The DontNod formula is stressing me out
Binary choices with unexpected consequences can lead to frustration beyond the intended emotional weight of DontNod games.
As a long time fan of the Life is Strange collection, Tell Me Why was one of the first games I plowed my way through on Game Pass after booting up my new Xbox Series X. And now I’m left stressed out – for all the wrong reasons.
DontNod fans will be aware that the emergence of this franchise has taken pride of place in recent years as much of the world’s lore has been extensively explored in previous titles.
Coming out of such familiar territory playing Life is Strange: Before the Storm and The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, I was eager to find out how a brand new IP would be approached following such a successful series.
Tell Me Why centers on twins Alyson and Tyler Ronan who are reconnecting nearly ten years after their mother Mary-Anne’s death. Using shared telepathic abilities, they’re able to piece together memories from their childhood through fragmented visions. Often contradictory, these recollections steadily help them make sense of their upbringing and discover the truth about their mother’s passing.
The story also places a heavy emphasis on the complex emotions surrounding the trans experience and the aftermath of childhood trauma and I applaud the team for exploring these topics sensitively.
There is so much to love about this game. Both Alyson and Tyler’s voice actors, Erica Lindbeck and August Aiden Black, give deeply believable and even relatable performances portraying siblings who have been separated for so long.
Along with the quintessential choice mechanic that has become a staple to DontNod’s genre, Tell Me Why is a unique and thought provoking addition to the studio’s line up. But what’s bothering me is how arbitrary my decisions ultimately feel.
Over the years I’ve played DontNod games, I’ve noticed a pattern in how key choices are structured. They often feel too binary, with little accounting for the complexities behind what’s involved in making each decision.
Countless times I’ve had trouble deciding which dialogue option to choose because the connotations behind what’s written aren’t always clearly stated. Something that I may perceive to be a friendly, unassuming line of text may then come out more aggressive or intrusive than intended and I’ve had so many moments of regret once I see how a scene eventually unfolds.
There are also quite clear canonical win / lose states and it’s so hard to focus on making a choice you feel is right when you’re so preoccupied with what the outcome will be.
It’s not the discomfort I have a problem with. I realise these games are supposed to evoke strong points of contention when it comes to player choice and I’m a huge proponent of the medium being used to challenge us. It’s more so that the consequences to said actions can sometimes feel so detrimental to my overall enjoyment of the game.
There have been multiple occurrences where I’ve replayed episodes purely to make a choice that would have given me a better outcome in later instalments.
In Life is Strange: Before the Storm, I’d made the (arguably stupid) decision to tell Rachel I didn’t have feelings for her because I didn’t feel like that specific moment was the right time to tell her. I thought there would be more of a build up in future episodes to confess my love, rather than do it at a time where she was clearly upset over other things. This decision ultimately made the option to kiss Rachel completely unavailable in the second episode, hence why I had to replay the first one.
I do understand that branching dialogue tree mechanics are difficult to navigate behind the scenes, particularly when there are so many variables to consider. But that doesn’t leave me feeling any less frustrated.
Motives and consequences in Tell Me Why
One scene in Tell Me Why left me feeling particularly sour, as I felt the response was slightly unfair given the context.
When returning to the general store after finding out they need to visit Mary-Anne’s grave, Tyler is asked to take inventory with Michael, an NPC who prior to this encounter hadn’t explicitly told Tyler he was romantically interested. It’s only after a vicious and unforgiving teddy bear play fight that the two really start to open up and the option to reciprocate Michael’s affection is given to you.
What I didn’t realise was that by choosing to do this, I had consequently weakened the bond between Alyson and Tyler. Alyson was justifiably annoyed that she was left waiting, but I felt like I was being punished for allowing Tyler to be happy in that moment. He should be allowed to have a dating life while simultaneously healing the bond between him and his sister. Ultimately, there was an ever present element of guilt surrounding Michael and Tyler’s relationship even towards my end game.
For those who haven’t finished Tell Me Why, this is your complimentary spoiler warning.
In the final moments of the story you're shown two very contradictory versions of Mary-Anne’s death. Tyler’s memory shows a malevolent moment, in which she antagonises him leading up to her death, while the other shows her attempting to comfort Tyler and is in no way as violent.
It’s important to note that the second is being told by the game’s later revealed antagonist.
Even though I didn’t personally believe Tyler’s memory and I’d been shown pretty strong evidence to disprove his account leading up to this moment, I ended up choosing it purely because I thought that would strengthen their bond and give me a better ending.
In the end I wasn’t even concerned with finding out the truth about Mary-Anne as much as I was with mending the twins' relationship. Maybe that speaks to the deeper, more poignant message of the game, but I was still left feeling a little empty when the credits rolled.
A better sense of choice
Emotions aside, I hope there’s something constructive lurking in my ramblings. I’d love to see a game in the future that utilises player choice without needing to make every choice feel so dire, particularly when your choices don’t lead to the true sense of the choice you thought you were making.
Fingers crossed DontNod’s upcoming title, Twin Mirror, challenges this mechanic in ways they haven’t previously and lets me indulge in a little romance without feeling guilty!