The games industry has a lot of work to do when it comes to representation, especially as budgets rise in the AAA space.
At E3 earlier this year, just 5% of game protagonists showcased across the week were women, with the vast majority predictably composed of men. Other gender identities were almost nowhere to be seen.
While the indie scene offers a far broader range of roles for players to step into, very few major games firms take such risks with the heroes of their titles. Xbox and Dontnod hope to change that with Tell Me Why, a new episodic narrative adventure announced at X019 last week.
Dontnod may not quite qualify as a major games firm, but to have a platform holder supporting and publishing a title in which one of the playable characters is a transgender man is a welcome step towards progress. The game follows Tyler Ronan and his twin sister Alyson as they explore childhood memories through their supernatural bond to uncover the mysteries of their past.
GamesIndustry.biz spoke with both Dontnod and Xbox Games Studios at X019 last week, where game director Florent Guillaume revealed that -- in contrast to how prominent Tyler's gender identity has been in the announcement -- the Life Is Strange studio didn't set out to create a transgender hero at first.
"We didn't start the project setting expectations or having an agenda to push for inclusivity," he explained. "We started this great collaboration with Microsoft to tell a story about twins, and as we developed the characters and the story, because we're talking about twins, two identical people, we wanted to make the characters unique. They are both likeable, both great characters by themselves, and we came up with this idea of having Tyler be a transgender man.
"When we started with this idea, we thought it was great, it was [a story] we wanted to tell, it made sense for the story and the characters. We didn't want to shy away from that and the difficulty of doing it."
The first step was to research and gain a better understanding of the trans community. The studio began reaching out to people and groups to learn more, but the most crucial connection made was with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation.
"They were terrific with us, they really helped us understand, helped us talk to people and get a real sense of what the life of these people is like and what their struggles are," said Guillaume. "They also helped us reach out to transgender actors that would be able to help us give life to Tyler.
"That's how we started, and after a lot of research we crafted a character we're really happy with -- and we're happy with both characters, because we have two leads. We believe they are great, they tell a great story, that people will be able to identify with them, that they are authentic to what we tell through the story."
"We don't create characters to be archetypes. We certainly don't want Tyler to be identified only for being transgender"
Florent Guillaume, Dontnod Entertainment
Guillaume admitted that the team were "probably naive at first" but were soon "enlightened by GLAAD and all the people we've met." While he was unable to give a precise example, the director said he "personally learned a lot" from the experience and hopes that, through Tell Me Why, Xbox and PC players will discover new things for themselves.
"To me, it was important to understand the transgender community, their struggle and what they live and go through," he said. "If we can pass on this message to all the gamers who play the game, it will be fantastic."
Just as Dontnod is keen to emphasise that Tell Me Why is about more than just Tyler, Guillaume stressed that the twin is defined by more than just his gender identity. As with all the studio's characters, he has been developed with both laudable qualities and human imperfections.
"We don't create characters to be archetypes or represent something," said Guillaume. "We certainly don't want Tyler to be identified only for being transgender... We want people to be able to relate to them, we don't want to make superheroes that are monodirectional, all perfect and shiny -- that's not what we do.
"[Both twins] have lived different things, they've had a journey in their lives that's made them who they are now. We want to represent both our characters for who they are as people, not as archetypes, and I think we've done a good job with that."
The studio is already famed for telling stories centred around unorthodox characters, regardless of how it might seem to damage the game's commercial prospects. Life Is Strange, although it has become a cult hit, was originally rejected by publishers for having a misfit teenage girl as the protagonist.
As the lack of variety in playable game heroes shows, the industry hasn't made a great deal of progress since then, but Xbox, for one, is keen to explore a broader range of games and stories, especially as it bulks up the library for Xbox Game Pass.
"We can only do this if we do it the right way, in a way that's thoughtful and creates a game that lives up to the high bar we've set for ourselves"
Joseph Staten, Xbox Game Studios
"What excited us about Florent and the team at Dontnod was their authentic and true-to-life approach to Tyler," Xbox Games Studios' senior content director Joseph Staten told GamesIndustry.biz. "For Xbox, it's absolutely perfect. We're all about gaming for everyone, making sure that regardless of the sort of game you want to play that there's an experience for you inside of Xbox.
"For us, it was a great opportunity to join up with a world-class creative team and tell a story which absolutely fit with the kind of games we're trying to bring to Xbox. Hopefully, we're not just a place where you come for big action shooters. We want to be a place where people feel welcome to come and play experiences that speak to them on a very human level."
This is Dontnod's first collaboration with Microsoft, and Guillaume had plenty of praise for the partnership -- and the studio is "very grateful we got this opportunity to develop this all the way, no matter what the difficulties could be."
"It was not always easy -- unfortunately, it is difficult to talk about this subject, it is difficult to have representation in games," he said. "As we created the character of Tyler, GLAAD helped us to cast a transgender actor -- and it's difficult to find other transgender actors because there are so few in the media. We found a brilliant person to incarnate Tyler [actor August Black], so we're happy about that."
Tell Me Why launches next summer, and is split into three chapters. Dontnod assures this will be released at regular interviews over the course of the summer, recognising that fans have found it difficult to wait for the next episode or full series in previous games.
It will be released on Xbox, PC and, naturally, Game Pass. Neither company is willing to talk expectations, but both are confident the game and its protagonists will be well received. Staten pointed again to the amount of research that has gone into Tell Me Why, along with the partnership with GLAAD, as assurance that the story and Tyler's gender identity will be handled with the utmost respect.
"Early on, we talked about it and said we're only going to do this if we do it the right way, in a way that's thoughtful and ends up with a game and experience that lives up to the high bar we've set for ourselves," he said. "The only way we're able to do it is, as Florent said, with a really close partnership between our two studios, but also reaching out to real experts.
"We knew early on that we didn't know everything, certainly about the trans community and the issues they face. We had to reach out to get expert help, so having gone through this really thoughtful process, I'm really happy where we've ended up."