Initially the sensitive portrayal of trans characters in Tell Me Why comes as a relief, but it’s undermined by the game’s determined inoffensiveness. By Jini Maxwell.

Tell Me Why

A still from Tell Me Why.
A still from Tell Me Why.
Credit: Dontnod Entertainment

Set in rural Alaska on Tlingit Country, Tell Me Why – the latest game from Dontnod Entertainment – follows trans man Tyler Ronan and his cisgender twin sister, Alyson. They have reconnected in adulthood to sell their childhood home, having been separated as children after a traumatic series of events that culminated in the death of their mother.

As they pack up the house, they discover their childhood ability to communicate telepathically has persevered into adulthood. Their memories also manifest as light projections when they enter emotionally fraught spaces around their home town. The story unfolds through conversations and decisions that Tyler and Alyson make as they encounter and process memories of a childhood that was loving, affirming and creative, but was shadowed by mental illness, trauma and poverty.

Tell Me Why’s great strength is that it sets a player up to expect answers and delivers instead a complex picture of trauma, in which the events of the past tangibly occupy the present, exerting their original emotional force. As the twins’ memories play out around them they are compelled to engage whether they want to or not. Their memories of shared experiences are often emotional, inconsistent or even opposing; whether the experience of reconciling these memories brings them closer together or drives them apart depends on the player’s decisions.

The game avoids many of the pitfalls of poor trans representation in fiction; Tyler’s dead name is not mentioned, and in the rare cases he is misgendered the offender is quickly and permanently corrected. This sensitivity is initially relieving, but sometimes the game’s narrative impact is stymied by its laser-like focus on not offending. In one stark instance a drunk stranger mistakes Tyler for a trespasser and threatens him at gunpoint, and Tyler responds by asserting the validity of his gender, which – ludicrously – de-escalates the situation.

The softening of language and lack of negative consequences is incongruous with a plot that is steeped in complex trauma fundamentally involving transphobia – a violence that isn’t expunged by removing violent language.

This attitude extends to a refusal to critique the systems in which its central trauma plays out. It’s evident in the characterisation of police chief Eddy Brown, one of two Tlingit characters in the game who are both played by Native voice actors. “Chief Eddy” is an impeccably calm, generous and kind man who adopts and raises Alyson, and secretly supports Tyler financially. But his actions as police chief led directly to the twins’ trauma, and he banned them from seeing each other for seven years, facts that are smoothed over. Rather than reading as a nuanced portrayal, this characterisation (“He caused irreparable harm, but it’s fine because he’s one of the good ones!”) comes across as false balance.

A feature of Tell Me Why – also present in the Life Is Strange series from the same studio – is that at the end of each chapter you have the option to view how other players approached the decisions you faced. At the time I played the game, 82 per cent of Xbox players had chosen to forgive a transphobic character who treats Tyler’s gender as pathology, and is unrepentant in her repeated attempts to force his mother to send him to conversion therapy by threatening her with child removal.

It’s possible that this vast majority were trying to “win” the game by passively seeking a positive narrative outcome, or that the narrative was euphemistic enough to make her actions seem forgivable. Either way, I wonder how the rest of the 18 per cent of us who would identify this woman as dangerous felt about seeing that statistic on screen.

Interactive fiction is a genre shaped by trans creative practice. Artists such as Porpentine, Anna Anthropy and merritt k have used the medium to explore facets of trans experience with humour, crudity, metaphor, irony, absurdity and rage. These games don’t aim for approachability or inoffensiveness; they insist that players engage with these highly personal narratives on the trans artist’s terms.

Watching Tell Me Why’s pointedly inoffensive trans representation meet a mainstream games audience is jarring, despite the depth and sensitivity of other aspects of the narrative. One could argue that “safe” representation encourages acceptance in otherwise unaccepting audiences; but looking at the statistics, I wonder if that’s really what happened. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2020 as "Mostly harmless".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.

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