“At first, I’m like, ‘what? It’s a television, how does this work?’ And then you sit with [streamer] Sightless Kombat and see him play Killer Instinct through sound cues, and he actually does it, and is much better at the game than I am.”
While the team has aimed to drastically improve things for gamers of all types behind the controller, and is currently working on improving text to speech and speech to text for those with limited sight and hearing, it hasn’t forgotten about on-screen representation.
Sony’s PlayStation has been lauded for prominently featuring female protagonists in many of its big exclusives, including Ellie from The Last Of Us who is going to be, inescapably, canonically queer in the sequel next year. While Microsoft might not have made quite as big a splash in that regard, Gears 5 featured a female protagonist of Latinx appearance. And, although few people talked about it at the time, State of Decay 2 had the option to play as a lesbian couple who awkwardly broke up just before the end of the world, and now have to work out how to survive the zombie apocalypse together.
Tell Me Why, the upcoming game from French Life is Strange developer DONTNOD, was announced last week and follows a pair of identical twins trying to make sense of their memories of the past. The twins share a bond and are very close, but unlike most identical twins they’re a man and a woman.
Featuring the first playable transgender man in a major video game wasn’t DONTNOD’s original plan, nor was it in the brief when Microsoft partnered on the game. But when the developers realised that’s what would best serve the story, the Gaming for Everyone team put them in touch with an organisation that could help them get it right.
“We did a lot of research because it was really important for us to have a very thoughtful approach to that character creation, because it was important for us to make sure we wouldn’t hurt anybody, and that we would be respectful of the trans community,” says Florent Guillaume, game director of Tell Me Why.
“So, we partnered with [America-based queer advocacy group] GLAAD, and they were a great partner of our development because they helped us realise what it is to be trans, what it means for these people, what are their struggles, what are their hopes, their fears, and understand better what we have to do for the game.”
That partnership with GLAAD also helped Spencer, the Xbox boss, better understand some of the differences in the queer community.
“LGBTQIA+, just the kind of acronym that it is, the understanding that some of that is sexual orientation, some of that is gender, and those are related and not related,” he says.
“Like, the lead character is a transgender man, but we don’t talk about his sexual orientation. That’s different. I love just the education point of that… understanding that it’s actually a mix of distinctions.”
For the English voice of Tyler, GLAAD helped put DONTNOD in touch with out trans actor August Black. It also conducted a worldwide search for trans voice actors to make sure Tyler had the appropriate actor playing him in each of the four localised versions of the game. The game will also be translated into Simplified Chinese and several other languages, but Microsoft is conscious that — because of some countries’ content laws around LGBTQ characters — they won’t be able to release the game in every territory.
“It’s unfortunate we can’t release the game in some countries, because of its subject matter, that’s absolutely true,” says Joseph Staton, Microsoft’s senior creative director for Tell Me Why.
“But what’s important from a Microsoft point of view is everywhere that we can, on as many platforms that we can, this will be an experience that if people are interested they can come and enjoy. When we signed it, we didn’t sign a contract to make a game with a transgender character in it. But as we began to develop it over the last couple of years what became really clear to us at Microsoft is this game represents the best of what we do when we say gaming is for everyone”
Yet while many will be attracted to Tell Me Why as a game introducing a trans character at a time when they’re very rare in any medium, it’s important to Guillaume, the game director, that people know Tyler is more than his gender.
“We never wanted Tyler to be the trans character in the game. We wanted him to be Tyler; to be someone that everybody could like, everybody could feel connected to,” he says.
“He’s a great character. He is a young man, he knows who he is, he has dreams, and he also has flaws. He’s not like your perfect lead, and that’s what makes our character human.”
Tell Me Why will be available halfway through 2020.
The author travelled to London as a guest of Microsoft.
Alice is a freelance journalist, producer and presenter.