Since it was first announced, Tell Me Why has been very clear about having a transgender lead character. It’s an important point, because while we have been seeing more trans representation in games of late – some good (The Last of Us Part 2), some bad (Deadly Premonition 2) – a character’s trans identity is often either left in the background or part of an exploitative gotcha plot twist.
Dontnod however doesn’t beat around the bush with Tyler Ronan’s trans identity. From the calendar in his room marking the days for his testosterone intake, a poster for a transgender pride march, even a book on his desk titled ‘The Transgender Man’s Guide to Healthy Masculinity’. It all feels on the nose in that heavy-handed Dontnod way, but at least you can’t claim there’s any ambiguity, and it largely gets this out of the way so that we can focus on the real story.
Still, in wanting to sidestep the transgender tropes pitfalls, it’s curious that this narrative adventure should open with that presumption. We first see an 11 year-old Tyler in 2005 in a police station as he confesses to killing his mother. Later we learn he did this out of self-defence after she threatened him with a gun after seeing his hair cut short – a plot beat that at face value sounds worryingly close to one from The Last of Us Part 2.
Note: Dontnod have been open and clear about their approach to representing a wide range of content and themes in Tell Me Why, to the point of discussing these with spoilers in an FAQ ahead of release.
Fast-forward to 2015 and he returns to his hometown, the fictional Alaskan town of Delos Crossing, reunited with his twin sister Alyson as they return to and fix up their family house so they can sell it and bury the past for good. Instead, the homecoming opens up old memories and traumas, forcing the twins to confront the truth of what really happened that night, including all the secrets their mother Mary-Anne had been keeping from them.
It’s fair to say though, having spent the past decade in juvie, the initial focus is almost entirely on Tyler as he adjusts to returning to a small town hardly known for open-mindedness. Most of the characters you meet in Delos Crossing however are understanding and accepting of Tyler’s identity, even if you do butt heads with some that have more narrow viewpoints, though no one who’s a cartoon villain like what you might have seen in Life is Strange 2. Most importantly, in these rare instances, which only occurs in the first episode, Tyler can call them out. When he tells one character “Get used to it, ‘cause we’re not going anywhere,” it feels like the kind of affirmation trans people will have been waiting a long time to hear in a game.
While the first episode does lean on Tyler being trans and how others respond to him, it’s important to stress that this is not just his story. Alyson has just as big a part to play, carrying her equal weight in trauma. In fact, the twins are together for almost the duration of the game, the story carefully switching control between them so that you get to see both of their perspectives. This also comes through the game’s central mechanic, where the twins can telepathically communicate with one another and see vivid visions of their memories.
Mechanically, it’s not something we haven’t seen in other games that have detective mode flashbacks, but the major twist and theme leans into how untrustworthy and hazy memories can be. Soon enough we see that Alyson has a recollection of an event only for Tyler to remember it differently, which you’re then asked to choose which version to believe. Sometimes it’s just a difference in tone, but just a subtle change of context can make a profound difference.
It’s ultimately these subtleties that make me really appreciate Tell Me Why, which while having a shorter runtime than Dontnod’s other episodic games, makes for a more mature and intimate story. Being able to experience all three episodes just a week apart is a welcome approach from the months long wait we had to endure for the Life is Strange series.
Fans of Life is Strange might actually miss some of the more deliberately goofy teenspeak – I think that’s down to both protagonists being a few years older as well as a more sophisticated writing team – but Tell Me Why still finds space for the characters to just sit down and take time out in each other’s company. While still maintaining a slightly stylised aesthetic, this is also the best looking Dontnod game to date. Some of that is down to more believable character animation but also the natural beauty of Alaska, while a running theme of fairy tales lends to some imaginative art that carries over to the game’s collectibles and puzzle sections.
Dontnod continues to highlight the underrepresented, not just with Tyler but also with including indigenous Alaskan communities. In particular, Alyson’s adoptive father Uncle Eddy, portrayed as a ‘good cop’, is from the Tlingit clan and expresses one of their important customs by giving Tyler a gift as a peace offering. Even though Tyler holds a grudge against him for his part in the twins being split apart for so long, but you do genuinely feel conflicted about not wanting to disrespect his culture. Eddy’s no ‘step-douche’ then. Like other characters in Delos Crossing, he’s not without his shortcomings, and in this climate, we also get a little commentary into the flawed process of recruiting police with criminal records.
Of course, I chose to play Tyler as someone open to forgiveness rather than an angry young man pushing people away, even when it feels justified – other people will likely make different decisions. This is still a narrative game where your choices will have an impact on events and your relationship with other people. In either case, it’s a relief to know that the developers have also made a decision not to include a ‘bad’ ending for Tyler, and certainly nothing that happens is a result of his being transgender. That in itself is a bold decision – after all, just because narrative games give you choice doesn’t excuse the developer from accountability in what narratives get pushed.