After yesterday's Xbox Games Showcase, developer Dontnod took an unusual step in publishing an FAQ with spoilers for its narrative adventure Tell Me Why.
(This is a spoiler warning for the rest of the article, as well as a trigger warning for discussions of transphobia to follow.)
The spoilers discussed in the FAQ do not directly discuss plot points. Rather they lay groundwork for how the game depicts one of its central characters, Tyler, who is transgender, and the depiction of Tlingit characters and culture (the Tlingit tribe resides in Alaska, where the game is set). The document also appears to act as a content warning to help players gauge if Tell Me Why will be triggering for any players who've experienced trauma around the game's themes.
From an external point of view, the FAQ also reveals the thorny issues around telling stories featuring Trans and Indigenous characters when no one on the development team appears to be a member of either group.
Dontnod's document does appear to be a good-faith effort to inform players about the emotional intensity of the game's plot, trading an "unspoiled experience" for transparency about how the developers aim to depict a story that mimics real-life traumatic pain.
Trailers for Tell Me Why have shown that the Ronan Twins experienced some kind of violence at the hands of their mother before the game starts. Since transgender people often experience familial violence, there was some speculation that the game's plot is spurred by a troubling depiction of transphobia.
Dontnod's FAQ states that this is not the company's intent. Apparently the game's writers have attempted to paint the Ronan twins' mother as a character undergoing some other (possibly supernatural) crisis, who was supportive of her transgender son and trying to learn more about his identity. The game also does not use Tyler's assigned birth name (commonly referred to by transgender folks as a 'deadname'), though it does contain discussions and brief depictions of transphobia and homophobia.
The studio explictly states in the FAQ that it does not want to follow in the footsteps of other mainstream stories like the film Dallas Buyer's Club (our reference, not theirs) that rely on the experience of transitioning and the pain of transphobia as central story points. "Because so many mainstream narratives about trans people are rooted in pain or trauma, it was important to our team to tell a different, more multi-dimensional story with Tyler," the FAQ says.
Elsewhere, the FAQ attempts to address the inclusion of Tlingit characters, explaining that Tlingit artists were comissioned to create in-game assets that represent the tribe's culture. Dontnod also states that it partnered with the Huna Heritage Foundation to consult on how it depicts the game's Indigenous characters and culture. The FAQ does not state if Tell Me Why's two Tlingit characters are voiced by Indigenous actors.
If that all seems like a complex document for a developer to put out, it's because these are complex issues made worthy of scrutiny by Dontnod's seeming lack of trans & Indigenous creative leads, and the historical exploitation of both groups in commercial media.
This FAQ can represent a good-faith effort by Dontnod to let players know about how it's approached these sensitive themes, yet players (and fellow developers) may still have reason to be wary about the game's direction. After all, developers from both groups have spent the last few decades telling their own stories in different ways, sometimes to explore their trauma, other times to celebrate their own existence.
How successfully Dontnod has told Tell Me Why's story will become clear when it debuts on August 27th, 2020.