‘Tell Me Why’ makes video game history with a transgender lead role
When it comes to interpersonal relations, there’s something far worse than a broken heart: the restless mind.
At least that’s one reading of “Tell Me Why,” a three-part narrative game from the studio behind “Life is Strange.” But “Tell Me Why” has ambitions beyond the tricks our brain can play on us.
The latest from Dontnod Entertainment reflects the French studio’s obsession with American culture and telling stories that capture the weight of our prejudices. “Life is Strange 2,” which wrapped last year, zeroed in on the ruptured promises of the American dream, telling its tale from the point of view of two young Mexican Americans from Seattle who feel consistently out of place in the country they call home.
“Tell Me Why” immediately attracted attention when it was announced, in part because Dontnod Entertainment also released an extensive list of questions and answers that sought to explain how it handled the portrayal of its trangender lead, a rarity in all of mainstream entertainment but especially in video games. While one could read Dontnod’s FAQ as a desire to stay in front of and in control of the social media narrative for a game that deals with delicate family drama and trauma, it also reflected a reality: Representation in games, though better than it was a decade ago, is still a not a common enough occurrence that it can avoid an extremely close reading.
“These stories aren’t told frequently,” says Clay Carmouche, narrative director with Xbox Publishing. “Every time you attempt to tell a story it tends to get a lot of scrutiny. There’s a legacy of bad representation of all the marginalized characters in the game. People can be very mistrustful, maybe a little less optimistic that the portrayals are going to be empathic. So that FAQ was making clear, ‘Look, here’s where we’re going to go. If the story is going to go into a place you don’t want to go, here’s your off-ramp.’”
“Tell Me Why,” thus, faced numerous challenges.
Its goal was to present an honest story about harsh American realities, and the narrative, focusing on siblings uncovering the truth about their mother’s death, doesn’t shy away from topics related to poverty, mental health and, especially in the first chapter, prejudice. The tale begins with Alyson’s brother Tyler returning to the fictional Alaskan village of Delos Crossing after 10 years away. Those who knew him pre-transition occasionally react offensively (one neighbor expresses astonishment that a woman could look so much like a man, necessitating a forceful rebuke from Tyler).
“Tell Me Why,” whose second and third installments for the Xbox One and PC are due this week and next, is aware of cliches but works to avoid succumbing to them, namely the heavy emphasis other narratives have placed on transphobia, violence and the resulting emotional damage. It’s also a mainstream interactive story, one in which Dontnod collaborated with Microsoft’s Xbox team, and aims to have light puzzles that advance the story without distracting from it. And finally, while seeking to avoid tropes, “Tell Me Why” also doesn’t want to pretend we live in a world of optimism and acceptance.
He is flawed because he’s human and not because he’s trans. ... Sometimes transgender stories can be flat because well-intentioned people want to write sort-of an after-school special of what it means to be trans.
— Nick Adams, Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD
“The good thing about the game, I think, is that it strikes a nice balance of not shying away from the fact that Tyler is trans and showing the way in which it affects him, and mostly that relates to how other people react to him,” says Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD. Adams was asked to be a consultant on the game, and helped in casting decisions, such as ensuring that Tyler would be voiced by a trans actor (August Black).
“They have thoughts and opinions of him being a transgender man that they express to him, but that’s not what the real story is about,” says Adams. “I think that balance of not ignoring Tyler‘s transness, as if it doesn’t affect his life, but not making it the central focus is one of the things ‘Tell Me Why’ does well.”
Lead writer Morgan Lockhart says the story began as one about family and how conflict can arise from contradictory memories of a past event, as the core game mechanic of “Tell Me Why” has players uncovering memories and then watching them unfold to piece together the plot. The characters and the setting, the latter of which touch upon the Native Alaskan culture of the Huna Tlingit, evolved out of a desire, she says, to add depth and nuance to the game.
“It was a story about twins,” Lockhart says, “and it was a story about a small town — those things were core — but as we went and we had to further define who these characters were, that’s when you start adding these layers.”
Tragedy in “Tell Me Why” can occur when a reading — or misreading — of either external pressures or someone else’s reactions allow emotions other than our honest feelings to take the lead. It’s a thesis on how financial pressures, mental illness, personal identity — and the very human tendency to not deal with them — can pull us away from or shut us off from those who matter most to us.
The bulk of the puzzles in “Tell Me Why” come from decoding the metaphors in a childhood book compiled by Alyson, Tyler and their mother, which leads the siblings on a quest into the fairy tale life their mother imagined for herself and her struggle to manage reality.
While one may wonder how a mother who was forced to steal food to survive could construct an entire hidden room full of hidden doors and choreographed lighting, “Tell Me Why” doesn’t stray from its somber tone of unprocessed heartache. The fairy tale settings, then, don’t feel elaborate or contradictory so much as a symbol themselves, an indication that our imaginations can charm us as often as they haunt us. The puzzles are relatively approachable, and the coded words and images shouldn’t be out of place to anyone who has done an escape room.
There are slight narrative splits in “Tell Me Why” based upon whose memories the player manages to trust, those of Alyson or those of Tyler. Their points of view sometimes feel far afield, and yet each chapter of “Tell Me Why” switches perspective among the characters to create the underlying sensation that neither character is right or wrong. At varying points, each may be a little stubborn, each may frustrate in their failure to communicate with one another, and each may internalize thoughts to misjudge someone else.
“That’s a human experience that doesn’t have anything to do with Tyler being a transgender man, and one of the things that makes the game special,” says Adams. “He is a human who has flaws, but he is flawed because he’s human and not flawed because he’s trans. I think the game is interesting in that it makes these characters complicated. Sometimes transgender stories can be flat because well-intentioned people want to write sort of an after-school special of what it means to be trans.”
This struggle to connect felt relatable, even more so in 2020 amid a pandemic, which has affected myself and everyone I know in varying ways, and has made the maintenance of friendships and relationships a challenge. “Tell Me Why” argues that it’s less about being correct, per se, and more just about acknowledging the legitimacy of someone else’s viewpoint. There were times I picked a memory in the game solely because I thought it would ease any tension between the siblings, regardless of whether it was the one the felt most true.
But that was also the direction in which “Tell Me Why” was nudging me, as the game wants to show us that our differences, our mistakes and sometimes even our selfishness don’t need to be a dividing line. There’s plenty of conflict that’s hinted at but never fully comes to the fore, such as gun rights, and there’s even a devout Christian character in Tessa who believes — or believed at one point — in conversion therapy.
The game doesn’t linger on the latter, only making it known that Tyler is aware, and it’s one of the many pitfalls he and his sister have to, if not confront, at least reckon with. The line “Tell Me Why” tries to walk is focusing on the core mystery and lost memories, but also making it clear that life will try to do everything it can to impede one’s focus.
Tyler does, ultimately, confront Tessa, and she acknowledges that getting to know him changed her views. While such education is a burden that shouldn’t befall any single person from an underrepresented community, one could also argue it helps make “Tell Me Why’s” case. There’s a version of this game that could exist without any acknowledgement of Tyler’s gender, but fiction that doesn’t take on such challenges only makes the Tessas of the world more comfortable.
“We’ve already seen those stories,” says Carmouche. “I think perspective shifts a story. Who is telling it and who it’s about impacts the kind of things you can say and the kind of stories you can tell. It’s more interesting to see something you haven’t seen before.”
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