‘We can’t turn this down’: New Xbox game brings Tlingit voices to the forefront

Graphic from "Tell Me Why" video game of two people sitting in camp chairs in the snow looking at a mountain
Graphic from a new Xbox video game called “Tell Me Why,” which showcases life in a rural Alaskan community with remarkable accuracy. (Graphic courtesy of Blain Howard/Microsoft)

It’s no secret that many television shows, movies, and video games inaccurately represent Indigenous communities, if they portray them at all. Realistic depictions of life in rural Alaska are also rare. But a new video game set in Southeast Alaska seeks to turn back the tide on that history.

It’s a familiar scene for Southeast Alaskans. Two people stand on a small ferry as it cruises down a protected channel between walls of snow-capped peaks and evergreen forests. Suddenly, they hear a noise coming from the water and rush to the edge of the deck.

A whale breaches and splashes back into the water.

What’s extraordinary about this scene is not so much the whale or the increasingly rare sighting of a state-operated ferry, but the fact that it’s a scene from an Xbox video game called “Tell Me Why,” which showcases life in a rural Alaskan community with remarkable accuracy.

The characters are heading from the fictional town of Fireweed to the also fantastical Delos Crossing. But that place is loosely based on the real town of Hoonah, a small, predominantly Tlingit community on Chichagof Island. There’s even a poster on the ferry advertising a Tlingit dance performance sponsored by the Huna Heritage Foundation.

“I think there’s a movement in a lot of entertainment industries to be more culturally accurate in the representation of their characters, rather than just have a Native American character, which could be so many things,” executive director of the Huna Heritage Foundation Amelia Wilson said. She worked with publishers from Xbox and game designers from the French company Dontnod to make sure the world they built was based in reality.

This isn’t the first video game to include Indigenous voices. In 2014, the game Never Alone was the first on the market to tell an Indigenous story from a Native perspective. Xbox also worked with Oregon’s Nez Perce Tribe on a remake of the game “Killer Instinct,” which is how Wilson got connected with game designers. But this kind of conscious inclusion is still a rarity, she said.

“It is unique and it is rare and we are a small, remote community,” Wilson said. “And so it was a really exciting process to be part of something and to see our culture and community represented in a mainstream media.”

Wilson’s work included everything from helping them pronounce Tlingit words, to advising game designers to drop a “raccoon getting into the garbage” scene, to finding ways to incorporate Tlingit values like gift giving. In one scene, one character tries to give the other a ring from her , and he tries to refuse it.

“It’s a gift, Tyler, you know what gift giving means in Tlingit culture,” she says. “And what it means to refuse one.”

“Tell Me Why” follows twins Alyson and Tyler through an intimate journey that explores trans identity, violence, and poverty. Tyler is transgender and is played by a transgender actor. The game doesn’t go as far as giving Native characters starring roles — the twins are white. But two of the main characters are Tlingit and were played by Indigenous actors.

“Because we have very complex characters and you know we tell complex stories,” game director Florent Guillaume said. “We think it is important to have them as authentic as possible.”

Guillaume said his team wanted to contrast that intimacy with the vast landscapes of Alaska. They were also drawn to the rich cultural history and tight-knit communities in Southeast.

“And we decided to take a trip to the place because we didn’t want to represent some kind of fantasy that we had as French people,” he said.

During their trip to Hoonah, game designers collected sounds and took pictures, ate traditional foods and met members of the community. And they connected with local Tlingit artists to work on the game, like Gordon Greenwald.

“You know, initially, there were two things I told them: I know nothing about video games. Probably the last video game I ever played was Pong back in the 70s, 60s or whenever,” Greenwald said.

The second thing was that he couldn’t design pieces that had cultural significance to a specific clan. They didn’t have a problem with either stipulation, he says.

“I took it on as a challenge to see if I could do something culturally sensitive, appropriate, but not infringing upon clan or any of the oral history that I felt was proprietary information or knowledge,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald and Norwegian-Tlingit artist Jeff Skaflestad submitted drawings of art like totem poles, clan houses and masks to the game’s graphic designers, who then converted them to digital format. The process wasn’t perfect, Skaflestad said. Some of the traditional greens and blues ended up altered in the final product, for example, and when the team visited Hoonah, they didn’t always follow proper etiquette. But, he was surprised when they were willing to listen.

“You know, worldwide corporations are not famous for being sensitive to the cultures that they may use in their games or miscommunicate stereotypes or whatever,” he said. “And yet here they were saying help us, we don’t know anything, and we’re open to it. We’re willing to listen.”

What ultimately convinced him to participate was the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and bring awareness to his community and his people.

“If somehow this improves the world that we live in locally here, and it can make things better for those that are not here yet, that is so classically Tlingit,” Skaflestad said. “We can’t turn this down.”

He said it was a chance to tell the world that, despite centuries of attempts to erase their culture and language, they’re still here.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.