I have this one memory that I’m not sure is even real. I can vividly see my infant self gazing up at our green marble countertop, struggling and struggling to reach some Flintstones vitamins my mom left out. My chubby little hands barely reach the wood beneath the stone, and then suddenly I morph into a bigger (but still quite little) four-year-old. Taller and smarter, I rise up on my tippy-toes, swipe up Fred and Barney and chomp.
As ridiculous as it sounds, I feel like that actually happened, and this has often led me to question the true nature of our relationship with memory. How much of what we go through is real, especially as children? What if what we think we remember is simply an illusion, a mirage, a false memory planted by our malleable young minds? For something to truly stick, you’d think it would have to be important or jarring or memorable. That said, Dontnod Entertainment’s 2020 narrative adventure game “Tell Me Why” argues that our pasts are much less certain than we have been led to believe.
“Tell Me Why” follows Alyson and Tyler Ronan as they attempt to sell their childhood house 10 years after their mother attempted to kill them there. By confronting their past, they learn everything is not as they remember and must dig into the mystery behind why Mary-Ann Ronan wanted to kill her kids.
The Ronan siblings possess a telekinetic bond that allows them to wordlessly communicate with one another and replay ancient memories in an effort to learn more about their tragedy. Over the course of the game’s three chapters, the siblings will remember an event in two very different ways, forcing players to decide which events actually occurred. Maybe you will trust Tyler, a transgender youth sent off to Fireweed Residential Center after stabbing his “deranged” mother out of self-defense. Or maybe you will pick Alyson, who grew up under the protective eye of the town sheriff and was branded “murder house girl” for her entire childhood.
Since Tyler is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the question of memory becomes doubly important. Can he trace back the memories to when he first began to feel dysphoric? What about the memories of when he realized he was gay? Which came first: the gender or the sexual orientation?
In my personal experience, the arduous process of self-identification began without any build-up, yet after accepting my truth, I found hints scattered throughout my childhood. Old memories that once passed by without a second glance transformed into small windows gazing directly at something within me that I had no words to express. Where once stood an arid desert of disconnected repression, a newfound flowing river of memory ran freely.
When examined, these hints make it intensely clear how inevitable and natural my current identity is — I was just remembering things wrong. I was always meant to find myself and live this truth; it simply took 20 years of experience for me to realize it.
For those in the LGBTQ+ community, the issue becomes not only trusting but identifying with the past versions of ourselves — someone who feels miles away from who we are now, but we know at one point we stood there, in their shoes, living their “normal” experience. Tyler faces this dilemma constantly: He is not the same person he was 10 years ago, yet he must unearth the causes of what happened in order to finally let go.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which memories you choose in a particular playthrough of “Tell Me Why.” Sure it will impact Alyson and Tyler, but each playthrough acts as our own memory of the game; each person’s journey will be different and personal with distinctly hard to recall details. What “Tell Me Why” wants players to understand is that the past is the past, and that “the second you walk away from something, that’s it.” The past is what we want it to be right now.
Where once stood Ollie Ronan — an earlier assumed name, the game thankfully never deadnames Tyler — the sister who felt more like a brother, now stands Tyler Ronan, all bearded out and confident in his masculinity. We cannot change what happened in the past, just as we cannot stop ourselves from remembering a certain way. So, unless your version of events will harm someone, it’s okay to pick something as truth.
Even if it didn’t happen, I choose to believe that I had a sudden growth spurt and aged a few years, and that’s my first memory. It’s weird and stupid and makes zero sense, so it’s absolutely perfect for me to identify with. I’m sure that years from now, I’ll look back at my time here at the University of Michigan and my writing for The Daily and see things that are different from how I remember them. And that’s okay.
The important things right now may fade into the background to make room for something smaller and more personal, something that means more to me in the future. I look forward to understanding what that is.
Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.