Memory can be a tricky thing. We think we remember moments in our lives accurately, but time can distort our perception and make it hard to recall details. When two people talk about a shared memory, they often remember certain parts differently, particularly if it was an emotional or contentious event. And memories of physical or emotional trauma can sometimes be the hardest to recall clearly, especially if a lot of time has passed or a person was very young when the traumatic event happened. The haziness of the human mind is at the center of DON’T NOD’s Tell Me Why, a narrative adventure game about two siblings who must come to terms with their mother’s death after spending ten years apart from each other in rural Alaska.
Initially released in 2020, Tell Me Why was made available for free during Pride Month in 2021 and 2022 on account of the game featuring a trans man as one of the two sibling protagonists. If you’re wondering why we’re only now reviewing the game and if it has something to do with Pride, well, yes. As a queer woman, I thought it would be interesting to play and review the game for Pride Month, and I’m glad I did for the most part. It’s refreshing to play a game starring a trans character who is presented respectfully and authentically. I think there are a few issues with how the narrative relates to this character, which I’ll get into later in the review, but I still greatly enjoyed getting to know him.
Ten years before the start of the game, 11-year-old Tyler Ronan, who was born a girl but knows he is a boy, cuts his hair short. When he shows his mother, she freaks out and attacks him, leading young Tyler to accidentally kill her in self-defense. Tyler is sent away to a juvenile detention facility and his sister, Alyson, is raised by their Uncle. A decade later, Tyler — who has since transitioned via hormone therapy — is reunited with his sister, and the twins return to their hometown of Delos Crossing to sell their mother’s house. In the process, they find some information that conflicts with their memory of the events that led to their mother’s death, and they decide to find out more about what really happened.
Like with other DON’T NOD narrative adventure games, there is also a supernatural element to Tell Me Why. Tyler and Alyson have a special gift they call their “voice,” which enables them to communicate telepathically. Upon arriving at their old home, the twins discover that this power also lets them view old memories from when they were kids. This becomes one of the primary methods for recovering information about their mother, and alongside various dialogue choices, it also affects their relationship. Occasionally, the twins remember a certain event differently, and you must decide whose memory you trust more. Contrary to what you might expect, this doesn’t heavily impact the story, as the differences in the twins’ memories are more like different shades of the same color than wholly different events.
This means that these memories don’t do much other than improve or worsen the twins’ relationship. The one exception is the final memory choice of the game, which impacts the epilogue you get. But even this choice doesn’t exactly feel like a definitive answer to the Twins’ questions about their mother because ultimately, you’re deciding what they choose to believe and not the actual truth. That sounds like a complaint, but it’s thematically fitting for a game about two siblings trying to explain a horribly traumatic experience where the only person who could truly answer the question is dead.
The stakes do feel lower as a result, but I kind of liked that aspect of the game. Not every story needs to be intensely dramatic or bombastic, and I found the twins’ quest to learn more about their troubled mother pretty relatable, especially the sequences that take place while they’re cleaning out their mother’s house. Anyone who has lost a parent or family member and then has to wade through emotional fallout while dealing with their left-behind property may see a part of themselves in Tell Me Why.
I hope that the same can be said for trans gamers who may play this game, but I cannot speak from experience here, being cis. Even so, I would like to talk a bit about how Tell Me Why handles its trans protagonist, but I want to be very clear here that I am speaking from the perspective of an allied member of the queer community. So please take what I say with at least some salt, as I don’t pretend to know or understand everything about being trans.
From my limited perspective, I think Tyler himself is written and portrayed quite well as a trans man who has fully accepted himself but still has to deal with a world that doesn’t always do the same. There are little things like a calendar he uses to remind himself to take testosterone and side comments he makes about getting top surgery that contribute to making him feel like authentic representation. A considerable part of this authenticity is due to his voice actor, August Aiden Black, who is himself a trans man. Black’s performance wound up being my favorite of the game, and it was fantastic to see DON’T NOD make such a great effort to have their diverse characters portrayed by diverse actors. As a side note, Tell Me Why also features several characters of indigenous descent, and DON’T NOD hired native actors for those roles too.
As for how the plot relates to Tyler being trans, I think there’s some good and bad in Tell Me Why. While Tyler is confident in his identity and has the support of his sister and a few others, intolerance is a crucial element of how the story is initially presented. There’s no deadnaming or “sex is real” bullshit, but this story reveals immediately that that Tyler’s mother tried to kill him because he’s trans, and there are a few other characters who engage in identity-based ignorance or prejudice against him. You can, of course, tell these characters off, and some can eventually change their opinions depending on your input. This is great, but it does occasionally feel like the game is trying to have its cake and eat it too — that is, use bigotry for its story and then make you feel better about it by trying to absolve characters or giving you the option to forgive them.
I find myself torn by all this. On the one hand, the shit Tyler has to deal with is sadly a reality for many trans people. I can appreciate that DON‘T NOD chose not to shy away from the physical and emotional violence the trans community faces. On the other hand, including queer characters only to center their stories around the harm they endure at the hands of bigots is a tiresome trope. There is a fine line between the two, but as a cis woman, I don’t think I can make a call on which side of the line Tell Me Why ultimately falls.
Last but not least, a brief word about visuals and performance. Tell Me Why goes for a slightly more realistic and less stylized look than DON‘T NOD’s other narrative adventure series, Life is Strange. The graphics won’t knock your socks off, but they do their job and help facilitate the emotional family drama that unfolds. I quite enjoyed exploring some of the snowy outdoor environments; Alaska is beautiful, even in video game form, and some of the vistas are stunning. The game also ran smoothly for me from start to finish, and I actually played most of it on my Steam Deck, which was able to handle max settings and 60 FPS with ease, though at a significant cost to battery life. Players using a desktop should have no trouble maximizing performance, even if they have aging hardware like me.
Tell Me Why is kind of a fascinating experience. It feels personal and down-to-earth, even if it can at times be a little dull. The struggle of its twin protagonists to come to terms with the death of their troubled mother is relatable, even if the game never definitively answers their questions about her. Tyler’s experiences as a trans man feel genuine, and the game treats him with respect, even though it also capitalizes on his trauma to move the plot along. In the end, memories can only reveal so much, particularly when they conflict with someone else’s, and the only peace you can really have is the peace you choose to make for yourself.