Tell Me Why and the Limits of Positive Trans Representation

Dontnod has a knack for place, for memory, and for the link between the two. In Life Is Strange, I relished the opportunities I was given to just linger in a location, feeling out the emotional character of a place, how Max felt about it, and what existing there might feel like for her. Dontnod’s latest release, Tell Me Why, is more directly concerned with place and memory than either of the Life Is Strange games with which it shares so much structural DNA, but because it so rarely finds the humanity of its lead characters, the result is a hollow narrative exercise rather than an affecting emotional journey.

After years apart, twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan are finally reunited, and before them lies a difficult task. They must return together to their childhood home and prepare it for sale, but doing so means exhuming the past, and in particular the fateful night on which the twins’ mother Mary-Ann pursued young Tyler with a shotgun in her hands, before Alyson stabbed her with a pair of scissors in an effort to protect her brother, causing Mary-Ann to fall into a lake and drown. Tyler — who is trans — has long believed that Mary-Ann’s actions may have been provoked by the fact that he was asserting himself as a boy, that him cutting his hair and running to show her his new short haircut may have been the last straw that broke Mary-Ann’s already frayed psyche. Now, using the remarkable gift he and his sister share to reconstruct and see the remembered past come to life before their eyes, he wants to know the truth about what drove Mary-Ann to that point. It’s a potent premise that could have been the basis for an insightful story about trauma and healing.

Ah yes, the two responses to having a trans child.

So why does it end up instead being a game that washes blandly over you, leaving you uninterested and unmoved? For starters, Tyler feels less like a real person than like the platonic ideal of a positive representation of a young trans man. Everything about him feels engineered to cast him in a positive light, from the copy of the Transgender Man’s Guide to Healthy Masculinity that we see in his room at the start of the game to his open, earnest explorations of what it means to be himself in the outside world after spending years in a supportive youth home.

There’s nothing truly awkward or messy about him, no real sense of stumbling or fucking up. He’s anodyne, the seeming product of people who wanted to tell a story that centers a trans character while being so careful not to offend that they snuffed the life out of him. Even the idea of Tyler and Alyson’s shared trauma rings false; Tyler feels more like he should be the fairly together youth counselor helping someone else work through their trauma than like someone who is struggling with his own deeply painful past. Being trans is essentially Tyler’s only defining character trait. Meanwhile Alyson gets so little development and has so little character as a character that I really don’t have anything to say about her.

Too much of the game is spent focusing on plot over character, reducing Tyler and Alyson to mechanisms playing a role in the machinery of the central storyline. The only exceptions are a few scenes Tyler shares with Michael, a gay man around his age who listens and gives him the space to voice his own doubts and insecurities. These scenes between Tyler and Michael give them and us a chance to breathe because they’re not about moving the main plot forward, but just about letting us spend time with them, and giving us a sense of the potential for good things in Tyler’s future.

Of course, there is no single monolithic, shared trans experience, but nonetheless I’ll note that it was these scenes with Michael that offered the only real moments that I found Tyler relatable as a human being in general and as a trans person in particular. I recognized the tentative ways in which Tyler gives voice to his own feelings, only slowly opening up to Michael, because it can be hard to trust that others will be able to understand or relate to you if you feel othered by the world. I understood how Michael’s calm demeanor and attentive listening created space for Tyler to admit his doubts about whether he’s “made to be with anyone.” Hearing this, Michael says exactly the things that Tyler (and I) might want to hear, things about the value of found family, about how “none of us really know what we’re doing,” about how “when you meet someone who really sees you, you don’t have to pretend anymore.” God, that sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Just a couple of dudes fishin’ and fallin’ in love.

These scenes rang true, even if the only thing they truly reflect is the fulfillment of our wishes. At one point Tyler says “I get this feeling like I could say or do anything with you and it’d be cool. I feel safe,” and Michael responds, “You are.” That’s the dream, isn’t it? Michael gives Tyler a reason to hope that he can live as the man he is and still be seen and loved. Fearing we’ll never be loved, fearing we’ll never really be seen, are things many trans people (though by no means all of us) deal with to one degree or another. Speaking personally, they might be the biggest fears of my life. So these were scenes where the game came alive for me, where it actually seemed concerned with people and feelings and fears. If only the same could be said of the storyline that dominates the game.

But like the worst Christopher Nolan films, the central narrative thread of Tell Me Why is life as a carefully constructed puzzle, with the approximation of emotional pain and psychological drama but not in any form that feels recognizable or true. Consider how, in the game’s second chapter, Tyler and Alyson learn that child protective services was called on Mary-Ann. They’re angry that anyone would “betray” Mary-Ann in this way, and they suggest that this may have been what pushed their mother over the edge, but never once does either of them suggest that maybe the fact that Mary-Ann (supposedly) threatened her own child with a shotgun is actually an indication that she wasn’t fit to be a parent and that calling child protective services was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. In a better game, I might have been okay with this. I’ll accept just about anything if I find a story engaging on its own terms, and if I’d been more emotionally invested in Tell Me Why, I would have just gone along with it. My mind only raises issues like this when characters feel false and mechanical, as they do here.

In the final chapter, the twins discover a loft in their barn in which their mother left a series of elaborate puzzles about her own painful past, all of them using the characters and locations of the fantasy stories the three of them concocted together as a stand-in for reality. So the truth which the twins seek to discover, something which should feel immediate and impactful, is filtered through intricate woodcut mechanisms and through children’s fables, all of which ultimately keep any emotional impact from that truth at arm’s length. Perhaps Tell Me Why could have done something with this, exploring how trauma often pushes us to keep painful things at a distance or to process them symbolically, but it doesn’t. The only reason these revelations about Mary-Ann involve a series of puzzles that require us to reference an in-game storybook is to give us “gameplay,” with that taking precedence over character or anything resembling psychological truth.

Behold, The Loft of Gameplay.

I’m struck by the similarities between Tyler’s journey and that of Lev from The Last of Us Part II, the other prominent trans character I’ve encountered in a game this year. Both, it seems to me, start out carrying around a lot of guilt, believing that who they are may have caused great pain to people they love. Both then learn that there’s no shame in who they are, that, on the contrary, who they are is deserving of love and acceptance; Lev finds a familial bond with Abby, with whom he starts coming into his own as a young man, and Tyler opens up to the potential for a found family via his connection with Michael. I don’t want to pit what scant trans representations we get against each other, though I did find one of these arcs more honest and engaging than the other, and you can read my thoughts on Lev and on The Last of Us Part II here. But the similarity between the two compels me to state that there may be limits to what “positive” trans representation can accomplish so long as those characters are largely defined by being trans.

I believe that stories that illuminate trans experience are extremely important. As I said, I felt a personal connection to Tyler’s fears about being seen and loved, and I felt my own heart yearning for the experience of being validated and desired the way he is in Michael’s eyes. But I worry that a desire to offer up positive trans representations in the mainstream space may result in a parade of trans characters who share a similar arc or fit a similar mold, when what we really need, in addition to stories that confront the realities of trans experience with far more realism and honesty than either of these games do, are stories in which trans people aren’t defined by their transness.

Yeah, man!

I want trans action heroes, trans romcom leads, trans people dealing with workplace drama or other mundane shit that has nothing to do with them being trans, all of it. I want trans characters who internalize the hate of a hostile world and who struggle with feelings of guilt about being who they are before learning to love and accept themselves and finding love and acceptance with others, but I also want depictions of trans characters who never internalize the hate of a hostile world because they don’t live in one or because they grow up so loved and validated that such hate never has a chance to work its way inside them. Perhaps, after decades of trans people appearing in games almost solely as deranged villains or as the butt of hateful “jokes,” narratives like these represent a necessary starting point on the path to building better, broader, more humanizing and varied representations. But they shouldn’t be more than a starting point.

Tell Me Why feels drained of life by all its good intentions, as if it’s so afraid of making Tyler a flawed character that it sterilizes him and everything he comes into contact with. The memories Tyler and Alyson plumb are profoundly painful, but nothing about this game feels raw or real. It’s too awash in the signature Dontnod glow, too unwilling to allow for real imperfection, real damage or rage or anguish or numbness. It’s proof that a studio can check the boxes of “positive trans representation” and still create a character and a game that leave much to be desired. Let us have flaws, let us be fuckups, let us be human. Just don’t let being trans be the sum total of how you see us.

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