Since I was a kid, there’s been one female character in gaming that has particularly annoyed me – my mom. “Mick, homework can’t wait!” “For the love of God, woman, just let me finish this level, I am near the end!!!”
My mother aside, it’s hard to imagine the world of video games without female characters. In fact, I personally believe that female characters play a very important role in bringing male players inside the game, immersing them into the world and lore, or at least getting them interested in following the storyline.
And I don’t really care if this article gets classified as a “male gaze”, I am just writing from my personal experience. While possibly true for all characters, I have noticed that a compelling female character helps me ease into the game and ‘suspend my disbelief’.
Luckily, there has been a few compelling ladies in games (but not nearly enough) that have left their mark on me and this is my love letter to them.
The early years
In games we have characters we sympathize with, those we like, love, hate, despise… And it’s not just about graphics or visuals either! From Super Mario to Witcher 3, backstory, character development, his/her flaws and strengths all play a role in heroes and villains becoming unforgettable.
While playing as Harry Mason in Silent Hill, we are introduced to Cheryl, Harry’s daughter, and police officer Cybil. Now, I might not remember much about my life then, but I do remember how hard I tried to save Harry’s (mine?) daughter and Cybil. On the road through the school, the hospital, the sewers, the whole damned town, I spared no ammo, killing every undead thing that might pose danger to my daughter or Cybil. Of course I knew it was just a game, but the characters felt real to me.
It wasn’t all good, though. Even then a few things started nagging me. Take Super Mario Bros – while fighting evil turtle-birds and mushroom beings is fun, I started thinking – dear Princess, how about not getting kidnapped for once?!
The verge of two centuries also brought Jill Valentine from the original Resident Evil on my screen. Now there’s a woman who can protect herself from anything (bar Barry’s cheesy lines).
‘Your princess is in another castle’
As games passed by on my screen, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly makes female characters affect us, male gamers, in such a particular way. The fact is developers purposefully create cheesecake, women needing protection, love, or badass heroines to try to fulfill certain needs of human nature, create particular moods and exploit stereotypes in order to make a connection with players. Hey, anything to sell a product.
Since the late 80s, there was a spectrum of different roles given to women. The epilogue in Super Mario games partially relies on fairy tales’ scenarios, and considering the fact that not only kids play games, adult gamers tend to get annoyed by princesses (just ask Han Solo).
Still, the game mechanics and a sense of progression keeps you in it right until you get to the castle to confront the boss.
Pick an axe, throw the bastard into the fire, free the princess, only to realize that it’ll happen again. That continued to bother me up to the point where I told the screen – “go get yourself a taser gun, your royal highness, I’m out”.
The progressive 90s
As society slowly progressed beyond stereotypes, there were more and more female protagonists moving from helpless and unprotected to the badass side of the spectrum.
And badass is exactly how I would describe Lara Croft when she first appeared in the 90s. A Lord’s daughter and an adventurer with the right talents and proportions to evade any trouble, she was probably the first love of many gamers worldwide.
Two guns shooting simultaneously, tons of courage, a braid, glasses and shorts… I don’t know about you, but she made me feel tense, trying hard not to die while wondering through jungles, caves and tombs. I couldn’t bear hearing that scream when she falls into a pit, or gets torn by animals. My ‘precious’ was too hot to die. And don’t tell me you haven’t tried those nude patches that turned Lara’s breasts into two pyramids.
Lara Croft is today recognized as the first game sex symbol to achieve widespread attention. The developers created an image of a perfect woman out of a 1990s young adult’s erotic fantasies, and made it into a game – sneaky bastards. Lots of them since tried to do the same, but only a few were successful. Lara reached so many gamers because she had something more than good proportions.
‘Sex sells’, but ‘love endures’
Bayonetta, Kitana, Meryl Silverburgh, Faith, Ashley Williams, Jill, Cortana, Chun Li, Nariko, Samus Aran, Lulu and tons of others have one thing in common – they are all made to be sexy. Others go for sweet, adorable or beautiful – like Clementine, Ellie or Elizabeth.
Sex sells in video games, but it can’t make a game good or the character memorable just by itself. Let’s talk about something more crucial – plot and character backstory and progression.
Female characters wouldn’t be worth much if we couldn’t relate them to our real world girlfriends (the Holy Grail for gamers!), sisters, friends or acquaintances. Even a goddess or an alien can have a character trait we can identify with or relate to. That identification, its progression and the story move our emotions in different directions through games, and often interplay two things – care and rage.
When Sam Fisher found out about his daughter Sarah in Conviction (check our new Spinter Cell wishlist), he wanted to end all people who had something to do with hurting her and us as players could relate to his fury. It’s funny how games make us experience genuine care and attachment.
Clementine from The Walking Dead (S1) is one of my favorite characters. That’s the second time (after Silent Hill) I’ve felt like a dad and got awfully protective. The dialogue, the voice acting, the setting and story – Telltale did an amazing job.
I felt a genuine urge to keep her safe at all costs and at all times. There where situations when I had to choose my words carefully so that I set a proper example. In a video game! Crazy!
The next time I was similarly enthralled by a female character was with Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, as Booker DeWitt.
Both Elizabeth and Clementine possess some endearing qualities – they are ‘gentle souls’, but can be witty and capable of helping themselves, on occasion. The characters almost compel the player to do the dirty work in order to protect and save their innocence. At the same time they make you question yourself – what kind of a person am I? And if a game makes you ask that question, well, somebody did something right.
While I care for them all, hence this love letter, if we compare these characters to Princess Peach or Zelda, the progression of female characters in games becomes obvious.
Some recent titles
Hitman: Absolution introduced us to Victoria. She might be easily forgotten when it comes to strong characters, but she is interesting for me because she was made to be a killing machine, much like Agent 47, but she is also just a kid, a girl going through her teenage years.
Dishonored also deserves a mention. A girl by the name of Emily Kaldwin crosses your path at the very beginning of the game. A couple of minutes later, after you play hide and seek with her, you see her mother killed, with you the one that failed to protect her. Emily is kidnapped and you’re in jail to take the fall for the treason.
I digress, but the fact they set me up didn’t bother me much. However, killing Empress Jessamine really did. I’m like that, having a sense of duty in games.
Later in the game, it becomes clear [spoilers ahead!] that she is actually Corvo’s daughter. Emily’s story and character though, really starts to shine in Dishonored II, where she is the main protagonist and a playable character. Sure, you can play as Corvo again, but it’s obvious that the game was meant to be played with Emily (unlike Shepard in Mass Effect).
What struck me about Emily is her complexity of emotion – she is a strong female character, but at the same time lacks confidence as an Empress. She tries her best, but understands that she can never be as good a politician as her mother.
This brings me to the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. With more relatable proportions, new Lara also has a more relatable personality. Both Emily and Lara are inexperienced, often seem hesitant, but have a stoic determination to succeed against the odds and fulfill their potential. We have finally gone beyond the tropes and have compelling female playing characters.
Relatable vs Unrelatable
When Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation hit the shelves in 2012, not many people knew that Aveline de Grandpré is going to be so iconic. Yet, she is connected with Ellie from The Last of Us in one important way. They both start as very ordinary characters – and thus very relatable.
However, as the games progress, both Aveline and Ellie grow to be extraordinary in difficult circumstances, which rouses admiration for them. Aveline is also fighting against slavery and injustice, making her struggle even more valiant. Their success carries on the hope that our own struggles can succeed as well.
Now take a look at Rayne from BloodRayne. She’s a sultry vampire with a penchant for Nazi blood – so, kind of an evil versus another evil story. Does that make her a heroine? No, but it provides us with a moral alibi to be as aggressive as we want.
Even though I had lots of fun, I always thought the character superficial. Her story lacked depth and it was just too unreal to be relatable in any way.
Now, I am not saying that a character needs to be ‘real’ to feel real. Take GLaDOS as an example. It’s a totally different story! Even though GLaDOS is a female voiced AI computer villain in the Portal games, she is sadistic, ironic and funny; and I hated her and admired her at the same time. I am married, so she was very real and relatable to me.
In the end, video games are a medium that can make some memorable characters that trigger diverse emotions in players. There is an intricate set of factors at work when players identify or relate with characters, and while developers do traditionally provide more backstory to male characters, I do believe that female characters tend to make us ‘care more’.
Then again, it could just be me. When I find something I love about a character or a game, it’s often due to my own personal interpretation and imagination. I find that I only need to be sufficiently intrigued, or teased, and even if the developers didn’t create the perfect or most complete backstory or character, my mind fills the blanks.
What I can say for sure is that we are slowly and shyly stepping out of the tropes and I believe that we’ll see plenty of compelling female characters in future games. That’s something to look forward to.
Looking back, even with all their flaws, I can only thank the producers and developers who gave us such iconic female characters in the two previous decades. Cheers dear ladies, you’ve given color to many a game and to my adolescence!