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The world is shit and it's out to get you. This has been the common undercurrent running through developer Dontnod's story-driven games so far, whether it's been Max and Chloe up against evil forces in Life is Strange, or the Diaz brothers escaping cops and white supremacists in Life is Strange 2. It almost feels like Dontnod's works are deliberately showcasing the worst that humanity has to offer.
Tell Me Why is different, though. It feels like a more mature game, not just because it depicts adult characters for the first time, but because of the world around them. It's almost like Tell Me Why is out to prove that the world isn't always awful.
This is a relief considering that one of its main focuses is a transgender character. When I first heard that one of the two protagonists of Tell Me Why, Tyler Ronan, was a transgender man, I confess that my mind immediately went to all the horrible things Dontnod could put him through. After all the violence, sexual assault, and racism permeating both the Life is Strange games, it's easy to feel apprehensive.
Thankfully, they don't. Unlike Sean and Daniel Diaz being held captive by a racist, or Max Caufield having to stop a friend from committing suicide, Dontnod doesn't bring the world to bear against Tyler Ronan. There's no deadnaming, no overt prying from other characters into Tyler's body or sexuality, and no explicit discussions of the person that Tyler Ronan used to be. Other characters allow Tyler Ronan to just be Tyler Ronan. Now maybe the bar for transgender representation is embarrassingly low (looking at you, Mass Effect: Andromeda), but this seems at least like a positive depiction for a medium that so often trips over its own feet when attempting to move out of heterosexual, male spaces.
Nevertheless, it remains a central plot point. Chapter One of Tell Me Why opens with a very young Tyler Ronan in police custody, confessing to stabbing his mother to death in an act of self-defense, which is hinted to be linked to Tyler identifying as a boy. It's clear that Tyler and his twin sister Alyson had a strained and emotionally stunted relationship with their mother, who casts a long shadow over the episode despite being featured sparingly.
It's a more low-key plot for Dontnod, and it works. Whereas the original Life is Strange focused on a world-altering calamity and its sequel depicted a cross-country journey of epic proportions, Tell Me Why's story is confined squarely to the small town of Juneau, Alaska. Instead of having the characters play a smaller part in events greater than them, the characters are the focus of the story, and it's their personal relationships that are the driving force of this adventure. A more personal, smaller scale story feels suitable for Tyler and Alyson's tale, which is spread out over just three episodes in a matter of weeks, unlike Life is Strange's six-episode series that typically span a full year.
Mechanically, it's not too far divorced from the gameplay elements of Life is Strange. You'll control either Tyler or Alyson Ronan in certain sequences, roaming around your surroundings to solve minor puzzles. It actually functions a little bit like a point-and-click adventure in some scenarios: you'll find a key to open a lock, to retrieve a screwdriver, to pull off some wooden boards, all to crawl underneath and emerge into a house. The minor puzzles aren't overwhelming, nor are they too distracting from what's otherwise a very story-driven, dialog heavy adventure.
The major difference is Tyler and Alyson's "bond," an almost supernatural ability that allows the twins to share thoughts, and physically recall past events as though they were putting on a movie. This is also used a little bit like a puzzle mechanic: in one scenario, two versions of the same event will play out, and you have to decipher whether Tyler or Alyson's recollection of the event lines up with reality. It's a neat little mechanic, and used sparingly so as not to make the entire adventure a little less grounded.
Of course, the entire adventure is still built on the foundations of choice-based dialog. Striking a balance between binary, white-and-black moral choices and dubious grey areas is something past Dontnod series have definitely struggled with (the later episodes of Life is Strange's debut season stand out in memory), and there's unfortunately a few of the former still lurking around Tell Me Why. Used in tandem with plenty of morally grey choices, good or evil dialog options aren't as sinful as they could be, but considering there's a sparse number of moral options in Tell Me Why's conversations, they stick out pretty awkwardly.
Tell Me Why is Dontnod operating on a smaller, more refined scale. There's less cheesy, awkward dialog here, and far more care taken in the nature of the subjects this debut episode handles. Tyler and Alyson are very easy to root for, and crucially the Bond mechanic doesn't divorce the twins from what's otherwise a very grounded tale. There's been a lot of pained moments in Dontnod's narrative games so far, both in what the characters experience and what I was put through as a witness, but for the first time I think I can say I'm genuinely looking forward to what comes next.
ConclusionTell Me Why: Chapter One is certainly a promising start for Dontnod's new tale, as the developer looks for a slightly stunted but more mature take on difficult subject matters. Tyler Ronan is a surprisingly positive depiction of a transgender character, even if the bar is set incredibly low, and it's a relief that for once a Dontnod protagonist isn't put through drawn out, traumatic events as a rite of passage. I'm cautiously optimistic to see if Tell Me Why can build on this solid start.