Warning: A few spoilers for a few games.
There’s a long-running argument I have with a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair over whether Bentley from the Sly Cooper series counts as the one, true disabled playable hero in mainstream gaming. The argument is mostly over whether or not a deuterogamist who is nonetheless playable and essential to most games’ plot and the franchise as a whole makes him a hero on the same level of the eponymous Sly (I say it does, she says no), but the only reason that we even have this discussion is that you just can’t find many playable disabled people in gaming.
Note that just as I did when I looked at the few playable black women characters, I am not considering licensed characters who may already be disabled in their source material. You can complain about that in the comments if you like, but know that missing an opportunity to put M.O.D.O.K. in an article when I have the chance is already hurting me way worse than any comment ever could.
The defining characteristic I’m looking at here is playability. Games have actually gotten way better at including disabled characters in surprisingly nuanced and sensitive ways. Lester Crest from Grand Theft Auto V comes to mind, as does Joker in Mass Effect. All good characters, but they aren’t the hero. They are flavoring in someone else’s story.
It also means I have to leave off one of the greatest examples of a well-done disabled character ever, Tiami from Guild Wars 2. She has a degenerative bone disease that makes walking difficult, so she is carried around by a giant golem named Scruffy. Her appearance in the game is a genuinely moving experience for players with similar conditions, and if there’s a better character ripe for her own spin-off I can’t think of one right now. However, she isn’t playable.
There have been some playable characters that utterly define the differently-abled aspect of disability in fiction. Rad Spencer of the Bionic Commando series has his famous metal prosthesis, but considering that his arm is secretly powered by his dead wife’s soul or something (this was a really stupid game, you guys) it comes with its own problems. I like to joke that his arm is made out of an old refrigerator.
Spencer has the typical video game problem with over-compensating his missing body part with a super powered one; a problem that goes double for Mortal Kombat’s Jax and that also applies to Kano’s eye from the same series, not to mention Adam Jensen of Deus Ex, Garret from the older Thief games, and Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII. All of them are bigger and better because of their technologically overcome disability, which is empowering but not exactly a realistic portrayal.
By contrast, there’s Dunban from Xenoblade Chronicles. He loses the use of his right arm in the Battle of Sword Valley, and he never really regains it. Near the beginning of the game we see him struggling to try and lift a spoon with it and failing. Eventually he learns to wield a sword with the other arm and rejoins the party, but he’s honestly the only video game character I can name with a disabled limb that doesn’t get it fixed with technology or magic of some kind. He just lives with it, and is a hero regardless.
There’s also the Daredevil-blind approach. Kenshi from Mortal Kombat, again, is blind but psychic and a master swordsman. Kenshi is actually predated in the blind fighter trope by Xiao Long from an obscure Atari fighter from the 1997, Mace: The Dark Age. I’m leaving out Rahm Kota, a blind Jedi from The Force Unleashed because his status as a non-licensed character is murky, but he’s otherwise a good example of the trope. I also don’t know if No-Face from Twisted Metal: Black counts here, since he seems to have had his eyes removed but still drives a car through some sort of extra-sensory perception. Then again, this is a game that also wanted to have a headless driver so there you go.
To me Bentley is a better character than any of the ones previously mentioned, even if his voice actor makes me play with the volume off. The brains behind Sly’s team of master criminals, Bentley receives severe injuries in Band of Thieves that leaves him unable to walk. In subsequent games, and especially Thieves in Time, Bentley uses his considerable technological brilliance to turn his wheelchair into a mechanized wonder that makes him one of the most effective characters in the game. The difference between a character like Bentley and, say, Rad Spencer, is that Bentley uses his own considerable skill to create his chair, whereas Spencer and Jax and Jensen are folks who have things done to them instead. It’s a subtle distinction, but Bentley as a wheelchair user isn’t erasing his inability to walk the way someone like Kenshi being psychic effectively erases his inability to see. It reminds me of Kirsten Passmore and her awesome Davros wheelchair I see every year at Comicpalooza.
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It is possible that some of gaming’s greatest heroes might come out one day as autistic. There’s a fair amount of speculation on various forums and tumblrs that Link from The Legend of Zelda series is non-verbal. It’s not a physical impairment as he can clearly be heard crying out in battle, but he otherwise never speaks. Granted, this is an armchair diagnosis that could also apply to Chell from Portal, Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and with the exception of one of the more obscure hidden endings in the game where he speaks, Crono from Chrono Trigger. Silent protagonists in games often serve as blank slates for the player, but there’s no reason that being on the spectrum and non-verbal would be out of character for Link in most of his incarnations. Still, this is all speculative until someone at Valve or Nintendo says otherwise.
There are few really well-done indie games that specifically address what it’s like to exist with mental illness, but they don’t really have defined characters. A better case can be made for Dropsy the clown, the non-verbal hero of a point and click adventure game who understands things only in simple pictures and who tries to solve every problem with hugs despite being feared for his atypical appearance and manner, being the most honest example of a deeply handicapped character telling a great video game story.
In an era where diversity is becoming ever more wonderfully celebrated in the gaming medium, I think it’s time for developers to start thinking about how the disabled might start starring in their titles rather than being the background. Tiami in a platformer is a great place to start, but think of something like Gone Home with Kaitlin in a wheelchair. It would change the game almost not at all, and yet there it would be, a deeply engaging experience where the main playable character has a disability. Gaming is already going to lengths to address how the disabled play games, but not necessarily who they play in them. That’s something that really should change.