Tell Me Why - Episode 1 review: "Inspired by things inspired by Twin Peaks" Score: 4/5
Tell Me Why feels like the first game that actually understands Xbox Game Pass. For most games, it’s simply a method of delivery; a Netflix for games that can bring smaller games to a wider audience and guarantee a steady market for the bigger ones without needing to worry too much about price tags, release windows, or other issues which can derail games that might otherwise have been a success. Tell Me Why, however, understands it not just as a platform, but as a new storytelling tool.
This review tackles Chapter One in isolation; I’ve been provided with all three Chapters by Microsoft, but have deliberately not started Chapter Two until completing this review. That’s the way everyone else will play the game, and I think it’s fair that my review should have the same context. However, unlike other episodic games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead or DontNod’s own Life Is Strange, Tell Me Why’s individual chapters are not supposed to be standalone experiences that fold into a singular story, nor are they to be separated by months. If we compare GamePass to TV streaming, Tell Me Why’s model is The Mandalorian. The three chapters have been produced together, and will release weekly, sliced up in order to better allow for the intrigue to build and the plot turns to be digested.
This structure explores the newfound freedom Game Pass offers to developers in a creative new way, and part of me fears my method of review is outdated. What I will say then is that as the opening chapter of a miniseries, Tell Me Why - Chapter One is stellar. It sets up the overarching mystery perfectly, captures the tones and atmospheres of the town, brings in some interesting characters, and quickly establishes who Tyler and Alyson are. I was rooting for them from their first scene together. Examining it as a game in a vacuum? It rips characters away from you just as you’re getting to know them too often, and bounces around from introduction to introduction pretty much throughout. If the following chapters build on the groundwork laid here though, expect that star rating to rise.
In the game itself, the elephant in the room is that Tyler is trans, making this easily the biggest game to have a trans protagonist. He is, quite simply, the new gold standard for trans characters in video games. It’s not just that he exists as a trans man leading a major video game, but the confidence with which he is portrayed. The game doesn’t shy away from the word “transgender”, nor does it use it melodramatically. Tyler makes references to being on testosterone, and while everyone reacts differently to seeing Tyler for the first time, all seem realistic and none seem mean spirited or use transphobia to raise the stakes. DontNod Entertainment has provided a helpful FAQ section to help you avoid any triggering moments here. The biggie: his deadname is never used.
I’ll avoid saying much more on Tyler’s transness specifically to avoid story spoilers, but Tyler is much more than just a trans man, anyway. He’s a witty man, a driven man, an occasionally acerbic man. Alyson, his twin sister, is also playable, and she’s slightly warmer, more outgoing, but also perhaps more naive. Play switches between them throughout different scenes, and Chapter One does a great job of establishing their personalities, past, and problems, but it feels very much like Tyler’s game.
That’s to its credit though; the swaps between them happen naturally, rather than enforcing a strict 50/50 split. Tyler, like us as players, is new in town too, so the tilting towards his perspective feels like a very smart choice.
The twins have the power to communicate telepathically, and can also revisit and rewatch each other's memories if they both focus on a certain point, something the game uses well as both a storytelling device and as an actual mechanic for gameplay, particularly choice based play. It’s laced into the story well and peppered around at a rate which would be ideal, were it not for the fact Chapter One feels like it lacks a real blockbuster choice. Obviously some decisions here will have ramifications, but the biggest twists are shown to you, rather than giving you any agency in the decisions; a substantial disappointment in a choice-based game.
That aside, this magical element adds a touch of sparkle to the game, which by its nature as a crime mystery gets a little dour. Tell Me Why feels like it was inspired by things inspired by Twin Peaks, far enough away to not feel like it’s derivative but close enough that the fingertips of David Lynch’s series’ ghost can be felt around the edges. Think a less violent Tin Star and you’re along the right lines.
The game’s setting, Delos Crossing, Alaska, is particularly in need of the distinction between reviewing this as a single game, and thinking of it as a table setter for something greater. The world flows together with brilliant cohesion, building a place as cold and brooding as it is colourful and welcoming. I’ve never been to Alaska, and yet I felt as nostalgic as Tyler was upon his return. The old house feels especially bursting with flavour, scattered with creative artwork, colours, and a firm identity.
The game strikes a good balance between linear storytelling and letting you wander and soak up the lore, but you visit a few too many places and meet a few too many people for the Chapter’s run time. Because of this, while you uncover some interesting twists to the game’s central mystery, I didn’t feel like we were given enough breadcrumbs to figure any gaps out for ourselves.
I’m eager to rejoin Tyler and Alyson again - as well as hopefully get more information from the blink and you’ll miss ‘em side characters like Michael - because the people make this game what it is. I’d like to start figuring out the story, but I’m mainly in it for the characters right now.
Chapter 1 verdict:
Tell Me Why - Chapter One is brilliant if you think of it as the opening entry of a mini series, but only pretty good as a game. This is very much an exercise in sowing, but hopefully Chapters Two and Three can be more about reaping.