Tell Me Why and it’s handling of a trans main character

by on September 26, 2020

Tell Me Why is a landmark title for representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in video games. It marks the first time in a mainstream video game that the main character is trans. Dontnod has been pushing boundaries in their narrative games for years now, with the Life is Strange series featuring heart-warming lesbian love, and tackling the subject of immigration. To say I was excited to hear that Tell Me Why would be a coming of age story featuring a trans guy, would be an understatement.

One of the reasons I found this so exciting is because of my partner. Dating back to their early childhood, Dally knew they weren’t a girl. Every old photo we find of Dally features a short-haired boy who shunned their given name and called themselves Max. Fast forward to the current day, and after discovering the delightful LGBTQIA+ community on social media, fighting the NHS, and eventually fundraising for private healthcare, Dally finally began Testosterone two months ago. We are both beyond happy that they are finally on the road to becoming their true self, and every week we’ll get excited at a new patch of body hair or a particularly low voice day.

A screenshot of Tell Me Why

We were really looking forward to spending time with Tyler (alongside his twin sister Allyson) as he returns to his Alaskan hometown for the first time since he began physically transitioning. Tyler spent years in a juvenile detention facility after an altercation with his mother at a very young age ended in tragedy. The reunion with his sister, childhood home, and the townsfolk of the snow-dusted village leads the twins on a journey to unearth secrets buried in the past.

We played Tell Me Why over a couple of sessions after it dropped on Game Pass, and both really enjoyed the story, twists, and decisions we made along the way. Since reaching the credits, there have been a lot of discussions in this house about how living as a trans guy was portrayed throughout the episodes. For the most part, we agree that Dontnod did a great job with its representation, but we also had a few issues in how it handled elements of life as a Trans person. After much deliberation, we came up with some positive and negative thoughts on Tell Me Why’s trans representation, that other storytellers may want to bear in mind when crafting trans characters.

A screenshot of Tell Me Why

The details of life as a trans guy

We both agreed that some of our favourite moments of Tell Me Why were the small details Tyler shares about his life and transition. It never feels forced when Tyler talks about how uncomfortable his binder is, or makes a joke about the letter T (the shorthand for Testosterone in trans communities).

Tyler isn’t a character who is defined by his trans identity, but it’s still a big part of who he is. Hearing him casually remark about his journey and transition really fleshes him out, as well as potentially educating those with less knowledge of the ways trans people are able to live their lives as their authentic self.

No dead naming in flashbacks

For anyone unaware, dead naming is calling a trans person their original given name (or dead name) after changing it as part of their transition. As I’m sure you can imagine dead naming someone is considered incredibly offensive, letting the trans person you’re talking to know that you don’t respect them enough to refer to them as their chosen name. Accidents happen, but deliberately dead naming someone is beyond unacceptable.

A screenshot of Tell Me Why

When referring to a trans person in the past tense (for example as a child) the vast majority of trans people would refer to themselves using their current name and pronouns. In the past, you may have thought of them as their dead name/assigned gender at birth, but bringing attention to previous names only serves to highlight their transgender status, and could even bring up past trauma. Tyler is referred to as Tyler in the subtitles of flashbacks, or occasionally as Ollie (which was the first male name he used when discovering his true self). Dontnod show Tyler the same respect you would a real life trans person, and set an example worth following.

The casting of Tyler

It’s not uncommon for media to cast cisgendered actors as trans characters. From prison drama Wentworth, to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, the history of this problematic casting decision goes back decades. Hollywood has shown time and time again that many directors believe that shaving a woman’s hair and making them do a gruff voice is an acceptable way to represent the life of a trans man, and in doing so demonstrate their disturbing belief that a trans man is still a woman underneath the “facade”.

Tell Me Why made the conscious choice to cast trans actor August Black as Tyler, and he was absolutely perfect for the role. As well as making this ideal casting decision, August was also asked to help contribute significantly to the game’s dialogue. This was one of the best decisions Dontnod could have possibly made, showing a willingness to listen to the real life experiences of trans people in order to better represent them.

A screenshot of Tell Me Why

Lack of Transphobia

This may sound like a positive point for Tell Me Why, but it’s not. In returning to the tiny rural village of Delos Crossing, Tyler receives no lasting resistance from the conservative locals, and this just isn’t realistic. In trying to craft a world where Tyler is seen as equal and valid, Dontnod practically ignores the hardships that trans people face on an often daily basis.

There are instances of characters saying inappropriate things to Tyler or acting awkwardly upon finding out he is transgender, and every time this happens they end up apologising and learning the error of their ways almost instantly. The liberal utopia of Tell Me Why makes living as a trans person look easy, which simply isn’t the case. In order to truly represent the trans community, it’s important to recognise and showcase the difficulties they constantly have to face.

The glorification of cops

To say that a lot of people in the LGBTQIA+ community have been mistreated by law enforcement would be an understatement. As is so common with marginalised groups, there are thousands upon thousands of cases of violence and abuse against trans people by those who are supposedly there to keep Law and Order.

Because of this, the glorification of the sheriff and officers of Delos Crossing feels inappropriate. Every cop in Tell Me Why is a paragon of justice, and is incredibly supportive of Tyler and his transition. Coupled with the timing of the BLM movement, police worship feels entirely out of place here. I know of numerous trans people who were excited to play Dontnod’s latest adventure, and gave up after a few hours of seeing how the game portrayed law enforcement.

A screenshot of Tell Me Why

Tell Me Why is a great starting point for trans representation in video games. The amount of care they’ve put into crafting a fleshed out trans character is truly incredible, and I’d love for there to be more Tylers in future games. Other developers could learn a lot from the level of respect Dontnod has put into representing the trans community, but would also do well to learn from the missteps they made along the way.

If any of the issues in this article have affected you, know you are not alone. Support is out there, such as: Trans Unite, Mermaids, and the Gender Identity Clinic, which offers plenty of links to helpful resources and support groups in your area.