I have a long, loving history with the Borderlands series. I played Borderlands 1 by myself on a beat-up old laptop that could barely handle it, but even on ultra-low settings, I knew there was something special about it. Things really took off when I spent my freshman year of college playing through Borderlands 2 with my boyfriend. Beyond being a fun activity we could do together, it was something that helped us stay in touch during the long-distance part of our relationship. When my roommate was driving me up the wall or I was really missing home, I could log into the wonderfully irreverent and stupid world of bandits and vault hunters and get lost for a few hours.
Understandably, we were over the moon — Pandora’s moon, to be exact — when Borderlands 3 was released. I was excited to laugh my ass off once again, but some of the things brought up in reviews of the game had me a little concerned. Some journalists and players believed that the Borderlands franchise is not being respectful of diverse peoples and groups, and that Borderlands 3 does little to remedy the situation. Despite things like the inclusion of queer and nonbinary characters and the removal of the “midget” enemy class (the models remain the same, but they’re now called “tinks”), these people argued that there were still too many jokes that ventured into distaste and that the game’s humor was too centered on existing stereotypes. After having played through a decent chunk of the game, I have to disagree: Borderlands 3 is doing a lot to make queer and gender nonconforming characters more “normal” for an audience that may not frequently interact with them. Even if the game is not making a lot of noise about it, I believe that queer and gender nonconforming (henceforth referred to as GNC) people in gaming will benefit from these more subtle portrayals.
(Please note that I’m using the words “normal” and “commonplace” not to mean that queer and GNC people should fit a certain mold that the game is promoting; rather, the game makes these groups seem like typical, everyday people and not an entirely different category of humans to the game’s target young straight male audience.)
Our first in-game example of BL3’s quest to make queer characters (and by extension, queer people) commonplace is a side quest in Lectra City on the planet Promethea. The player can speak to a female bandit underneath the city who asks the player to find her girlfriend, who is somewhere else in the area, and bring her back. We’re not told why, but the bandit makes it clear (in classic crazy bandit fashion) that she is very much in love with this woman and that it’s imperative we bring her back. It’s later revealed that the reason we were to bring the girlfriend back to the bandit is that the bandit was going to ask her to marry her, complete with a big neon “WILL U MARRY ME” sign.
The fact that this female bandit has a girlfriend whom she wants to marry isn’t presented as strange, or really, anything other than normal. All we know is that she has a girlfriend, she wants to marry her, and like most bandits, she’s totally insane. This last part is key to the importance of the quest: the humor comes from the fact that this bandit can’t shut up about how much she loves her SO, regardless of what gender they are. We’ve all been around someone in the honeymoon phase who gushes about their honey like, to use a Juno phrase, “the sun shines out of their ass,” and we’ve all rolled our eyes at it. The joke isn’t that she has a girlfriend, or that she wants to marry her; if anything, these are presented with genuine heart. After the girlfriend winds up dead, the player then meets (and kills) their entire wedding party. (This is Borderlands, after all.)
If the love between the bandit and her girlfriend had been presented as something out of the ordinary because of their gender or orientation, the attempt at humor might have drawn more attention from players, but instead, it’s shown as something normal, which deflects the humor away from potentially dangerous territory. Bandits have normal (insane) lives like all of us: they fall in love, get married, and eventually get mowed down by the player.
There is more value in showing this kind of queer normalcy than many believe. It’s not all rainbow eyeshadow and drag shows; there’s a place for those, but as fun as those things are and as mighty as it can be to be yourself, sometimes it’s more powerful to show queer and GNC people living their lives as normal humans. We’re laughing at the bandit and at the ridiculousness of the quest, but we’re laughing at her for being insane and crazy in love in a uniquely bandit way, not for having a girlfriend.
Quests like this one show that Borderlands 3 has taken large (if understated) strides since Borderlands 2. The game isn’t trying to be everything to everyone, nor is it trying to be the most socially conscious game on the block: that’s not its category, and there are other games that do it better. Rather, it’s trying to make these queer relationships normal for an audience that may not be exposed to queer and GNC people in their everyday lives or in other gaming experiences. The young straight male target audience may not play an explicitly queer game like Dream Daddy, but they will play BL3. By having queer characters in the game in ordinary situations, some semblance of normalcy is build around these characters’ identities and relationships, whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of the player.
A side quest is one thing, but a playable character is a whole other ball game, and here Borderlands 3 gets a little louder about its direction. The beastmaster Fl4k, a robot who is controllable by the player, uses they/them pronouns as specified by developer Gearbox. If you think about it for a little bit, this makes sense: Fl4k is an AI/robot combination, so they’re not human, and Pandora’s sentient robots of the future may or may not conform to human ideas of gender, so having pronouns for a robot is based entirely on what we as humans perceive them to be. Because Fl4k wears male-coded clothing and their voice sounds masculine (as played by the extremely funny ProZD), they may be mistakenly referred to as male, but again, as a robot, Fl4k doesn’t have a gender.
The importance here is that this gives logical basis to Fl4k’s pronouns. The player who values logic but thinks “You dress like a man and sound like a man, so I’ll call you a man” has something more concrete on which to base their pronouns than the more abstract concept of a character’s way of identifying. Obviously, this shouldn’t be necessary and you should respect someone’s identity without any “logical” basis required, simply because they’re human and it’s the right thing to do, this basis might help the self-professed “extremely logical” among players. Being able to play as Fl4k could also help reinforce the idea of gender non-conformance as a real and relevant identity to those who may not already see it as such.
A month before release, Gearbox made waves when they said that anyone consciously and repeatedly referring to Fl4k with he/him pronouns would be banned, classing it as hate speech. Not only did they choose to stand up for their character, they chose to stand up for GNC people everywhere who are consistently and purposefully misgendered. It may have riled up a small subset of the game’s audience, but it also made them aware of something important that they may have otherwise ignored, and for that, I’m grateful that the whole thing happened. If you can make an effort to refer to a video game character with the correct pronouns, you can do it for a real-life human.
The Borderlands franchise, and the game industry as a whole, still have a way to go. Games can always do better and always should strive to do better, but progress isn’t always extremely visible leaps and bounds. If Borderlands 3 tried to rub these identities in your face and constantly make you aware of them, it may have turned away players who would bemoan that everything must be “politically correct,” even franchises that “used to” rebel and satirize. Borderlands 3 is still the rebellious, irreverent, poop-joke-laden redheaded stepchild of FPSes — it’s just starting to recognize things that queer and GNC people have known for a long time.