There’s an important milestone in every adult’s life when they realize that their parents aren’t just monolithic figures known only as Mom and/or Dad, but people in their own right who have hopes, dreams, thoughts, and desires that have nothing to do with their children. That’s not exactly new territory in other art, but it’s a rarity in games. In the few that do explore that idea, it’s usually Dad who gets the attention. That makes Dontnod’s Tell Me Why a fascinating anomaly right off the bat. It is, without question, a shattered portrait of a single mother, pieced back together by those who knew her best. The framework of the game screams narrative murder-mystery, but the game takes a Knives Out approach to that; the question of who killed Mary-Ann Ronan is answered by the end of the first episode. Why she died is a far more complex question, and the answers depending on unreliable, traumatic memories throws another wrench into the mix.
The memories in question mostly belong to Mary-Ann’s twin children, Tyler and Alyson. The facts from the start are these: Mary-Ann and her kids live in a tiny middle-of-nowhere town in Alaska called Delos Crossing. The family is poor, relying on handouts from other folks in town, while all the entertainment comes from either nature itself or Mary-Ann’s fantastical imagination teaching her kids how to tell stories with and to each other. Over time, however, Mary-Ann’s mental health deteriorates, culminating in a fateful night where Mary-Ann suffers some sort of mental break and attacks Tyler, who is later accused of killing her in self-defense. Tyler is sent away to live in a group home, while Alyson is taken in by a family friend, a cop named Eddy. Fifteen years later, Tyler and Alyson finally reunite to go back to their old house and clear it out to be sold, only to unearth some harrowing truths about their mother and their hometown–and everyone’s roles in how Mary-Ann died.
There are quite a few mysteries to be unraveled in Tell Me Why, but calling Tell Me Why a mystery suggests the game is more action-packed, twisty, and turny than it actually is. It’s actually closer in tone and mechanics to Fullbright’s Gone Home than Dontnod’s own Life Is Strange. There’s still quite a lot of Life Is Strange in this game’s blood, though. Most of Tell Me Why involves simply walking around, pressing A when you come close to anything highlighted to hear characters expound on a particular object and continue the story, making dialogue choices for characters along the way. The developers’ design ethos is familiar, they’re excellent at making towns and communities that are awash in detail, places that feel rich, lived-in, and full of history and culture. That’s particularly special in Tell Me Why, given the cultures represented here that are rarely if ever presented with this kind of TLC, if they’ve ever been presented at all. In particular, the way the indigenous Tlingit tribe is simply woven into the fabric of Delos Crossing, and doesn’t call out to itself as exotic or foreign is just excellent. There’s much to be said about the existence of The Other being portrayed not as a strange curiosity, but a fact of life in a narrative.