previous DONTNOD games, but implemented in the wrong game. Where Life is Strange could have benefited from a system that does not rush a player with time restrictions, Tell me why could really use that system to mask the low stakes and to help the player buy into the soap-opera melodrama; instead, players are allowed to answer without time-restrictions per say. Instead, the game uses the Firewatch model of responding within a given time, but all those decisions are not that meaningful and most meaningful ones are not given a timer. Furthermore, there are different endings that require different decisions to be made, but instead of trying to guess which arbitrary “good” decision leads to the “best” ending, DONTNOD made the correct decision to make it extremely clear what each decision means; side with your twin and your bond grows closer or go against them and the bond is weakened. This sounds simplistic, but in practice if the game did its job right and made you care about the characters, that decision won’t be made any easier but figuring out the consequences will be less of a hassle.
Overall, Tell me why shows how DONTNOD made significant strides since the last time I played one of their games. Visuals are the most obvious; while the water colored style is their staple at this point, Tell me why looks significantly better due to improved lighting and more use of landscapes and vistas that hide how ugly some of the textures and models can look up close. Models in particular hurt the last episode a lot, because there are many close ups where characters are supposed to be feeling things, but their faces are as stiff as frozen meat. However, what remains consistent is how great DONTNOD have gotten at directing; shot compositions, camera placements, overall flow and movement of a cinematic, even gameplay moments that lead the player are wonderfully directed and take focus away from the shortcomings and bring the qualities into focus. While the visuals have been improved, sound is thankfully still excellent as in previous games; DONTNOD have always delivered appropriate and catchy music for their games and Tell me why delivers in that front in spades. Voice acting from the leading protagonists is fantastic, but for some supporting characters is not as great and at times harms the overall experience.
In summary, Tell me why is a game that has been improved upon in various ways, but none are enough to excuse its various shortcomings; decisions being better directed and without time restrictions only help the player see how risk-aversive the story and characters are; improved visuals only highlight how stiff the models look; a more personal story is something that I badly wanted, but not buried under uninteresting fluff and pointless puzzles that are 3 times more prevalent than the actual story. Since this is a gamepass title, then it is certainly worth a playthrough, but if you’re thinking of a purchase then I can think a lot more interesting titles for you to consider. I hope DONTNOD do keep some of the improvements and interesting changes they’ve made and implement them better next time or apply them on a game that can support it.