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DONTNOD’s upcoming release is making an attempt at representation that focuses on a trans character and native culture.

Gaming

The Casual Gaymer: Tell Me Why, FAQs, and representation

DONTNOD’s upcoming release is making an attempt at representation that focuses on a trans character and native culture.

Welcome to another edition of The Casual Gaymer, an occasional column from AIPT Gaming where I share my questions, comments, concerns, and other unsolicited thoughts about gaming and the games industry as a queer player.

It’s been a minute! How is everyone’s summer? I know, it’s almost laughable to even ask. Regardless, the absence of E3 this year has led to various publishers releasing what are, essentially, their pressers gradually across the summer instead of making us all shotgun a season’s worth of video game news in a week like so much Mt. Dew over a long weekend of Halo multiplayer. 

Full disclosure: I’ve never played Halo, but Microsoft unveiled their first-party games during Thursday’s Xbox Series X Showcase. Amongst the Halo’s and Fable’s and Forza’s was a trailer for DONTNOD Entertainment’s latest narrative adventure, Life is Strange: Season 3— I mean, Tell Me Why.

The trailer presented a lot of DONTNOD’s go-to elements Life is Strange players should quickly recognize: supernatural goings-on, characters in hoodies or beanies or both, and high stakes emotion. Alongside the launch trailer for the game’s first chapter, DONTNOD also released a FAQ about the game which includes several questions centered around the depiction and treatment of one of the game’s protagonists, a trans man named Tyler, as well as the game’s inclusion of Tlingit characters and culture. 

You can read the FAQ here, but be warned: in an interesting move, DONTNOD included story spoilers in the FAQ for the sake of being transparent with regards to issues of trans representation. The answers with spoilers are marked on the FAQ. 

Tell Me Why

DONTNOD

Overall, I’m kind of impressed with this FAQ? On one hand, DONTNOD may not be what we’d call a AAA studio, but their partnership with Xbox and Microsoft is all over this game and I can’t help but look at this FAQ as a marketing opportunity for Microsoft, Xbox, DONTNOD, and all shareholders thereof, within, without, and all around to say, “Look at us! Look how inclusive we are! Look at how hard we’re working to be inclusive!”

Maybe the bar is so low it’s being heated by the Earth’s molten core, but I actually appreciate how transparent DONTNOD is being with this FAQ. Yes, the included concerns about representation are common enough that all of these answers could practically be generated by a PR algorithm, but some of them actually do demand a level of simplicity. Will Tyler be deadnamed either by the characters in the game or via some diegetic fashion through the game itself? No. Will there be homophobic or transphobic violence depicted against the game’s gay or trans characters? No. 

It’s that simple! 

Now, here’s the thing: is there room for stories about homophobia, transphobia, or a person’s life before they transitioned? Of course! I will always be here for queer creators telling stories about queer trauma, because there is room for all kinds of queer expression when room is made for all kinds of queer creators. However, I’m always going to be critical (both in the sense of examining through a critical lens, as well as the colloquial sense of giving the ole side-eye) of large studios telling stories about queer trauma regardless of how many queer staff members the studio’s PR team insists are on the payroll. 

Luckily, I don’t even have to think about that with Tell Me Why, because they’ve said up front they didn’t feel the need to depict queer pain in that way and only bolster the number of countless examples of media featuring queer trauma. Great! But you may have noticed I mentioned something about stories depicting life pre-transition.

Everyone please ensure your critical lens is firmly in place before continuing. 

Based on the trailers shown so far, Tyler’s story in Tell Me Why, will hinge on his past before the time he transitioned. DONTNOD’s FAQ insists we will not be subjected to transphobic trauma in exploring his past, but while the FAQ makes mention of falling into overused tropes, focusing on a trans characters’ childhood is…an overused trope. Even if the game is focused on Tyler’s past for reasons which have nothing to do with his transness, there is a recurring problem which arises in media wherein cisgender audiences feel the need to know what a trans person was like as a child, you know, before all this stuff! Like, what did you look like? Did you look different? Oh, what was your birth name? 

See what happens? I’m not saying DONTNOD is centering their story around Tyler’s past for the sake of comforting cisgender audiences, but regardless of their intentions, which could be perfectly well-meaning, a pattern is being followed and we should all be critical of that pattern regardless of the in-fiction explanation for it. 

Tell Me Why

DONTNOD

I know it can seem like queer players will just never be happy. There I go! Finding a trope the game is falling into after all the work they’ve done to show they’re ticking all the boxes of Good Representation (as if queer representation, or any queer experience, can be checklisted like a grocery list of allyship)! But the fact remains that in all media, especially mainstream, big budget video games, queer representation is done so poorly, so often, but because the big companies with the rainbow logos on Pride month tried at all, I continue to have cisgender, heterosexual people in my face saying I should be happy with scraps as they explain to me what good queer rep looks like. 

So yeah, I’m gonna withhold my gold stars for now, but acknowledge that, if nothing else, this FAQ is an interesting, perhaps even cool, step in the right direction for big budget games with big budget teams telling queer stories. I’m legitimately impressed that they included some story spoilers in their answers, especially after the fiasco that was the review embargo for a certain prestige zombie game featuring depictions of transphobic trauma and the Walter White of queer women. 

Oh wow, look at the time, got to go! But before I do, I want to note that I did not speak much about the use of Native people and culture either in these trailers or in the FAQ for the game. I am not a Native person, so I don’t plan on speaking on the game’s representation of Tlingit people at all, but I highly recommend you follow some Native games writers and keep an eye out for what they may have to say about Tell Me Why as well as many other games feature Native people, culture, or iconography. One of my favorite game critics out there is one Dia Lacina whom everyone interested in games crit should be following!

Thanks for reading another edition of The Casual Gaymer! I’m gonna keep an eye on Tell Me Why and if there’s any justice in the world, it will include a callback to the iconic line from Life is Strange: “Go f*** your selfie.”

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