Release Dates: 3 episodes published in 2020: 27 August – 03 September – 10 September
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Genre&Topics: interactive drama, existential drama, mistery, puzzles, transexuality, LGBT, mental illness, religion (bigotry), ecology, indigenous people, family
The review is divided in two parts. In the first part I give you my impressions, opinions and general analysis absolutely spoiler free, so it can be read by everyone. The second part is exclusively aimed at those who have already completed the game.
Tell Me Why (TMW) is an interactive drama in exactly the same style as Life Is Strange series from the same development studio. Btw the latter expanded in recent years, so the TMW development team is not the same as the LIS team. Let’s give a look at similarities and differences compared to the LIS series.
A couple of protagonists
We have again a couple of protagonists, just as in LIS1 (two teen female friends Max & Chloe) and LIS2 (two little mexican brothers Sean & Daniel). This time they are young adults (21 years old), brother and sister, Tyler & Alyson… Well, to say the truth they are twins, but one of them became transgender; it is a detail that mainstream magazines have widely anticipated so it is not to be considered spoiler; btw I let you find out who the transgender is.
We have again super powers. Max was able to rewind time, Daniel mastered telekinetic powers and now both twins share a couple of superpowers I let you to find out. My first reaction was: oh no, superpowers again; please Dontnod, give it a rest! Telekinetic powers in LIS2 annoyed me, because they are so much blatant and poorly managed such to make the story out of place with no benefit for interactivity. This time the twins share more intimate powers not visible by others, just as Max in LIS1; as consequences super powers don’t waste the story, on the contrary they underline the intimate emotional bond between the twins. Moreover, super powers sustain an interesting mechanic reminding of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and are useful tools for interactive narrative. Better than LIS2 super powers, btw Max’s super powers remain the best for interactive and narrative purposes.
TMW tackles important topics as transexuality, LGTB love, childhood drama, family drama, existential drama, mental illness, religion (bigotry), ecology, social minorities, etc. with a very serious and mature but delicate approach. Topics stay on the periphery and not in the centre of the story, but the message is clear and makes you think. TMW takes it calm, time is dilated, narrative pace is very slow, dialogues are heartfelt; it’s a dramatic and contemplative experience that goes well with the silent and vast snow-covered landscapes of Alaska, precisely the lands of Tlingit people. As you see, authors give voice to ethnic and social minorities and protagonists are always social outcasts, very appreciable Dontnod’s trademark. TMW targets a more mature and older audience in comparison to LIS, an audience used to slow pace, deep existential and intimate contents, progressive social culture, contemplative experiences very far from the action packed and uncommitted mainstream titles. While LIS series is more about the growing process of teens and the lost of innocence while facing the hard reality, the protagonists of TMW have already grown and matured, they have already lost their innocence; they must leave behind the shoulders their dark past by unraveling its mysteries and looking at childhhod memories with adult eyes. I liked so much the feeling of nostalgia and sadness linked to childhood memories, which come to life from the past and get confused. The beautiful soundtrack helps so much! Contents are managed in a very meaningful and deep way, better than in LIS2; btw overall LIS1 has greater expressive power and coherence.
Fairy tale (Here I give you some info that in no way can be considered spoiler)
LIS2 introduced a sort of fairy tale as metaphor for the story of the two mexican brothers, the “wolves” brothers. We have a metaphoric fairy tale even in TMW but it is too much intrusive. The twins are identified as two crafty goblins and every character of the real story has his fairy tale counterpart, e.g. their mother is the princess. Such fairy tale characters were created by their mother who wrote a big collection of fairy tales when the twins were kids. The Book of Goblins is a metaphor for the real story and it’s useful for understanding what’s going on. The fact is that you need to read a lot of written pages, the more you read, the more you understand. I think that movies and video games are not suitable for reading books, so this is a defect. Prepare yourself to read a lot of documents, not only the Book of Goblins! In the age of internet and smartphones, TMW characters communicate through paper letters! This is a very old narrative design trick which I have enough of!
There is some big dissonance in the story. On one hand the approach is very dramatic, serious, realistic, adult and mature; on the other hand there are fantasy and ludic elements not so well integrated that waste story and characters. I’m not talking of superpowers; as said, they are not visible by others and underline the intimate bond between the twins. Maybe it is not necessary to have super powers in all Dontnod games, authors should break away from this cliché and try to write something completely realistic or different. Btw super powers are choerent with story. The matter is the ludo-narrative dissonance. Let me explain.
Developers decided to put some traditional puzzles in the experience; you have to solve puzzles in order to search the truth about the past. Puzzles sound very weird and out of place in the realistic and serious story. And you cannot solve the puzzles without reading the Book of Goblins! The insertion of traditional puzzles based on fairy tale book in a serious, mature and realistic drama is just like fingernails on blackboard! They introduce a lot of forcing, inconsistencies and implausibilities in the plot and in the psychology and behavior of characters. The intrusion of puzzles and fairy tale is the consequence of the ludic approach to video games. Maybe authors or producers think that video games cannot do without challenges, puzzles and playful childish features like fairy tales: video games as electronic toys for childish people! You know my opinion, don’t you? Video games are not only challenges, they are experiences! Dissonance with the serious, realistic, adult, dramatic register of the story is remarkable, in particular the puzzles of the third episode are completely out of place and introduce a lot of implausibilities and inconsistencies bordering on weirdness and grotesque. Another dissonant challenge is the collection of wooden puppets while searching the family house; they have a role in the ending; obviously dissonance is sky high, such collection have no narrative sense, just a way for playing like kids in a serious drama! Can you imagine characters of dramatic and serious novels or movies to collect puppets or solving stupid and absurd puzzles?! Don’t complain when people say in a disparaging way: “oh it’s just a video game, kids stuff not to be taken too seriously, certainly not like good novels or movies”. Obviously we know it is not always true, e.g. games like Dear Esther, Firewatch, The Town of Light, Detroit: Become Human, just to name a few, come with very serious and adult stories from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that artworks have to be always serious and dramatic. Two masterpieces as The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch are very surreal and pervaded by creative madness, but they are coherent from start to finish. Definitely LIS1 remains the most consistent work by Dontnod.
I think developers introduced such ludic challenges to compensate for the poverty of interactivity. Story, contents and emotions are almost entirely entrusted to cut scenes. Playing TMW is like watching TV series for half the time. Interactivity is mostly aimed at exploration, collection of items and documents, dialogues. The latters have multiple choices and are divinely written; all the texts are divinely written, nothing to complain about the high quality of texts. Three or four choices keep you very thrilled, each of them took me at least 5 minutes before making up my mind! Your choices don’t influence so much the main plot, they introduce secondary variations and a few alternative dialogues and cut scenes. That’s good! What matters are emotions, feelings and moods that choices make you experience. I do not expect my choices to completely change the story that authors want me to experience firsthand; it would be negation of expressive art. However your choices can influence characters relationships and even the interpretation of past events. And here comes the problem! You can provide two different explanations for past events, but one of them is completely inconsistent with the facts you experienced! I don’t go further, but this is a great mistake. You, developer, have to manage just two alternative explanations, you cannot fail! Btw let’s come back to interactivity.
Super powers mechanics rise the level of interactivity just a bit. In particular you can trigger childhood memories that come to life in front of your eyes with no interruption of gameplay; we have seen something similar in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. When you collect clues and memories enough, a flashback starts, but it’s a non-interactive passive cut scene! Not only flashbacks but even the most important events of the story are entrusted to long cut scenes; you cannot experience the main events of the story, you can just watch them! That’s awful for narrative video games! TMW has a lot of long cinematic sequences that could be interactive with little effort or at least interspersed with interactive mechanics! Narrative games, in particular interactive drama and so called walking simulator, have been developed for at least ten years now, interactive drama even more. It’s sad to see an involution instead of an evolution! Even if you analyze just the production by Dontnod, you can see that LIS1 is the most interactive title. I’m just asking not to completely eliminate the gameplay, I don’t expect who knows what mechanics other than walking, running, talking, picking items; it’s okay to intersperse gameplay with short passive cinematic sequences, but completely eliminating interactivity for so much time isn’t good at all. In TMW long cinematic sequences with main narrative role completely replace gameplay. Ok, they are good cinematic sequences, quality is high, but I’m playing, I’m not watching TV or movies! You, developer, have to put me in the scene and let me interact, even for a while. I want to be there, not to watch from the outside like movies. Instead of wasting money and time for stupid puzzles, use resources to increase interactivity for narrative purposes.
Story (spoiler free)
Here comes another big problem, maybe the biggest one! During the first two episodes I was pleasantly captivated by the slow and contemplative mood, by the atmosphere of nostalgia and sadness linked to childhood memories, by the mature dialogues and relationships between the characters, who are experienced people and not just teenagers or children. But… I was perplexed by certain important details of the story that gradually was coming out. I was continuosly asking: how could this have happened? How is it possible that this person did or didn’t this? It’s not possible! Why do you only do this now and you haven’t done it before? Why have you never done this and that? Well, summing up, I noticed a lot of inconsistencies. I thought: authors will have to jump through hoops to give plausible explanations in the last chapter! Well, you know? The ending, the second half of episode three, is a cold shower that turns off most of the enthusiasm. Not only does it fail to unravel the critical knots of story that had left me perplexed, but it even makes the situation enormously worse!
As said, some choices introduce alternative cut scenes and dialogues. Well, to save money, the developers have blatantly recycled the same cut scenes by changing only the dialogues, with disappointing results. For example, in the first run I chose to love a character, and everything went smoothly, in the second run I chose not to love him; dialogues reflected this choice, on the contrary images continued to suggest a shared and satisfied love passion! Wrong, very wrong! In conclusion, LIS1 has the best storytelling ever, other titles by Dontnod are very far away.
For the first time in interactive drama by Dontnod all characters are adult and mature people, even the protagonists. Ok, protagonists are kids in past memories, but it’s another cup of tea. I have nothing against teens, but I appreciate novelty, diversity, I don’t like clichés, repetitiveness. All in all I appreciated all the characters (except one…); btw Alyson is the best one, actress Erica Lindbeck did really a great job, other characters look flat in comparison. I expect next title by Dontnod to have very aged protagonists! No more cliché, be brave, video games are not just stuff for teens or young adults! 🙂
For the first time an interactive drama by Dontnod was released in 3 episodes within two weeks! That’s very good, players can remain immersed in the continuity of storytelling even if they start to play at day one. LIS1 came in 5 episodes within 10 months and LIS2 in 5 episodes within 15 months.
TMW comes with appreciable, mature, deep contents; unusual topics are faced with very delicate and thoughtful approach. In the first two episodes, the contemplative and serious approach plunges you into a pleasant atmosphere of nostalgia and sadness that you can hardly find in other video games. Btw it is not clear if this emotional transport is caused by the long cinematic sequences that make the experience similar to watching a TV series or if in some way gameplay contribute to reinforce these sensations. For sure the multiple choice dialogues are divinely written and put you in the mood. Unfortunately the story is not up to par, full of implausibility and with a disappointing ending. Weird puzzles are completely out of place, just like fingernails on blackboard, one of the worst cases of ludo-narrative dissonance; especially in the third episode, they introduce a lot of forcing, inconsistencies and implausibilities in the plot and in the psychology and behavior of characters. AI of NPCs characters would need more care, sometimes one twin prevents the other to walk and when they talk they look in different casual directions. After careful examination of items and documents, avatars get stuck for too long time and take too long time to return under full player control.
TMW represents the attempt to rise above the cultural boundary were video games have been relegated for a long time, an attempt, however, half-failed because developers decided to insert puzzles, challenges and fairy tales at any cost and didn’t put much effort in writing a consistent and plausible plot.
I like TMW more than LIS2 but LIS1 is still an unattainable masterpiece, also because it is the first drama by Dontnod and therefore has the gift of originality. I gave LIS2 a score of 74/100 and LIS1 a score of 97/100. So…