15th Sep2020

Opinionated: ‘Tell Me Why’ is a Triumph in Trans Representation

by Xenia Grounds

WARNING: The following article contains some spoilers for Tell Me Why and Life is Strange 2.

When I first saw the reveal trailer for Tell Me Why, I remember thinking it looked interesting but I was a little skeptical. If I’m completely honest, I was mostly interested by the game having transgender lead because that is a first for a major game studio and I welcome diversity when it’s handled correctly. That said, I had some degree of skepticism because games don’t have the best history of representing trans characters where it’s normally associated with villainy or comedy.

The Last of Us Part 2 had a transgender character (Lev) which I think was a step in the right direction but it still fell into some of the traps that I see often with writing transgender characters. For example, like making someone’s entire character arc about their transgender identity rather than that only being a part of their character. It also included some things that trans people can find hurtful like dead naming (calling a trans person by their birth name). In context, it’s understandable why it was included in the story due to Lev being raised in an extremist cult. That said, while it’s important to tell stories about how it can be hard for transgender people, being transgender shouldn’t always be associated with hardships.

The reason why Tell Me Why is a breath of fresh air on the matter is because of the care that was put into creating the character of Tyler Ronan. DONTNOD has always been exceptional at including diversity in their games. One of the best examples of that is Sean Diaz in Life is Strange 2 who is a person of colour, bisexual and has to learn to live with a physical handicap in the later part of the story. Each of these aspects were given a level of attention and focus but they never defined Sean. His journey and character growth from a somewhat self-involved and dismissive teen to a selfless and strong adult is the thing that you remember. In Tell Me Why , it’s clear DONTNOD wants to make Tyler just as complex and three-dimensional. They worked with organisation GLAAD to capture the authenticity of the trans experience and Tyler’s voice actor (August Aiden Black) is also a trans man. From what is said on Tell Me Why’s FAQ page, Black had complete freedom to contribute to Tyler’s character as well and if he thought that a line didn’t do justice to Tyler and his experience, he was allowed to change it.

From episode one, the great amount of consideration and thought is made apparent to us. Tyler is never once referred to by his birth name and things like starting testosterone and wearing binders are brought up pretty casually in conversation. There are instances of microaggressions and misgendering like with Sam who ignorantly says something like he didn’t know ‘it was possible to make a woman look so much like a man’ upon encountering Tyler for the first time since his transition. However, Tyler can easily call him out on it and stand his ground. Moments like that happen because much like reality, not everyone knows what to correctly say to a trans person but they’re only contained to the first episode where Tyler is returning to Delos Crossing. After that, Tyler is treated respectfully by everyone he meets. Any instance of violence or negativity against Tyler throughout the three episodes are not motivated by transphobia.

In Tyler’s and his cisgender twin sister’s Alyson’s childhood, their mother (Mary-Ann) was murdered in self-defense because it was thought she was trying to kill Tyler because he let Alyson give him a short haircut which was only one of the handful of signs that Tyler identified as a boy. However, the first twist in the story is that Mary Ann was aware that Tyler was transgender because she had his diary and a book about raising a transgender child. Whatever happened that night had nothing to do with Tyler’s transgenderism which is something lesser writing would’ve done. It actually serves to make the circumstances around Mary-Ann’s actions that night much more layered and narratively more intriguing to uncover because it isn’t the natural assumption.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the subject of trauma, Tyler is never once treated as a victim by the writing. It never falls into that myth of correlating transgenderism and trauma. As mentioned before, he was already identifying as a boy long before his mother was killed. All things considered, Tyler is pretty well-adjusted considering he had been living with the belief of his mother wanting to kill him for simply being himself. Although, that’s probably due to having access to therapy and support during his time living in a residential centre. In a refreshing spin on the matter, Alyson is the one with more psychological damage because she hasn’t been able to get any professional treatment in the aftermath of her mother’s murder despite having more freedom.

That’s not to say Tyler has no emotional baggage. Tyler’s remaining trauma is shown by how he doesn’t let many people get close to him, isn’t inclined to socialise and has some trust issues. Considering he’s in a town of people who see his history (again, nothing related to his gender identity but rather the story that he killed his mother) instead of who he actually is, it makes sense he isn’t quick to put himself out there. In fact, the writing doesn’t shy away from showing Tyler’s own flaws as well as his best traits. Tyler is funny, witty, caring and confident in who he is but on the flip side, he can be headstrong, snarky and very blunt to others to a tactless degree at points. It’s something that his own sister calls him out on because he’s not always the most sensitive to the emotional state of others. All of these things are a result of his personality and it’s never implied to be a result of being transgender.

Diversity is not only shown with gender in Tell Me Why but also in regards to sexuality. It’s no surprise that this is the case considering LGBT themes have been a part of DONTNOD games since 2015. A common critique of Life is Strange has been that many of the same-sex romances only happen if you go along with some pretty iffy or criminal actions. That hasn’t sat right with a lot of fans. In Tell Me Why, you can be assured that this doesn’t happen. Tyler does have a potential love interest in Michael who doesn’t find Tyler interesting or attractive because he’s trans but rather because they have shared interests and Tyler is pretty adorkable. There’s no compromising your morals for the sake of a love story. They can flirt with each other quite often depending on player choice and their scenes are heartwarming and cute as Michael always wants to support Tyler or make him feel better when he’s down. Their conversation in episode three about sexuality and putting yourself out there for another person is mature and insightful. While Michael is openly gay, it’s never really confirmed what Tyler is but the game shows that it doesn’t matter because it’s never treated as a big deal. If a player wants to keep it as a friendship or have it turn into a romance is completely up to them.

Honestly, if the only instance of non-inclusion I can find with Tell Me Why is that it’s an Xbox exclusive then it’s doing something right. I can’t play the game due to being a Playstation gamer but thankfully all three episodes are online for anyone to watch. Although, I’d highly recommend playing it if you can. I’ve only focused on the themes of diversity in Tell Me Why in this article and I didn’t really delve into the real plot of the game. The story itself and the mystery to uncover in that small Alaskan town is really great. This is a story with a trans character but it’s not a story about a character being trans. There’s more to Tell Me Why than meets the eye in the most inclusive ways possible.

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