Life is Strange 3 Tell Me Why is very much walking in its predecessor’s footsteps: it’s an episodic, supernatural adventure game with young protagonists dealing with harsh circumstances.
Tell Me Why came out in three episodes (instead of the Life is Strange’s five) that were released a week apart. This matters much less now that they’re all out, but having played them as they were coming out I found the model much better.
There is a value in an episodic storytelling. You can orient the plot around critical moments and let the player digest what happened and speculate about what’s coming next. But the multi-month gaps between the Life Is Strange 2 episodes definitely felt like too much.
In Tell Me Why, you have two protagonists. Taylor and Alyson are twins, reuniting after a decade of living apart. They meet in Delos Crossing, Alaska to prepare their childhood home for sale and hopefully, rebuild their relationship.
The twins have a special power: they can talk to each other telepathically and they can show their memories to one another as if played out in the real world.
Going through the house and rediscovering the tragic past that led to their separation, they find out that they remember some of the crucial situations differently and set out to find out what really happened.
I really really enjoyed Tell Me Why.
Much more so than I did Life is Strange 2. Reminiscent of the first game, you spend your time in a single small American town rather than taking a long trek across the country. You get to recognise places, learn about people and see them again throughout the story.
Aly and Taylor are both great and funny and interesting and a bit of a mess. I can definitely relate to both of them at least in general if not in the specifics (though Alyson’s love for space is absolutely shared).
Learning about them, exploring their feelings, attitudes, fears, relationships, struggles. That was all absolutely wonderful. And the whole area of Delos Crossing was just so beautiful.
There is a mystery to uncover and a dark past to make sense of, naturally. But honestly, having the two siblings going through the house, talking to their neighbors, trying to pull themselves together and move on. That’s the game for me.
Speaking of darkness — absolutely horrific things have happened there, ticking another of the "life is strange" boxes. But it all happened in the past and while uncovering it is quite unsettling, no one will come to any physical harm throughout the game. I liked that much better.
I wish Dontnod would go ahead and make a game where there isn’t a horrific tragedy at the centre of it. They’re clearly able to make everything else absolutely compelling.
The game plays pretty much exactly like its predecessors: third-person 3D game, with a bit of a floaty camera and fiddly controls (once I’ve spent two minutes trying to position Tyler to the right spot so the "sit on the chair" prompt appeared).
You explore the place, try to uncover hints of the past and present, talk to people and solve puzzles.
These are often tied to a book of stories that the twins wrote along with their mum when they were younger. They’re lovely stories, but knowing they’re tied to the puzzles made the whole experience really frustrating.
I would have preferred to just read a couple stories here and there, but pretty much as soon as the first puzzle appeared, I had to read the whole book. Thankfully, there were maybe two puzzles per episode, so it wasn’t that bad.
The voice direction is mostly great, but sometimes creates weird moments. In one instant, Alyson was looking for an item around her house and she saw visions that put her on the verge of a full-on nervous breakdown. But a second later, she looks under the bed and not finding what she was looking for, she says "Not here!" in a super cheery voice. As if none of the visions happened.
This is of course a really tricky thing to do correctly. The developers don’t know what order the players will do things. But it breaks the immersion nonetheless.
The timing of the voices suffers from time to time too. You see a disturbing vision that the characters react to, but the voice reaction is a second too late.
On the other hand, the voice acting itself is absolutely wonderful. As is the music.
Tyler is a trans man and most of the people in the town either didn’t know about this at all or only knew him before his transition.
This was apparently made into a big deal by the game’s marketing that I’ve missed entirely.
I’m not a trans person and I cannot judge how fairly or unfairly he was represented. Based on what I’ve read from people who do have that lived experience, the game’s sins are more in hyping it up and how much of the struggles trans people deal with every day the game didn’t show.
See e.g. this review by Autumn Wright and this one by Dia Lacina:
It feels desperate for approval, for someone to say "this is how you tell a trans man’s story correctly."
No. This is how you tell a trans man’s story safely.
There are no slurs, no pointed "insults," and the game never insinuates Tyler is trans because of trauma (which they insist I tell you about and caution that this is a false narrative about transness). Of course, there are some people who don’t get it, are clumsy with Tyler being trans after having only known "Ollie." All but two are very quick to try and course correct for their gaffs in a believable and even endearing way. The biggest offenders here are simply non-characters and one who despite her beliefs, still doesn’t misgender or deadname Tyler.
Which, if I’m honest, is a little weird.
Tell Me Why
This article by Riley MacLeod is much more enthusiastic, however.
These differing opinions are of course no surprise: trans people are people. They have unique experiences, desires, expectations, struggles, thoughts, worries and everything else. And can’t be thought of as a unified group.
Personally, I love seeing characters of different looks and experiences in all media, but particularly in games where you can more easily "embody" them and have at least a semblance of an experience of what other people might be going through.
I understand the criticisms above, but I really enjoyed the game and what they’ve done with Tyler. I was also playing Tell Me Why when it came out — in the middle of 20-fucking-20, dealing with the deluge of awfulness in the world at large as well as my personal life.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m happy that this game wasn’t actually horrific and didn’t show the worst spectrum of what being trans is like, but that these representations need to exist and be accessible to people.
In other words: more games with non-tropey trans characters, please!
Tell Me Why is a gorgeous game with wonderful characters (Michael totally stole my heart!), fiddly controls and sometimes frustrating sections. A true Life is Strange game.
Just like with Max & Chloey, I’d definitely love to see more of Aly and Tyler and Michael.