We got our first official look at New Tales from the Borderlands on Tuesday, and it looked like a lot of fun. I was already excited for the game, being a big fan of the original Tales from the Borderlands, so it wouldn’t take much to sell me on it. Then, I saw her. Making frozen yogurt in her retro diner outfit, complete with a cute little cap. Not only is Fran Miscowicz a badass character on an epic adventure – she is also a wheelchair user.
I’ve been using a wheelchair since I was two years old, and video games have been my favorite hobby since day one. I couldn’t join in with what the other kids played, but I could always play a video game. In my entire time playing them, I had never experienced a protagonist using a wheelchair. I’ve seen wheelchair-using side characters, but never taking a lead role. Yet now in New Tales from the Borderlands, I’ve finally found one in Fran. To be more specific, Fran uses a “hoverchair”, which seems to be a more futuristic and sci-fi version of a wheelchair, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a wheelchair. She controls the chair with her right hand, using a control panel much like myself.
Fran brings a lot of life to the New Tales from the Borderlands announcement trailer, with the ending shot even focusing on her as she comedically tells Octavio, a fellow protagonist, not to worry about the corpses he may find on their journey. This scene brought me a lot of joy, as it suggests that even though she may be different in her use of the hoverchair, she’s just as much a whacky character of the Borderlands universe as anyone else. Her (presumed) disability is not the focus point of her character’s introduction and is instead just another element of her.
This is similar to how I view my own disability. It is a part of me, and it always will be. Yet, as I’ve grown up, it slowly became more of a background constant in my life rather than a focal point. My disability will always be key to how I became who I am, but it doesn’t makeup who I am. Our first experiences of Fran, although rather limited so far, show the same thing. Fran is her own full character, she’s a protagonist, whilst also happening to use a hoverchair.
Some other video games have focused on wheelchair-using characters only for their wheelchairs. Whether it’s intended for sympathy or inspiration, entertainment media can often take wheelchair use and turn it into wheelchair dependency. An example of what I mean here would be the end of Life is Strange’s third episode. Spoilers beware.
Max travels back in time to prevent her friend Chloe’s father from losing his life, then she returns to the present to find Chloe in a wheelchair after the butterfly effect changed her future. Max sees her in the chair and steps back in horror, putting her hand to her face in shock. The episode ends lingering on Chloe and her wheelchair, designed to hit the player in the feels. It surely does, because it’s unexpected. Life is Strange is one of my favorite games so this isn’t to knock it, but instead, I’m highlighting how wheelchair users are represented in gaming and broader media. The wheelchair is a bad thing, the moment is meant to hurt you, and the imagery of a girl in her chair is meant to make you feel sad. Fran doesn’t do that. Fran is in her wheelchair on an adventure and looking cool as hell while she does it.
There are of course other wheelchair-using video game characters that don’t go for sympathy points, but these are overwhelmingly side characters rather than in a starring role. Lester from GTA V, Bentley from Sly Cooper, Sir Hammerlock from Borderlands 2 and George in Stardew Valley are all wheelchair users, yet none are protagonists. These characters can be a lot of fun, they can even be fleshed out, but they’re never given the stage to themselves.
For some folks, the issue of underrepresentation is harmful in itself. The fact that a wheelchair user like me doesn’t have other wheelchair users to look at is considered bad because I’m left out. I personally don’t feel that I need a lot of characters to be like me. I’d like a few, sure, but not a lot. I want to at least know that my existence is understood somewhere, but I don’t need for it to be catered to. With the line of thinking that characters like ourselves are good purely because they look like us, I feel we lose some of the wonder of human art, that is, the ability to empathize. I can feel like I’m in Arthur Morgan’s (Red Dead Redemption 2) stinky shoes without being able-bodied, American or anywhere near as handsome. This is not to say though that representation doesn’t matter – it really does.
For me, the thrill of disabled representation comes in the way it can normalize us. I grew up being stared at by others, and I still am to this day. Being a wheelchair user is strange to other people. To them, it’s alien. It’s sad, it’s weak and it’s misunderstood. When disabled characters are given an entire platform to themselves, therefore, it sets them up to become understood. The able-bodied audience can realize that they share similarities with this wheelchair-using character. The players can discover through sheer exposure that people in wheelchairs are not alien, sad, or weak. They’re normal. That’s why Fran matters to me.
I know I’m a little excited. I just wrote more than a thousand words about a character in a game that isn’t out yet, but that’s just how much it means to me that it’s even happening. We’ll see how New Tales from the Borderlands shapes up, but I already know that I’ll be giving it a shot. Besides my beloved Fran, the other two protagonists Anu and Octavio also look like a great time. The Borderlands humor is as silly as ever, and the graphics look particularly sharp this time around. Plus, I’ll be honest, I really hope Fran’s wheelchair has a giant gun hidden inside it. That would rock.
Will you be checking out New Tales from the Borderlands? Would you like to add anything to our discussion on disabled representation? I would love to hear your contributions, so go to town in the comments below. For more opinion pieces like this one, keep your eyes on GameLuster.