Over the course of two full Life is Strange games, Dontnod Entertainment has established a formula for its adventures. Set in the present day, they tend to focus on a pair of individuals forced to make difficult choices in situations that blend the extraordinary and the mundane. There’s an emphasis on trying to hit realistic emotional beats even in unlikely situations. They try to force these characters to confront trauma, heal their relationships, or suffer as a result of failing to do so. Typically, there’s an ambition to be topical — to tackle some important political issue or another. There’s usually some indie music.
Tell Me Why, which had its third and final episode released this week, features all these qualities. But it’s missing something. One of Dontnod’s best assets is its mastery of quiet, the brilliance of its stillness. But in Tell Me Why, the quiet is gone. And it’s taken a lot of the game’s nuance with it.
Telling the story of two siblings returning to their childhood home years after the death of their mother, Tell Me Why has the pace of a thriller and the story content of a teen drama. Alison and Tyler Ronan must contend with simmering traces of bitterness and tragedy in the remote Alaskan town they once called home. They might call it home again, if they can uncover the latent secrets surrounding their mother’s death.
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Tyler, in particular, has a complicated legacy here; he’s transgender, and the small conservative town isn’t necessarily the ideal setting for an out and proud trans man to be himself. Managing these plot points, the game races from various side stories and fraught character relationships, pulling the duo (who also have latent, not-super-plot-important psychic powers that amount to a shared telepathic link) through a bread crumb investigation into the night their mother died. The story also veers through a variety of tonal registers — at times silly, at times overwhelmed with emotion, at times hit with sudden bursts of horror.
Again, none of these elements are unusual for Dontnod. But without the company’s characteristic mastery of quiet — the power of lingering in still, small moments — so much of what makes this type of storytelling great in Life is Strange falls apart.
Consider, say, a scene in the original Life is Strange. You, as Max, lie in bed with Chloe, your friend-but-maybe-more? as music plays quietly, almost lovingly, in the background. You, as the player, have control over when this scene ends. You can sit with Chloe for one moment or for a long, luxurious eternity.
Consider the moment in Life is Strange 2‘s first episode. You quietly settle into a backwater motel room, running a bath for your brother, changing out of your dirty clothes.
These moments stretch out the game’s often sentimental affect over time, giving you a chance to immerse yourself in the mindsets of the people you play as. These moments are essential to the emotional fabric of Dontnod games. They punctuate intense emotional beats, letting you absorb and turn them over in your mind. These moments make the pressing emotional pacing of the games work. They create bridges of empathy between you and the game, letting you find a way to occupy and connect with its world. These quiet moments are the difference between sincerity and schmaltz. They turn moments that could feel overwrought into ones that resonate — that feel profound.
Tell Me Why has few such scenes. Though the ones that do appear feel misplaced. Instead of punctuating big moments, or living between them, these dashes of silence (often spent looking at scenic, frosty Alaska) usually occur before the action. They feel more like a delaying tactic than a means of reflection. This is where the game’s focus on siblings, both of whom you control at different points in the story, works against it here. Even the quiet moments are filled with the two of them sharing quips and memories. And while this may be realistic, it also feels overstuffed. There is never a chance for you to simply… exist in the lovely space Tell Me Why attempts to bring to life. You are always being told something new, or asked to do something, or pushed toward the next dramatic moment. As a result, so much that should resonate just doesn’t.
It may be a matter of pacing. The Life is Strange games clock in at five episodes. Tell Me Why tries to fit a story of similar emotional complexity into a brisk three. There’s a sense that Dontnod doesn’t feel nearly as confident writing in three-act structure. Five acts allow for subplots and digressions; three acts don’t.
Or perhaps it’s something deeper than that. Tyler is one of the first out, explicitly transgender protagonists to exist in a game published by a company as big as Microsoft. There’s a sense that perhaps Dontnod isn’t entirely confident telling his story. You see it in the marketing of the game, which included an extensive spoiler FAQ designed to mollify and comfort trans audiences concerned about representation.
No such FAQ was included when Dontnod took on the challenge of writing a story about two young Latinx men, whose lives are upended by white supremacy and police violence, in Life is Strange 2. It was one of the most politically significant and controversial stories you could imagine telling in the late 2010s. One gets the sense that Tell Me Why is afraid of one of its core audiences. Considering the viciousness queer audiences can evince toward representation that we don’t connect with, perhaps that’s understandable. But it raises the question: Why, then, tell this story at all?
Yet that lack of confidence could provide another explanation as to why the game refuses to linger in the way the Life is Strange games do. The traumas here are so deep, and so fundamentally particular, that perhaps Tell Me Why fears it will lose hold of them if it loosens its narrative grip. There’s a lot to work through here, and it’s easier to push forward — to march on to the next twist, the next hard conversation — than it is to authentically linger with the emotional fallout of the last. Whenever the narrative threatens to move in that direction, it’s interrupted, the train of thought broken. From this perspective, the game’s haste begins to feel a little like it’s repressing something.
There’s a scene, in the beginning of the second episode, where Tyler and Alyson awaken after a night spent in their old family house. There is a montage of them having some fun, exploring, and playing like they’re kids again. One can imagine a version of this sequence that extends into the playable game. You might them sipping coffee on the couch, marinating in memories. Just waiting for you to decide it’s time to move on.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, you take control of Tyler, and as you do, Alyson prods you to get up and get to work. There’s too much to do. Tell Me Why never has the time to get to it all.