Trans representation in Tell Me Why

Tell Me Why is probably the highest profile example of a trans character in video games. Not the biggest game to feature a trans character, nor the game that places the most focus on trans characters, but something in the middle. A game with a trans protagonist, but not about trans issues, which was made by a medium-sized studio.

I didn’t think I would be playing this one, because I did not care for the writing in DONTNOD’s seminal game Life is Strange.  But, there’s a free giveaway for the month of June on Steam. Furthermore, I was intrigued by the controversy around the game, most clearly expressed by Dia Lacina’s review, “‘Tell Me Why’ Smothers Its Representation in Bubble Wrap“. Despite Lacina’s critical stance, it only made me more eager to form my own opinion.

cn: mild spoilers for events in the early game

Tell Me Why focuses on Tyler and Alyson, twins who became separated when one of them killed their mother in self defense. Ten years later, they reunite and clean up their old house for resale. They uncover secrets revealing the truth of why their mother threatened them. In surrealist fashion, the twins have visions of old memories, but paranormal powers are not the focus, it’s just used to advance the narrative.

Tyler is a trans man, which is not the focus of the story, but has several visible effects. In their visions of the past, he is presenting as a girl, albeit a tomboyish one who insists everyone call him Ollie. His ten year separation from Alyson was partially due to him self-isolating during his transition. And perhaps most significantly, the twins believe that his mother threatened him because he was trans.

Generally, there are two opposing approaches taken in queer fiction: show a happy world where queerness is a nonissue, or show a more realistic world, polluted as it is by hate and ignorance. Tell Me Why takes the middle road, where some people have a hard time with Tyler, but more egregious instances of transphobia are absent. It’s not escapist fantasy, but neither is it entirely realistic.

Is this a happy medium, or an uncanny valley?

I think this form of representation could work for a lot of people, and it worked just fine for me. But I definitely see what Dia Lacina was saying. The problem is that it can come across as erasing experiences with stronger forms of transphobia. The most prominent example in the plot is when you discover that Tyler’s mother was not motivated by transphobia. But it’s also echoed in other characters as well, who make a few ignorant comments, but then quickly stop. This is especially hard to believe when one of them was previously pushing conversion therapy.

Inexplicably, nobody even goes so far as to deadname Tyler. I mean, there is an explanation for that one, but it’s an external one. Many trans people find deadnaming to be unpleasant, or even violent. So, some people advocate the standard of avoiding deadnaming even fictional characters, and the Tell Me Why FAQ is keen to explain that it follows this standard. Perhaps it’s not my place to say, but “Is this truly the best standard?” is a question I keep thinking about.

And the weird thing is, for all the punches that it pulls with regards to transphobia, it does not pull in relation to trauma. I feel like the reason to avoid deadnaming and egregious transphobia is because some players find those experiences a bit traumatizing. But then, why is explicitly showing a moment of trauma over and over okay? If we understand that some players find it cathartic to watch a character process trauma, we should also understand why some players might want to see characters exposed to transphobia. If we understand that some players are tired of trans characters who are constantly being exposed to transphobia, we should also understand that some players might appreciate a similar approach to trauma in general.

But, Tell Me Why made the choices it did, and there’s a certain logic to it. One could read this game through the lens of twofold queerness–it depicts a world where being trans is (mostly) a non-issue, but still addresses trans issues in a thematic way by showing characters processing trauma, albeit trauma that doesn’t have anything to do with being trans. I think many trans and queer players will appreciate this approach.

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