‘Tell Me Why’ town of Delos Crossing should be a warning to future gamemakers

“Tell Me Why” is a conflicted game. It’s a rich production about interpersonal conflict with a frustrating broader vision. Its excellent character work delivers touching and startlingly realistic moments of queer kinship, but set in a confounding unreality that glosses over inconvenient truths. The game will likely be many players’ first chance to play a game as a trans person, a high wire act of representation taken up in the name of promoting empathy. But empathy requires a subject, and I’m suspect of who the player is meant to empathize with here.

At the center of dontnod’s latest episodic release are the twin protagonists and player characters Tyler and Alyson Ronan, recently reunited in the fictional Alaskan fishing village Delos Crossing. The opening cinematic establishes that Tyler killed his mother a decade ago. She aimed a gun at him after he cut his hair in an attempt to express his gender; he defended himself. But the local police and courts don’t trust the queer child’s story of self-defense, and he is sent away to a school for the likes of children suspected of matricide. This is the setup for what has been marketed as the first mainstream trans protagonist in gaming.

When the game starts, the pair have reunited to clean out and sell their childhood home. It’s been a decade since they last saw each other. Alyson, the cisgender sister who remained in Delos Crossing, is preparing for the first big change in her life since the two were separated. She’s not sure of what she wants, because all she’s dreamed of for the past 10 years is normalcy — and it’s hard to blame her. Meanwhile, we meet Tyler as he leaps into a new world after leaving the wilderness school at which he became a mentor. Long past starting to transition, he’s figured himself out. He wants to be a park ranger, and he’s already taken steps to achieve his goals.

While it’s not related to dontnod’s “Life is Strange” series, “Tell Me Why” follows the narrative and mechanical premises of the studio’s past. You walk around another beautifully animated Pacific Northwestern setting. You pick up objects to hear dialogue that fills the world around you with conversation. You talk to people to progress plot points. Also, you have some magic powers.

As the sibling’s relationship resumes at the house they grew up in, Alyson and Tyler’s ability to communicate telepathically and witness memories together, a fantastical childhood experience they had attributed to their imagination, is reignited. Seeing their memories with such clarity a decade later motivates Alyson and Tyler to interrogate the shaky foundations of their young adulthood.

Alyson and Tyler’s bond, which determines the outcome of the game’s epilogue, is strengthened and strained by what the game calls “consequences.” These moments are presented just like any other in-game choice, but in these instances the game also indicates (after you select one of two or three dialogue options) whether that choice brought the twins closer together or whether it strained their relationship. Consequences also occur as conflicting memories that greatly alter Alyson and Tyler’s understanding of their mother and childhood. Crucially, the past can’t be changed. Rather, “Tell Me Why” leaves the two to consider whose memories — and whose interpretations — are accurate.

Consequences, while sometimes provocative, only seem to alter a few lines of dialogue throughout the course of the game. Since moments of consequence aren’t marked any differently from the many choices you make in conversations throughout the game, they sometimes pass quickly. Only a few provided cause to pause and contemplate who to side with in an argument, what intentions to betray and who to trust, but these few were achingly divisive and cathartically honest.

The fork-in-the-road decisions of consequences pair with many smaller dialogue choices to create a sense of tactical communication. For example, shortly after entering their home, Sam Kansky, a drunken fisherman and old friend of the twins’ mom, appears with a shotgun aimed at Tyler’s chest. He was someone Tyler looked up to as a kid, and he’s been helping Alyson maintain the property. But now, Sam is descending into alcoholism — and he’s holding a firearm.

Reintroduced to each other, the two men stumble through antiquated language and beliefs Sam has never really had to challenge as he tries to make sense of who Tyler is. The player navigates the transphobia with two to three dialogue options presented at every turn. You choose how confrontational Tyler will be, whether he’ll stand up to Sam or how he’ll brush it off. Alyson is there in your head too, using telepathy to strategize.

I navigated the confrontation with Sam the same way I would handle ignorance in my own life. I jumped through rhetorical hoops to get through to the other end with some sense of dignity and without pissing anyone off. I was initially taken by how the culmination of narrative design and dialogue could handle trans experiences. I’m only used to finding these stories in much lower-budget queer indie titles, but here, my reality was faithfully brought to life by August Aiden Black, Tyler’s voice actor.

When I reached the end of chapter one, however, I was confronted with a summary screen — a popular convention in branching narrative games. These screens detail the characters’ takeaways and the choices made by other players, broken down by percentage. It’s there that I began to understand the possibilities and limits of the branching paths in “Tell Me Why.”

In this statistical breakdown, the scene between Sam and Tyler is framed as one in which Sam is an aggressor, and Tyler is protecting himself. Fifty-two percent of players called out Sam; 48% didn’t, myself included. I initially felt betrayed by the framing. By failing to call Sam out, I didn’t achieve a positive outcome. The acting and animation had added up to what felt like a genuine moment, but I moved onto chapter two feeling like I had played the game wrong by drawing on my own experiences with transphobia.

In its best moments, the game’s systems and statistics fade away. There’s a scene when Michael, a queer Tlingit man, ice fishes with Tyler. The two slowly lean toward each other as the frivolous banter turns into an examination of interpersonal relationships. Michael is chill, the kind of dude whose thoughtfulness comes through in individual conversations during quiet moments, but whose humor never ceases. Tyler is shy. He’s all grown up, but lacks many of the experiences provided by a normal adolescence. The dialogue system of small choices and larger consequences comes second to the charming collisions of complicated personalities, and the game’s character work offers several moments that will stay with me for much longer than any stats screen.

This is about as far as I can praise “Tell Me Why.” While I found myself enjoying intimate moments between characters, and thought that Tyler’s transness was handled respectfully (to a fault, even), queerness only extends so far. The work of the actors and consultants is laudable. But the ideological commitments at the heart of the story betray their efforts.

Most jarring is the central role of police in “Tell Me Why.” Alyson’s adoptive father, Eddy Brown, is the chief of Delos Crossing’s police department and a Tlingit man too. In every chapter, at least one of the twins returns to the station. Tyler can attempt to mend the relationship that fractured when Eddy arrested him and, under the guise of court guidance, kept the twins apart for their whole adolescence. Alyson, meanwhile, treats the station as a second home.

She knows each officer well, and several are present in the story. Greggs is a family man who eats unhealthily and doesn’t see why dock workers need to strike. Dee is a Black woman who loves dog sledding and secretly speaks at a queer youth group in the town over.

The game spends a lot of time trying to make you empathize with these cops — which feels awkward, to say the least, after a summer of increasingly visible and egregious police violence that preceded the game’s launch.

Despite the attentiveness to a realistic representation of trans and Indigenous lives and the work of trans consultants, the game’s police read as fictional and unbelievable. Greggs’s conservatism is waved away as just a part of being a rural patriarch, not a bias. Dee sees herself as changing the system from within, but there’s at least some evidence her presence alone inside the department may not have the impact she thinks it will. And Chief Brown is positioned as a good leader to mediate the relationship between U.S. police and Indigenous people because of his identity, though the game never points out that Indigenous people are killed by law enforcement at one of the most disproportionate rates of any demographic in the U.S.

The moral counterweight to the views of the police characters is lacking, particularly Tyler’s weak jabs at the role of policing in the community. “Tell Me Why” is otherwise very didactic. But here, they pull their punches.

“Tell Me Why’s” representation of queerness on the screen and behind the scenes is further overshadowed by a fascination with the well-meaning but ignorant folk who just aren’t up on the times. After Tyler’s confrontation with Sam, the handyman returns the next day to apologize and let Tyler know he did some research. He was never much of a reader, he says, trying to apologize to you. In one day he’s gone from calling trans women “transvestites” to seeing Tyler as just another man.

In Delos Crossing, even the overzealous bigot provoked by her Christian morals to promote conversion therapy is just driven by a misguided care for the children. There’s not even a gendered restroom in this fanciful town to remind players that, in the real world, bodies are filtered by their conformity to a gender binary. The extent to which dontnod’s fiction doesn’t want to interact with Tyler’s gender creates an unreality that will be more instructive as a warning to future gamemakers writing trans characters than to any player working through their own transphobia.

“Tell Me Why” does not feel like a vaunted new standard or revolution in queer storytelling, especially in the face of an entire history of game development that actually engages with oppression. Rather, it’s the disappointing culmination of a decade of walking sims attentive to examinations of the personal and familial. Puzzle-box houses, narrative design, and representation have come a long way in both mainstream games and the ever-prominent corporate-adjacent “indie.” But a half a decade of queer and indigenous indie development has shaped the genre’s landscape more than the corporate backing of Microsoft ever could. In a year where the trans coming-home story of “If Found…” and “Umurangi Generation’s” own evolution of the walking sim achieved critical recognition with little to no advertising budget, “Tell Me Why’s” grand entrance feels a bit overstated.

Autumn Wright is an essayist. They do criticism on games and other media. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.

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