Tell Me Why: A Beautiful Game About the Strangeness of Trauma and Memory

This story begins on a dark and stormy night, though it’s not quite the schlocky, ghostly horror setup that it sounds like at first. In the end, in fact, it’s a surprisingly kind story, with a lot of heart and just a little bit of magic.

[Content warning: this post discusses parental abuse and gun violence]

One stormy night in 2005, Mary-Ann Ronan pulled a gun on her children. As they attempted to defend themselves, Mary-Ann received an injury that ended her life. The incident left a fracture in the sleepy, snowy town of Delos Crossing: the children, twins Alyson and Tyler, were split up, Mary-Ann’s former friends were left reeling, and the old wooden house where this all happened was left to sit empty like a haunted castle deep in the woods.

Ten years later, Tyler and Alyson have reunited and returned to clean out the place, and to figure out—with the help of just a touch of a supernatural element—what really happened that night and why. Tell Me Why is a mystery, for sure, but for all the scandal and manslaughter it contains, it’s not a crime narrative nor a police procedural. And, despite the flickering figures that seem to be pursuing the twins, it’s not a ghost story, either. Not in the sense of poltergeists and trapped souls, anyway. Tell Me Why is a very personal story about the strange territory of trauma and memory, and how sometimes our ghosts aren’t so easy to define as good or evil.

This is one of those stories where the joy, intrigue, and catharsis comes from exploring the world yourself, and letting the mystery unfold around you as you work to pick it apart. So without spoiling anything, let me just try to tell you why I found this game to be so lovely and so meaningful.

Tell Me Why comes to us from DontNod, who, you may recall, made another game about growing up and facing your demons that I have quite a few emotions about. This new standalone story captures a lot of what I liked about Life is Strange while also polishing or slimming down the aspects that didn’t work so well. It has that beautiful, liminal interweaving of magic and metaphor, the focus on complicated relationships, and the atmospheric setting of a gorgeous but sometimes desolate small town. It does not have a tornado or a time warp threatening everything the twins hold dear—something that, as I’ll get to in a moment, works in the game’s favour even if it makes the stakes comparatively lower.

Delos Crossing is beautiful, composed of sweeping snowy vistas, twisting woodland pathways, and shops and houses that feel realistically cluttered and lived-in. The main setting, of course, is the lakeside cabin where Alyson and Tyler grew up, a place where their complex relationship with their unstable and sometimes emotionally abusive mother is literally etched onto the very walls in paint and pencil and photographs.

Tyler and Alyson are both great characters that I got attached to quickly, each for their own reasons. Tyler is obviously noteworthy as the first trans player-character in a game from a studio this big, and the way his gender identity is factored into his life experiences (past and present) makes it realistically significant without it being His Entire Deal. It’s not even the source of his childhood trauma, though many (including Tyler himself) might assume that at first. He gets to be a layered character in his own right without seeming like an inserted teaching tool for cis players, and it’s very moving watching the interplay of the little Tyler from the past and the grown-up Tyler from the present.

Alyson is caught between the past and the future in her own ways. While Tyler was moved away after the incident, and thus gets a touch of that uncanny “coming home” narrative, Alyson still calls Delos Crossing home and her relationship with it is a different kind of complicated. In many ways, she’s the more sensible, savvy, logical twin, but in many other ways she’s the most idealistic and the most fragile. Just as Tyler isn’t a teaching tool about being trans, Alyson is not solely a teaching tool about mental health and trauma response—the depiction of her PTSD, carefully hidden or bubbling to the surface, felt very sympathetic and very natural.

They both feel like people, with realistic broken edges, and it’s up to the player to see if they can fit back together or if they will end up causing further cracks. The game is peppered with flashbacks, contrasting the unshakeable bond they had as kids to the shaky ground they’re on now, and these draw the player into their world and make it feel multi-faceted and real.

The supernatural element arrives in the form of a shared telepathic voice between the twins (something they played with as kids but have lost in the intervening years) and the appearance of glowing, golden ghosts—with all the aesthetic of sunlight hitting dust motes—who re-enact significant memories. It serves as a neat visual for post-traumatic experience: the echoes of the past physically inhabit the space where your life changed so drastically, and of course you can’t help but see them everywhere when you return there, for better or worse.

But as we soon discover, these memories aren’t just replays of events. Memory, after all, is a slippery thing, and on a few occasions Alyson and Tyler find that they remember events playing out differently, often leading to very different emotional associations. In big and small instances, the player has to choose which version of the events to believe, and in doing so, which version of events becomes the emotional truth of these characters’ lives. It’s not about solving a puzzle and figuring out what “really happened”, per se, it’s about helping this pair of siblings align their experiences and find some sense of closure.

The central conflict is about the way the past haunts the present, and the question of whether or not you can truly move past it. It’s because it keeps is conflict, its stakes, and its magic-metaphor so personal that Tell Me Why is successful. It doesn’t try to get lofty or philosophical, or try to be epic and gripping. The “big decision” at the game’s climax may seem, on paper, to be of much lower stakes than something to do with time travel and the destruction of a town. But because the narrative has stuck so close to the twins’ emotional journeys and emphasised the weight of this very small-scale family drama, it feels incredibly important and impactful. Tyler and Alyson are the world of the story, so “saving the world” means helping them live and grow.

Why did their mother act the way she did that night? Who was their mother, really? The golden ghosts swirl and shine around a fragmented vision of a woman who’s maybe neither hero nor villain, but who represents the absolute bizarre process of trying to understand your parents as flawed adults—especially when they’re no longer there to answer your questions. The Ronans are a broken family, for certain, but if you guide the twins through this tale with enough care, you can start to… well, not rebuild, but grow something new.

Tell Me Why has a heavy heart in all its dealings with abuse and intergenerational trauma, but it’s an uplifting game too: full of warm sunlight on snowy vistas, laughter among tears, and the promise of a better future hanging over its exploration of the past. Again, it’s not a thrill-ride through a bloody mystery or the horror story of a haunted house. It’s just a satisfyingly quiet, kind game that gives its characters room to breathe and be, and gives the player the chance to let out a big, cathartic breath of their own in the end.

Like this blog? Have you considered contributing to the tip jar?

1 Comment

Filed under Alex Plays, And I Think That's Neat

One response to “Tell Me Why: A Beautiful Game About the Strangeness of Trauma and Memory

  1. Pingback: Merry Crisis: December ’20 Roundup | The Afictionado

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s