A screen shot from the video game Tell Me Why.
Screen shot courtesy of Microsoft
Games

'Tell Me Why' Smothers Its Representation in Bubble Wrap

The newest DONTNOD game is the result of pushing for better representation, only to have the edges of identities filed down and wrapped in Nerf foam. 
August 27, 2020, 4:00pm

Tell Me Why crashed immediately after the last big binary choice I was asked to make. No matter what I did or how far back I started the final episode. Every single time. To my amusement, it appears to be doing this in an attempt to display a pop-up content warning. The best intentions for player safety, brought low by a conflict buried deep within the system. 

Insecurity is the word that circled around my head the most while playing Tell Me Why. The puzzles are too easy, too obvious puzzles (often solved by brute force or using a homemade collection of fairy tales as a guide). The game constantly resorts to quick time events that attempt to disguise how little happens and how few actions the player performs in this game. Even the representation feels insecure. The desire for safety swaddles every decision DONTNOD has made for this game.

There's a world where Tell Me Why is my game of the year. In fact, this latest offering from Life is Strange developer DONTNOD Entertainment, should be my game of the year by a country mile.

Two twins, Tyler and Alyson, reconnect a decade after Tyler (a trans man) was sent away to an extremely fancy boarding program for juvenile offenders and Alyson was adopted by the local Tlingit police chief after the traumatic death of their mother in an evening that is shrouded by a coastal fog of confusion and mystery. It's a story that pulls in threads of estrangement and reconciliation, gender and sexuality, family mysteries, a tragic (but generally well-realized) mother and cagey townsfolk all wrapped up in a dialogue-driven 3D adventure game in a beautiful, small town gothic vision of Alaska. Also, the twins are low-key psychic. 

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On paper, this couldn't be more my shit than if they also said "Oh, and it's King's Field V." These aren't just my interests. This is my life.

But I haven't been able to shake this nagging disappointment for days. How did this end up so badly? I guess in part it has to do with my expectations.

I wouldn't call them high, certainly not unmeetable. But for the first decades of my life I was an adventure gamer to a fault. From early IF to parser-based graphical adventures well beyond the FMV Titan, Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within. It was a genre I loved deeply. But that also means it takes a lot for adventure games to surprise me, and far more to impress.

Tell Me Why refuses to be daring. I've solved all these puzzles before in some incarnation, I've had these conversations, seen meta-commentaries on how silly these genre conventions are by funnier, more acerbic developers in countless games before this. It's too safe and predictable -- a drugstore paint-by-numbers kit. And DONTNOD just won't paint outside the lines. 

Aside from the usual adventure game “highlighted object-of-interest prompts a contextual verb which begets dialogue,” the core mechanic revolves around the twin’s ability to manifest memories of specific emotional resonance (at least, that’s what they say – sometimes it’s just a plot or puzzle device and the memories conjured up are incredibly mundane). Think of it as Tacoma-lite. Or a dialogue-heavy version of Dark Souls’ bloodstains. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s hallucinatory lore dumps. Whichever your preferred comparison — you’ve seen this before. They’re basically visual audio logs. You can't interact with them. You’ve seen all this before. 

It’s not groundbreaking. Replaying scripted scenes has been done before, and with more daring. So, what does Tell Me Why bring to the table? 

At key points you will be asked to choose between one memory or another (typically Tyler or Alyson’s, but not exclusively). There's not many of them, and only one is truly make-or-break. But, in those instances, you must choose. And, of course, that has consequences. It’s something.

For six months in the early aughts, after work and class, I wrote a children's novel. I was committed. I worked hard. And I wrote something that at the time I thought was pretty good. People liked it when they read drafts. It was well-received by friends, classmates, and professors who all offered guidance. I ended up commissioning artwork from a friend who drew me the most fabulous inky cats.  I wrote breathless emails talking about the process of fiction writing and my progress. I went out for drinks with friends who wouldn't let me forget there was life beyond the page. There was a new Garbage album and I danced my way to work with it blasting away on my iPod. I was consumed, but happy. 

That's one memory.

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One of my closest friends, and roommate at the time, would tell you that for six months in the early aughts I didn't really eat, drank heavily, barely spoke to her, and when I did it was a growl if we weren't both completely drunk. She'd tell you how I straddled the line between completely flat affect and quarrelsome as a default mode. That I chainsmoked with an unmatched consumptive greed, curled into a ball in the window sill. How below the banging of keys, I looped "Sandpaper Kisses" by Martina Topley-Bird endlessly. That when I did go to sleep, it was after an hour plus of sobbing into my pillow. And whatever I was doing from sundown to sunrise, wasn't writing, not really, no matter how decent and coherent the final product. She'd say the only reason that period came to an end is because we had a fight that shook the warped frame of our antebellum house turned triplex apartment, our relationship was devastated beyond our capacity to repair it, and it lived miserably for another year until she pulled the ripcord, ejected, and we ceased to know one another the same way ever again.

Which of these is the truth? Are these the only possibilities? 

If I think about the big fights in my life, most of them are from differences in perception — sometimes huge ones. Sometimes things are easy and one person is just flat out wrong, something resembling an objective reality can be found. But most of the time those memories are simply different interpretations of raw data. I grew up, in part, with loud Slavic relatives where shouting was the normal conversational tone — "I wasn't yelling" might be true for me, but not my partner. When I was frantically writing my children's book, I was happy, social, and being successful at work and school.

I was also profoundly depressed and in a three-person abusive relationship nightmare where my friend and I were both terrified of each other and passively suicidal for a year. 

The truth of a situation is often a synthesis of recollections.

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But in Tell Me Why, there is only one answer. For as psychically connected the twins are — Tyler and Alyson can never just have a conversation about how both their memories might contain truth, or even what their divergences say about themselves. This is the part where Tell Me Why fell apart for me completely — it's perfectly binary. Choices must be made: one winner, one loser. No quarter given.

I get it, dualism is easy. It’s safe — thematically, developmentally, and mechanically. Balancing and writing the flowchart for two outcomes is far less pressure than provisioning mediated resolutions. But in a game that wants to be about reconnection and relationships — it feels like a grand disservice to these characters and what the story could be. It feels like a cheat, something to hide insecurity in.

Wanting to “get it right” is also its own form of safety. When it comes to representation, we’ve seen the outcomes that are “Wrong” so many times. From white actors playing Black characters which are often thoughtlessly crafted to Blizzard’s literal cowpeople NDN stereotypes. We’ve had heteronormative relationships forced on players' explicitly queer interpretations of Kassandra in Assasin’s Creed Odyssey. There are so many templates for how to fail at representation in stunning and spectacular ways. The backlash can be swift, tremendous, and marr a successful launch. But setting representation up as a binary where one can either be right or wrong with their depictions is misguided and naive. Experiences of these identities are as varied as the people who live them. 

Tyler Ronan is a transgender man, which is daring. Or it would be, even when trans characters exist in video games (or any other media) typically it’s trans women on display. But as with everything else, it’s too safe. I know it will resonate with other critics, and that many trans players will respond positively to it. They’re not wrong to do that. But "the representation" in Tell Me Why also comes across as too practiced, almost unctuous. I have no doubt that this comes from a sincere desire to "get it right." Just like the overly eager FAQ they released promising no one gets hurt and they followed all the right steps. Because it does. It hits every checkmark, as though the developers were quietly lurking through years of discourse, compiling data to produce the Correct Result. It feels desperate for approval, for someone to say "this is how you tell a trans man's story correctly." 

No. This is how you tell a trans man’s story safely

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There's no tension, no willingness to be daring. As the FAQ states (and the review guide urges me to convey), Tyler is never subject to (physical) violence because of his gender identity.

Tyler is never deadnamed by the game, but his name (as is his perceived gender) before coming out and deciding on Tyler is used throughout (and frequently commented on). The subtitles never refer to this pre-transition character as anything other than "Young Tyler" even as other characters call him "Ollie." The game, through Tyler, brings up things like HRT and top surgery and struggling to learn a non-toxic expression of masculinity. And the game rarely draws a lot of attention to this. When Tyler mentions his plans for surgery, it's simply met with a compassionate offer of help during convalescence. And that's it. They even go out of their way to explain that Alyson got permission to out Tyler to various locals. 

There are no slurs, no pointed "insults," and the game never insinuates Tyler is trans because of trauma (which they insist I tell you about and caution that this is a false narrative about transness). Of course, there are some people who don't get it, are clumsy with Tyler being trans after having only known "Ollie." All but two are very quick to try and course correct for their gaffs in a believable and even endearing way. The biggest offenders here are simply non-characters and one who despite her beliefs, still doesn't misgender or deadname Tyler.

Which, if I'm honest, is a little weird. 

Actually, it's kind of a lot weird. Because there is transphobia in this game, it’s just been defanged to seem like no big deal when it happens. It’s trying to be sensitive, but it just feels naive, even dismissive at times.

Any trauma Tyler experiences regarding his identity is routed through the much larger central trauma around the twins' mother. It's transgender trauma divorced from itself.

But I don't see any way around it.

After the violence experienced by The Last of Us 2's Lev, the kindness and sensitivity Tyler receives in his treatment is a welcome reprieve. The low-pressure, low-stakes encounters he must deal with regarding his gender identity are easily resolved and never truly explosive.

Isn’t this what we bargained for? Depictions of identities that are marked by trauma that both acknowledge the trauma exists, but refuse to directly engage with it. We pushed for better representation only to have the edges of our identities filed down and wrapped in Nerf foam. 

For our safety.

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Of course, as much as I am critical of how transness is portrayed and used in Tell Me Why, I'm deeply sympathetic. They simply can't be daring. We won't allow it. Which is fair, I absolutely hold people to task when they screw these things up. But...

How do you convey marginalized identities to outsiders? Is there an answer? No, I don't think so. Not when we're still misusing "let queers be messy" and raking them over the coals for being messy and exploring and interrogating their own identity-dependent traumas. How can we expect cis creators aim for anything but safe perfection? This is it. This is The Representation. Is it everything you hoped for?

If it is, you don't need me to tell you that's totally okay. We deserve to have safe representation, we deserve safety. But I would argue, we could have that safety in media that doesn’t directly try to invoke our traumas. “What if Harvest Moon, but for Trans People?”

As much as Tell Me Why wants to believe it's not about transness, it front-loads and centers Tyler's identity to the point of diminishing the central narrative. It even occludes Alyson's part in most of the story. For the Native characters, however, DONTNOD goes the opposite route.  Indigeneity is never really brought up. 

An early moment with Alyson mentions the important meaning of gift-giving in Tlingit culture, but that's basically it as far as dialogue. It doesn't factor into the story. Mostly it's set-dressing. You can't go more than one room without bumping into Formline something. Denali is frequently, correctly, referenced as Denali, and not by it's official settler name, Mt. McKinley. There are some dreamcatchers, which aren't culturally something Northwestern Coastal peoples are known for, but NDNs do buy any NDN stuff we can, so it tracks for me. There's even a reference about how some of the objects you'll run into are white people forgeries. 

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The strongest presence that indigeneity presents in this game is in a cemetery. Where Tlingit funerary traditions are left to be read on a bulletin board. As Sucker Punch Creative Director, Nate Fox said of Infamous: Second Son, "Native Americans are part of the population, so..." Though this is Alaska, so these are Alaskan Natives, but that's roughly the feeling here. 

At least DONTNOD consulted with the Huna Heritage Foundation, hired Tlingit artists, and both of the game's Tlingit characters are portrayed by Natives, and one of them is even Tlingit. So we've come a long way since 2014. Praise be to the Representation.

But do two Native characters ever occupy the same space? Nope. Do they reference each other? Not really, not noticeably. Pause for a joke about the invention of the Indigenous version of the Bechdel Test.

And while I guess most Natives don't talk about Native Stuff to non-Natives, the vacuum of it here felt uncomfortably weird? But it's better than the alternative, I guess. It was nice seeing two Natives played by Natives, even if one was just a recapitulation of Deputy “Hawk” from Twin Peaks.

No one really talks about it, but the fictional town of Delos Crossing is actually pretty diverse. There's a Latina surgeon who shows up, a Black woman police officer, the conservative Filipina store owner, a Black mother transplanted from Georgia, and the conspicuously Italian-American town mayoral candidate. It's a regular United Colors of DONTNOD. But like the clothing brand I’m using as a joke here, it’s all pretty superficial beyond casting. Tessa, the filipina shop keeper? Basically reduced down to a few mentions of “kare kare” (presumably made with locally-sourced Alaskan Musk Ox tail). There’s safety in just not bringing these things up in any significant way. 

The problems with Tell Me Why really aren't to do with it's representation though. It's fine. Probably good. I know it will hit with people much harder than it missed with me. 

Honestly, DONTNOD knows how to build a space and populate it with things to click on. The limited scope of the world more or less works, and it certainly is beautiful, like a faded gas station postcard. And the way characters speak what would normally be internal thoughts about world objects, often prompting characters in entirely different rooms to respond in conversation is charming, quirky, and gives this marvelous sense of community improv theatre. I even love the ridiculousness of early '00s European adventure game puzzles. And I really like the idea of manifesting memory to solve those puzzles and provide clarity and resolution.

But it pulls every single punch. It can't commit. It's too insecure to make full use of the memory gameplay, or even the twin’s telepathic voicechat. And because the game is unwilling to let truly bad things happen, to provide the possibility for new trauma, or even momentary danger — there is no tension. For as long as Tell Me Why is, the core mysteries the game presents just aren't enough, and they're never allowed room to breathe — overly pat answers are forced on players in machine gun bursts (but honestly, you can see them coming well in advance).

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Does Tell Me Why stick the landing? Do the accumulation of choices make an impact? Can it possibly weave all these disparate parts together into a satisfying conclusion after the final binary decision? I don’t know. The game keeps crashing so it can post a content warning (which should be patched by the time Chapter 3 releases). 

But, I doubt it would make much of a difference. While at this point there’s a curiosity in seeing how DONTNOD’s writers have decided to wrap up the choices they’ve asked me to make — I just couldn’t invest deeply enough in these characters to find out how their lives turn out in the wake of uncovering so much repressed and secreted trauma. The conditioned gamer in me wants the outcomes on a purely Skinnerian level, I know they’re there, the light came on, I pushed the button, now dispense the food. 

What do I actually want though? I mean beyond a purely mammalian response.

For the game to have been just a bit gutsier for the first ten hours, so this ending might matter to me. I wanted the game to imbue the characters with enough depth and humanity that I didn't have to spackle cracks and wallpaper over the flimsy mystery and broad stretches of tepid tragedy with my own. I wanted to see a reflection of my life in them, not graft mine onto them.

I want to want to play the game to the ending because it compelled me to, not because it was my job as a reviewer. And I know they could do it. There are a few moments in this game that I can't discuss in this review that truly affected me. I know this team can do it.

But to do that, they have to be so much braver than the overwhelming majority of Tell Me Why is. This isn’t a safe and friendly world, and I wish the game reflected that.

Ultimately, there's no satisfying ending here. I know how trauma works, and not just the big momentous kind, but the long lingering slow decline. The trauma of years living with a parent who's own depression can't be bargained with. The never knowing if "can you please pass the butter" will be met with hostility, tears or a simple passing of the serving dish. I know what not being able to pick up the phone to call your sister is like. 

Epilogues are the final safe decision. They can show us characters having moved on or not, but it can't contain the tremendous effort and time it takes to heal and move forward, to reconcile. They’re jump cuts to resolutions, to player satisfaction. But they avoid the messy work of needing to build them in the narrative. They work, when we’ve already been through hell and come out the other side. But we have to go through hell first. I really wish Tell Me Why had been brave enough to take that journey.