Capturing the complexities of the human condition has always been a struggle for gaming. Granted, beyond the indie gaming sphere, the industry hasn’t concerned itself with exploring those themes meaningfully until relatively recently, but nonetheless finding a way to not only express empathy, grief, fear, hatred, joy, and the range of emotions that make up our daily existence, but also create an engaged gaming experience, is a tall order. Game developers like Dontnod Entertainment and Giant Sparrow, and games like KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO or NIGHT IN THE WOODS, have often grappled with heady stories about our own humanity in ways that are devastatingly effective, but they remain indie outliers in an industry far more focused on gameplay and graphics than purposeful, often emotional storytelling.
TELL ME WHY is a powerful game that feels like the culmination of a decade’s worth of work in the indie sphere on narrative adventure games, but it represents a lot more than that. Not only is the game a Microsoft exclusive, perhaps the biggest sign to date of the growth of the genre in recent years, but it features next to THE LAST OF US PART II a transgender playable character from a major studio. That major milestone arrived on Xbox One and PC just weeks before the announcement of a long-awaited Harry Potter game was quickly followed up with op-eds about boycotting the game and whispers of developers being uncomfortable with J.K. Rowling’s notoriously bigotted anti-trans remarks.
Make no mistake, the gaming sphere remains a largely toxic place, but Microsoft Game Studios vote of confidence in Dontnod Entertainment and the release of TELL ME WHY is a major victory for LBGTQ+ representation in gaming. Taking place in the small Alaskan town of Delos Crossing, the game focuses on twins Tyler and Alyson, who have been estranged for years after Tyler allegedly killed their mother Mary-Ann in an act of self-defense when they were children. The years since their separation saw Alyson raised by the town’s chief of police while Tyler spent years in juvenile detention, transitioning over that time and reuniting after years apart with Alyson to say goodbye to their childhood home.
As you can imagine from the makers of LIFE IS STRANGE, everything is not quite what it seems, and the twins’ memories begin to reassess the events of their past, recontextualizing characters, stories, and motives as it unfolds in a way that both striking and morally consequential. TELL ME WHY is effectively about how we experience trauma, and how we justify that trauma over time. As a player, the decisions you make as Alyson and Tyler have some bearing on the story being told, and the game is quick to tell you how your decisions—ranging from whether you decide to sell the childhood home to embracing a first kiss—stack up against the majority of players. But those decisions sometimes require overhauling the way the characters assess memories, the most significant of which involve Mary-Ann, their transphobic mother who, as the twins remember it, wanted to kill Tyler for being trans. As the story plays out, and more clues and details are collected, that history is revealed to be far more complex, and the game repeatedly wonders if the past is best left alone or if it’s important for us to wrestle with our own mistakes, prejudgements, and moral righteousness.
TELL ME WHY is beautiful, perhaps the best Dontnod Entertainment has gotten to photorealistic stories yet, and the voice performances are solid. Delos Crossing feels lived in, even if the story we see playing out is decidedly small-scale. But most impressively, the game is able to harbor a lot of our own perceived anxieties being put in the shoes of a trans character—distrust of police, living in rural America, a history of domestic violence—and channel them through the dark Alaskan woods and chilly, small town aesthetic. With Tyler not having returned to Delos Crossing in the years since Mary-Ann’s passing, the game places you in a number of specific coming out moments as we see other characters reacting to Tyler’s transition.
I can only speak to my own experience as a cis male playing TELL ME WHY, but I found the games handling on the material to be both moving and effective, and I have to imagine to some larger degree I am the target audience for most Xbox One titles. The studio worked closely with GLADD to help create an authentic trans story; Tyler is voiced by a trans-man, and the story itself centrally relies on us, the player, putting ourselves in Tyler’s shoes, down to those varied microaggressions and awkward conversations. While the game is never trying to be a gendered simulator of any kind, for me it did a moving job of tethering the player to the emotional highs and lows of the multifaceted experience of coming out as trans in a place as dangerous as rural Alaska. While the mystery elements of the adventure began to wane by the game’s third and final chapter, the emotional journey the twins go on remained deeply riveting til the very end.
The cinematic tone of the game is impressive, and the developers invest fully in the ability to build up character and story, at times overreaching what is possible within the decision-making adventure genre. The use of memory and trauma as a framing device in particular allows the story and characters to meaningfully reckon with the full spectrum of human emotion; even beyond how effectively the game weaves trans representation into the larger mystery, TELL ME WHY is a gripping adventure with some affecting, memorable moments. Especially with all three chapters out and on Game Pass, it feels like a must-play exclusive for a console that doesn’t have much on the horizon for the rest of 2020, but especially in the wake of LAST OF US PART II and fallout news of the upcoming Harry Potter release, there are important lessons in how Dontnod Entertainment developed TELL ME WHY. Time will tell if those lessons are learned.