Strong female leads in games

Video games often catch a good deal of flak for the portrayal of women, or should I say the over-sexualization women endure in gaming. The discussion has become rather heated in the past several months. It is true that males from 25-35 years make up the largest demographic and are what the majority of games are marketed towards. Scantily clad women seem to be an inevitable part of that. The gaming industry is afflicted by the almost-misogynistic attitude that games featuring a strong female lead just won’t sell. Recent games and developers have tried to correct this, but it should also be pointed out that games with strong women aren’t new and several other members from That VideoGame Blog team were kind enough to share their favorites.

As someone who practically grew up playing video games, I have had the pleasure of watching games evolve from heavily pixelated 8-bit graphics to the nearly photo-realistic graphics next-gen will be. Being a gamer was natural to me, but as I got older I realized that many girls didn’t share my enthusiasm. When games started including something that actually resembled a story, I found myself often disappointed at the lack of female characters I could play as. Games like Metroid and Tomb Raider served as proof to me that girls belong in games just as much as boys. Samus Aran was the first female protagonist (other than Ms. Pac-Man) in video games and the player had to complete the game before learning the truth of her gender. It was considered a big twist at the time and little girls everywhere got their first strong video game heroine to look up to. She secured her place in the Guinness World Records for being the first human, female protagonist in video games.

On the other side of the extreme was Lara Croft from Tomb Raider who with her curvy figure but preference for traditionally “masculine” activities, managed to serve as both sex symbol and feminist icon. Fear Effect’s Hana Tsu-Vachel was a similar “tough girl” but was also not above using her sexuality as a weapon as readily as a gun.

One of my personal favorite characters was Akira Kazama from Rival Schools: United by Fate, a fighting game that featured every typical high school stereotype you could think of. When Akira’s brother went missing, she disguises herself as a guy in order to enroll in the all-male Gedo High and quickly takes command of two members of his gang, Edge and Gan. Even later in her story, when her two companions get suspicious of her motives and attempt to fight her, she easily beats them and regains their trust. Once they find Daigo, he reveals the fact that she is actually his younger sister, at which point she sullenly takes off her helmet. Neither Gan nor Edge cares about her gender because she is already “one of them”.

Akira is one of the more complex characters whose personality and fighting style changed according to whether she was masked or not. She becomes a strong and confident leader in full biker gear with an aggressive fighting style, while unmasked she is more shy and fights in a more defensive way. With her short and muscular appearance, Akira is believable as someone who goes to school and spends her free time fighting when she isn’t riding her bike.

In Resident Evil 2 was just a normal college student who also loved motorcycles and also drops everything when her brother, an elite soldier trained for combat, goes missing, Claire is quick to jump into action to locate him, despite having no formal training.

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall is perhaps an even more ordinary heroine than either Claire or Akira. Unsure what to do with her life after she drops out of college, Zoe finds herself caught up in extraordinary events when a strange girl urges her to “Save April Ryan”.  She perseveres through a mix of resourcefulness and courage.

A few studios like Naughty Dog and Unknown Worlds can be very progressive with how women are portrayed in video games but the industry as a whole and the fans can be very inconsistent. Bioware created a female alternative to the male default Commander Shepard, but, other than a few scenarios, successfully failed to make it noteworthy that she was female. FemShep, as her fans refer to her, interacts with the world on her own ruthless terms and we have little pity for any other characters unlucky enough to cross her. Jennifer Hale brings Shepard to life like no one else could and the game wouldn’t have been the same without her. If FemShep were actually alive in this world today, her femininity and appearance would take priority over anything else she managed to accomplish. In the world of Mass Effect, no one really cared that she just happened to be a woman.

When the shit hits the fan in Parasite Eve, Aya calmly draws her gun, bumps her date to safety before confronting something that casually burned dozens of bystanders to death. After a short spat with Eve, there is an option to seek out help from the backup that arrived late to the party before going after Eve, but the guys are only useful at providing a few extra bullets.

There are several female characters that while aren’t exactly playable, are so central to the game itself that leaving them out or changing them even a little will only lessen the story, possibly even making the game itself worthless.  A good example of this would be Cortana from the Halo series.  Could the story have remained the same without her? I find it interesting that the creators chose an A.I. to carry the burden of providing the emotion for Master Chief.  Swapping a male A.I. in her place might have made establishing a believable bond between the two next to impossible.

Gordon Freeman acted as a blank slate for the player to project themselves into the world of Half Life 2 which left Alyx Vance to do the bulk of the plot driving. In a Gamesutra interview, Valve writer Marc Laidlaw mentioned that Alyx provides the emotion goal and voice to tell Gordon’s internal story.

“Alyx was a great voice for [Freeman] in some ways, and you’re rescuing her father. You’re not rescuing Alyx. You’re doing things that are valuable for her, and she’s a stand-in for this new world’s struggle. She knows what is important for you to do, and she was useful.”

Right from the start, Alyx shows that she is fully capable of taking care of herself. She becomes a vital companion to Gordon who probably wouldn’t have succeeded without her help.

The episodic adventure game, The Walking Dead may have had Lee as the protagonist but the real star was Clementine.  The whole game was built on protecting this innocent little girl and preparing her for when Lee was no longer around to do so. All the way from her first scene right to the final, heartbreaking scene between Clementine and Lee, players centered all their choices on what was best for Clementine. She is confirmed to return for second season of The Walking Dead.

Speaking of young girls that steal gamer’s hearts away from the main character, we have Ellie from The Last of Us. Despite concerns over the game not selling with a young girl on the cover, Naughty Dog refused to move Ellie. Joel and Ellie both have experienced loss, and done questionable things. It is the different way they each react to tragedy and evil, however, that shows what each is made of. Ellie is the opposite of what years of video game logic have trained us into believing would sell: she isn’t a hardened soldier, a victim or even a love interest. She is however, pure-hearted and stronger in many ways than Joel, who has become selfish and cruel in his steadfast focus on surviving. The Last of Us ends up being Ellie’s story told through Joel.

There are so many others that we didn’t cover, but that is up to you to fill in your favorite in the comments below.

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