Gender in gaming is a contentious issue. Recently, when Pokemon-esque MMO Temtem dared to ask players to select their pronouns when creating a character, chaos ensued. Chicken tenders were thrown at the screen. Refunds were demanded. People who say “you mad?” and call others “snowflakes” got upset about an option in a video game for children.
While flashpoints of gender in gaming are characterised by controversy, the medium is becoming more inclusive. In recent years, character diversity has been on the rise, but there’s still a long way to go. One game seeking to be truly groundbreaking though is the upcoming PC and Xbox One game Tell Me Why, developed by DONTNOD, the studio which brought you Life Is Strange.
The title will be the first triple-A game to feature a transgender protagonist that isn’t a create-your-own avatar, in the shape of Tyler Ronan. I caught up with August Black, the voice actor behind Tyler, as well as game director Florent Guillaume and narrative director Stéphane Beauverger to find out the story behind Ronan’s creation.
“Given the themes we explore and the nature of the story, it resonated to the essence of our game to have Tyler be a trans man,” Guillaume explained. Tell Me Why has two central protagonists: Tyler and his twin sister, Alyson. It’s clear that Guillaume and Beauverger see Tyler as much more than his trans-ness, but as with anything which breaks new territory, he (and Tell Me Why) will inevitably be defined by it.
“We understood the risks but also the responsibility it would mean to create a character as realistically as we possibly could,” Guillaume says. “We decided not to shy away because we believe in the force of our story.” Considering the very idea of pronouns can cause controversy in gaming, Tell Me Why is definitely a risk. But it’s an admirable one, maybe even a necessary one.
Being transgender right now is like being Billie Eilish: fairly recently very few people even knew who you were, and now your entire existence is being debated in the media, on the socials, and by that one old guy who used to be funny but now is just sad. It’s great that people are more informed, and that’s brought support, but there’s also a lot of people who don’t understand and seem to inexplicably dedicate large swathes of their identity to hating you.
Fiction is often tempted to paint minorities in broad strokes, but Guillaume explains that Tell Me Why has avoided that pitfall: “We know that we can’t possibly represent every trans experience. We tell one trans story of Tyler Ronan and we hope that people will feel moved by it.”
So what exactly is Tyler Ronan’s story? “Because of his difficult past, Tyler does not easily trust anyone, except his twin sister Alyson,” Beauverger explains. “When our story starts, Tyler has left a centre for troubled youth, and finally feels ready to live his life by becoming a park ranger.” He seems to be a character of deep contrasts, one who has shut himself away from the world yet embraces what nature has to offer. He’s “work[ing] to find his place in a world he often perceives as hostile” - an experience many trans people can relate to.
One such trans person is August Black, Tyler Ronan’s actor, himself a trans man. “It’s such an important story,” he tells me. “The transgender narrative is not a story a lot of people are exposed to and this game will give a massive platform to it. I’m so excited for people to get to know these characters! Tyler has so much to offer and his experience as a trans man is just a part of it. Tyler is amazing because he is tangible. The writers have created such a beautiful three-dimensional character. Having a video game character that might look like you is great, but more importantly having a character who feels like you do gives young trans kids a connection they might not have anywhere else.”
Tyler is clearly a deeply personal role for Black, and it’ll be interesting to see how that translates to the screen when the game releases across three episodes in mid-2020. “A lot of my own experiences have influenced Tyler,” Black admits. “His battle with acceptance in his personal relationships and community is something a lot of the LGBT+ community goes through and it shapes how you approach life. I’m grateful to be able to relive these life moments through Tyler in a lot of ways.”
While he’s proud of his roots, he’s also aware that the games industry isn’t fully up to speed yet. “It’s easy for me to see how [my gender] affects the space you’re allowed to fill in the industry… I don’t want to be pigeonholed as one part of myself,” Black says. “As an actor, I hope to one day get the opportunity to play more diverse characters because I’m right for them, not just because of a shared identity.”
Black isn’t expecting inclusivity to stop with Tell Me Why, hoping instead that the game might prove to be a watershed moment. “We are heading in the right direction,” he says. “The future will definitely be filled with characters meant to challenge the norms.”
“I believe representation and diversity is very important, especially in video games since the medium allows us to put the players in the shoes of their characters and is such is a unique opportunity to drive empathy and share experiences,” Guillaume agrees. “I truly hope our game encourages other triple-A creators not to shy away from telling stories that are more diverse.” However Tell Me Why turns out, it certainly seems like they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Black isn’t the only transgender voice Tell Me Why has brought aboard either. The game was developed in conjunction with LGBT+ charity GLAAD, and Guillaume was keen to point out how important the charity’s perspective was: “GLAAD has been a terrific partner, helping us with script reviews and casting as well as LGBTQ+ community outreach. Most importantly, GLAAD offered invaluable insight throughout the development to help us ensure that Tyler is a realistic hero and to help us create an inclusive gaming experience that invites more people to play.” Black’s influence is noted too, with Guillaume adding, “August is more than our voice actor, he’s a vital member of the creative team.”
While Mermaids, Britain’s leading transgender charity (recently in the headlines after Hbomberguy raised $340,000 for them in a Donkey Kong stream) were not involved in Tell Me Why, this charity also has acute experience with thousands of narratives just like Tyler’s. “Our entire community has struggled with a lack of positive, visible role models and it’s wonderful to see more of it whenever it happens,” KC from Mermaids tells me, “Fictional storytelling has long provided a stage for challenging bias and assumption presented by real-world opinion pieces. It’s really important for writers and directors to listen to the communities that they aim to represent and to include more diverse people in the creative process.”
Just like Black, KC is hopeful for the future, and recognises the power video games can have. “It truly feels like we’re entering a more positive era of non-cisnormative representation in mainstream media… video games are unique in their ability to let players walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Positive video game representation can be instrumental in helping people learn empathy, kindness and tolerance. I can’t help but feel that everyone wins when video games think carefully about representation, inclusion and bring positive role models to the fore.”
Another thing Guillaume draws attention to is that while Tell Me Why will be the first triple-A game to put a trans character front and centre, many indie titles have broken this boundary before. “There are many talented creators in the indie game dev community who have created really inspiring experiences with LGBTQ+ characters and themes,” he tells me. And he’s not wrong: indie games have had openly trans characters for a while now.
Celeste’s DLC heavily implied Madeline was transgender, which fits both the reflection hating narrative of the game and the fact one of its creators, Matt Thorson, is non-binary. Dupl City features trans/non-binary characters throughout its narrative, A Normal Lost Phone is imperfect in its execution but certainly brings the trans experience to the forefront, and The Sea Eternal takes its transgender themes underwater and into the lives of mermaids. There are countless others too.
However, on the rare occasions when trans characters have made it to the big leagues, it’s almost always either to be mocked or feared. Poison in Final Fight/Street Fighter has a troubled history, Persona 4 allowed you to simply delete a trans character’s dysphoria and ‘cissify’ them, while Catherine played heavily into the ‘deceptive trap’ stereotype of trans women. Sorry-not-sorry for the twofer, Atlus fans. Even Cyberpunk 2077’s infamous ‘Mix It Up’ poster seemed unclear in its messaging: was it a biting, hypersexualised critique of consumerist culture, or just more mockery? Dragon Age: Inquisition, however, does deserve a special spotlight for its brilliant depiction of a trans man in Krem, although as a tertiary character his influence, impressive though it was, is set to be dwarfed by Tyler’s.
In a world where a cisgender woman protagonist can feel political to some - women having been invented in 1986 to suppress gamer rights, after all - having a trans man in the leading role is bound to be a magnet for controversy. It’s clear though that this is a much needed game, one made with consideration, inclusivity and storytelling at its heart. Time will tell whether Tell Me Why will actually be any good, but through Tyler Ronan it’s already carved its name into the history books. At a time when many in the industry are looking to play safe with mass (white cis male) appeal, it’s a step forward which should be applauded.
For more on what trans representation can mean in games, here's how Bloodborne helped one writer transition and choose a new name.