The request was so unusual that Jeff Skaflestad was nearly certain it was a misunderstanding.
Would Skaflestad, a Hoonah-based, Norwegian-Tlingit artist, be interested in creating artwork to be used in a video game?
“When they first asked me the question, I had to make sure they knew I don’t do Western-style art,” Skaflestad said in a phone interview. “I didn’t understand how formline art could appear in video games. I thought, in the first moment, ‘I think they got the wrong guy here.’”
However, incorporating art and culture not often seen in video games into the narrative adventure game “Tell Me Why” is exactly why Skaflestad; his partner, Lisa Andersson; Hoonah-based artist Gordon Greenwald; and Huna Heritage Foundation Executive Director Amelia Wilson among others were tapped to contribute to and consult on the project.
“Tell Me Why” is an episodic video game published by Xbox Game Studios and developed by the Paris-based Dontnod Entertainment. It is set in the fictional Southeast Alaska village Delos Crossing. And while the setting isn’t real, Tlingit culture and art factors heavily into the game as it unspools the tangled memories of long-separated siblings across multiple chapters.
Game makers worked with people from Hoonah, a predominantly Alaska Native village of about 800 people located roughly 30 miles southwest of Juneau, to gain insight into life in a small Southeast village and add authenticity to “Tell Me Why.” The game, which had chapters released in August and September, and its setting have garnered positive reviews.
“It was always very clear for us when it came to representing the Tlingit culture and art that we wanted to involve people from these communities,” said Dontnod game director Florent Guillaume, in an email. “We wanted to get the insight from locals, so they could depict their art style in the most authentic manner.
“It was important that this representation would pay a tribute to this ancestral art form, not by being a mere imitation but an actual representation by the artists of this community,” Guillaume continued. “We had the chance to meet Gordon and Jeff in Hoonah, they explained us their work, their passion for their culture, so we were blessed to be able to have them contribute in the game.”
A Northwest Coast connection
Creating a contrast between the epic sweep of a grand natural landscape with a more tightly coiled, interpersonal drama was one of the early goals for the game, Guillaume said.
With that vision in mind, both the Yukon and Southeast Alaska were quickly identified as possible settings.
“We needed a place that was remote, isolated but still evoked a sense of wonder for our audience,” Guillaume said. “A place with striking landscapes and weather that would add contrast to our intimate story.”
A shared connection with the Nez Perce, a federally recognized tribe headquartered in Idaho, helped turn that curiosity into collaboration and ultimately point the game makers toward Hoonah artists.
The Nez Perce Tribe had previously worked with Xbox and developer Double Helix Games to create a more respectful take of the Indigenous character, Thunder, when the “Killer Instinct” fighting game series was rebooted in 2013.
Wilson said Nez Perce culture bearers she knew through a Washington State University tribal stewardship program reached out to her in April 2018 to tell her they had a positive experience working with Xbox, and Huna Heritage Foundation should consider working with Xbox to respectfully depict Tlingit culture.
“I was very open to learning more,” Wilson said. “I was able to make the connections with Xbox first and then with Dontnod. “
By September 2018, Hoonah was hosting members of the team that would make “Tell My Why” a reality.
Wilson said while in town, people from Xbox and Dontnod were able to try Tlingit foods, take in local sights and meet with local people, including artists as well as retired Hoonah Police Lt. Bill Mills.
A law enforcement officer — voiced by actor Martin Sensmeier, who is Koyukon-Athabascan and — factors heavily into the story of “Tell My Why.”
“When we visited Southeast Alaska, we had the opportunity to meet so many genuine and incredible people,” Guillaume said. “They’ve shared with us insights on their culture, their traditions, their art. I believe that what I’ve found the most appealing is the way the Northwest Coast art style is embedded in the culture. Art is a way of expression of who they are, a way of telling their stories through formline art or dancing or weaving. It is a link between generations and a way to perpetuate this ancestral culture and history. The Tlingit communities we’ve met are so proud of who they are, of their heritage. That’s something we’ve forgotten in our own societies and I think it’s very inspiring.”
Respecting the art and culture
Making artwork for the game created an unusual challenge for the artists who contributed to it.
Greenwald, a master carver who designed a totem pole and mural that appears in “Tell Me Why,” said his artwork always tells a story. But he had to design pieces for the game that didn’t tell a clan story or tribal history that he didn’t have permission to use.
Under Native traditional law, clans own crests, stories, songs and many crests and regalia are protected by copyright, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute, a nonprofit that protects and promotes Southeast Alaska Native arts and culture.
“I was trying to be generic as far as some of the elements within the totem or murals but still trying to be somewhat respectful to the art form and to the Native cultural side of that,” Greenwald said.
In “Tell Me Why,” Greenwald’s work decorates the exterior of a market. So, Greenwald settled on designs that communicate the nature of a grocery store. A totem pole standing outside the store incorporates a woven basket and traditional subsistence foods such as seagull eggs and gumboots. A formline mural decorating the exterior of the shop depicts a person holding a halibut and a crab.
Skaflestad, who created eagle and raven artwork among other pieces for the game, and Greenwald each said the game developers were inquisitive, respectful and overall easy to work with.
“I was thinking with a huge corporate machine that it would be very cumbersome and difficult, but it wasn’t like that at all,” Skaflestad said.
Wilson, executive director for the nonprofit established by Huna Totem Corporation, said cultural input and regional insights were also taken into account. She recalls providing insight into details as refined what family members would wear in an old photo as well as broader topics.
“At one point, they sent me a script, and there was a raccoon getting into the garbage,” Wilson said with good humor. “And I was like, ‘We don’t have raccoons here.’”
Wilson said the information was always well-received.
Guillaume said he was intrigued by the way Northwest Coast art is embedded into the culture and how it expresses identity and links generations. Before visiting Southeast Alaska, Guillaume said he did not have a sense of the millennia-spanning depth of Alaska Native culture.
“The culture and art was able to sustain over the centuries and I think that is absolutely amazing,” Guillaume said. “Also the respect these cultures have for nature was very inspiring as we can all feel today that we’ve lost this connection with nature and lost the care to protect it. I think this message is more important than ever and there’s a lot we could learn from that.”
Wilson, Greenwald and Skaflestad praised the earnest effort to respectfully incorporate elements of Indigenous culture. They expressed hope it is part of a sea change in the way stories about Native people are told in popular culture.
They said Dontnod and Xbox didn’t have to listen to input about art, funerary rights, gift-giving or other aspects of Southeast Alaska Native culture, but they did, and it was appreciated.
“I thought it was really exciting and refreshing,” Wilson said. “It seemed to me that a goal of theirs was to have under-represented populations represented in the game and to do it accurately and respectfully.”
As working artists in Hoonah, Greenwald and Skaflestad are used to introducing Northwest Coast art to boatloads of tourists.
However, a game that retails online or $29.99, has a lower bar for entry than any cruise ship that comes to town. So while the artists are accustomed to a global audience of hundreds of thousands over the summer, it’s still novel that their artwork, and Southeast Alaska Native touchstones, can make it onto screens in homes around the world.
“We hope that our depiction of the region will feel true to the people living there and will shed a positive light on the communities we represent in the game,” Guillaume said.
The artists wondered about how some regional-specific quirks will be received by an international audience — “I’m sure in Brazil, they’re going ‘Gumboots, what in the world are gumboots?’” said Greenwald with a laugh —but were overall pleased by the project.
Skaflestad said he views it as an extension of long-standing efforts to perpetuate Native culture.
“We feel like being involved in the game, and teaching the gamers a little bit about the local culture, that we were just following the lessons we were taught by the old-timers,” he said. “We just felt like we’re answering the call.”
Skaflestad said after people have played the game, they’ll at least be aware of Tlingit people. When Southeast Alaska factors into national news —whether it be because of federal policy or another reason —there will be thousands of people who know something about the area and the people who have lived there for more than 10,000 years.
“You can’t say it’s going to change the world, but the more people are aware, the better things are,” Skaflestad said.