In September 2018, Gordon Greenwald was outside carving a totem pole in his home village of Hoonah, Alaska, just as he had done for the past 10 years. It seemed like any other day on the job for the Tlingit artist, when he was suddenly approached by a group of curious onlookers who had just arrived from Paris, France. The newcomers had an unusual request for Greenwald: would he be interested in creating Tlingit art for a video game?
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be designing artwork for a video game. I’d be thinking of my next totem pole or mural...but never would a game cross my mind,” Greenwald said. “We just don't see games with Indigenous peoples being represented by Indigenous artists.”
The visitors worked for Dontnod, a video game developer that recently partnered with Xbox to create the adventure game, “Tell Me Why.” The game follows Tyler, a transgender man, and his twin sister Alyson, as they revisit childhood memories and investigate a traumatic event from their past. While the duo isn’t Tlingit, other main characters in the game are.
The journey explores important real-world themes, such as trans identity, mental health and poverty. It also highlights aspects of Tlingit culture, taking place in a fictional Southeastern Alaska town loosely based on Hoonah, 30 miles west of Juneau.
As is the case in many Alaskan villages, elements of Alaska Native culture are intertwined in the fictional town’s daily life. The cultural focus is a notable development by the creators; Xbox has only collaborated with Indigenous communities for one other video game, a remake of “Killer Instincts,” featuring aspects of Nez Perce culture.
Dontnod and Xbox aimed to portray Tlingit life accurately and respectfully. So the French developers made the transatlantic journey to Alaska in order to better understand the culture.
“We’re a small community of around 800 people, and to have an opportunity to collaborate and consult with these huge entities in mainstream media and pop culture was really a wonderful experience,” said executive director of the Huna Heritage Foundation Amelia Wilson, who is Tlingit. She helped Xbox and Dontnod craft an realistic portrayal of Tlingit culture, after they reached out to her in preparation for their visit.
Wilson introduced the team to various cultural customs; everything from Tlingit word usage, to relationship dynamics, funeral rites, and gift-giving traditions. The video game developers were extremely respectful, open-minded, and followed the community’s guidance, she said.
Still, they weren’t without some misconceptions. Wilson laughed good-naturedly as she recalled informing the developers that they needed to remove a trash-stealing racoon from the script — there aren’t any in Alaska. In fact, it’s more likely that a bear would be getting into the neighborhood trash. She also corrected a portrait that showed Tlingit people dressed in regalia that was more similar to the clothing of Southwest Native Americans.
But overall, she said the team was able to get a good sense of the town and community — they ate traditional food, met with locals, and recorded sounds for the game’s ambiance.
“I thought it was great that they didn't treat our culture as historic,” she said, considering that Native Americans are often portrayed as they existed in the past, not in contemporary times. “It was very much the opposite with the DONTNOD and Xbox teams. They wanted to have an accurate, modern representation of Tlingit culture.”
A large part of creating a realistic depiction of Tlingit culture is exhibiting genuine Tlingit art. To accomplish this, the team worked with two local Tlingit artists: Greenwald and Jeff Skaflestad.
Skaflestad agreed to work with them after determining that the team was honest and humble about their lack of Tlingit knowledge, and eager to learn what they could.
“Let me tell you, that's not always the case with visitors," he said. Being from halfway around the world, they had a lot to learn, and they asked good questions.
Like Greenwald, Skaflestad is a long-time, local Alaska Native artist.
He designed a few Tlingit murals and an intricate ring for the game. But he wasn’t initially certain he would partake in the project — there were some key considerations he had to take into account before deciding to lend his skills to the Dontond team.
Cultural differences were one aspect he highlighted.
“In Tlingit culture, there is no word for art,” he explained. Art is not thought of in the Western sense, where decorative items are hung on walls for people to look at. Each art piece has a purpose, whether that be for dancing, cooking, or other celebrations. The designs tell histories, lineages, tragedies, and triumphs. Every time a new object is created, life is bestowed into that object, he said.
This was a noticeable distinction for Florent Guillaume, the game director of Tell Me Why, who was part of the Dontond crew that visited Alaska.
“The greatest impression for me was the realization that this form of art was thousands of years old, more than most forms of art we’re used to [living] with in Europe,” he explained.
Skaflestad also had to be sure not to craft any designs that had significance for certain clans, a guideline which Greenwald reiterated.
In the end, he decided that the art depiction could be done respectfully. He had learned this artistic knowledge from elders, who had entrusted it to him so that he could share it with others and pass it on as well. The video game was just a new, novel way of sharing it with different audiences.
“The knowledge — you don't own it, you're just caretaking it. So we thought this might be a good opportunity to be ambassadors in that sense and present Tlingit culture and its art to the world,” he said.
The Dontnod team described being inspired by the trip, both personally and professionally.
“Meeting all the friendly people from these communities was very enriching and I hope the representation we did of Alaska and the Tlingit communities through the characters in the game will inspire other people to get interested to know more about them and their way of life,” Guillaume said.
The Alaska Native participants in the game’s development were also happy with the video game’s outcome, and were encouraged by the potential for similar projects in the future. Skaflestad, who isn’t a gamer himself, was surprised to find that Indigenous centered video games could be a new medium for storytelling and education.
“You know, the history books haven't been too kind to Indigenous people in America,” Skaflestad said. “So this might open the door for future projects — I think there's lots of opportunities to use gaming to teach people more about Indigenous communities worldwide.”
Wilson viewed it as a welcome indication of future media collaborations with Indigenous communities.
“I think that in order to accurately and respectfully represent a culture that you don't belong to, it's absolutely essential to have a consultation with that community to make sure that you're doing things correctly,” she said. “So I'd hope to see that this happens more.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission.