Jan 16 2013

Hello, Ladies: An Exploration of Female Game Protagonists

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

Awhile back, I let the old Book of Faces know that I liked Dave Bast’s excellent piece on GTA V’s new protagonists: No Room for the Ladies? GTA V’s Male Dominated Line-up. That sparked a nice discussion with one of my friends (shout out to T-Mas) about whether or not a woman would work as the lead in the popular franchise. He posited that the only way it could would be if she were a butch lesbian, which I don’t agree with. Though it’s not like she couldn’t or shouldn’t be a butch lesbian (or fem lesbian, or butch straight, or whatever).

The chat got me thinking about all the female game protagonists I’ve played over my fairly long gaming career, and I came to realize that though I’ve come to know and admire more than a few, I’ve yet to play one that quite reaches the complexity of a Max Payne, a John Marston or a Niko Bellic, which made my disappointment over the announcement of three all-male protagonists in Rockstar’s newest venture all the more palpable. Maybe the publisher that consistently brings us these dynamic video game protagonists could take some minutes and create a similar female protagonist one time? Do we not all realize that women can get thrills stealing cars, blowing stuff up, becoming entangled with seedy criminal underbelly types, and following a singular, skewed code of honor? Do we always have to feel these thrills by relating to a male avatar? Time will tell, I suppose.

Meanwhile, here are my five favorite female game protagonists, along with the issues I still have with them.

Samus Aran

Metroid is totally responsible for taking my “mind blown” v-card.

Pardon my teenager-in-the-nineties parlance, but the moment Samus took her helmet off to reveal her gender was an experience I can only describe as “dope.” She was the dopest thing going in this young gamer’s life, and the payoff of this power-suited badass really being a lady was made all the sweeter by the fact that you didn’t find out until the end. You had to have the skills to pay the bills in order get let in on the secret.

And that’s also what bothers me terribly about Metroid. I’m an admitted cynic, and Samus has certainly earned some of her feminist credibility through the later Metroid titles, but it’s bothersome that making the character a woman in the first game was an afterthought. Maybe even a jokey afterthought. From Metroid’s Wikipedia page: “Part way through development, one of the developers asked the others, ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?’, an idea which was incorporated into the game.” The existence of an alternate ending with Samus in a bikini and the Justin Bailey code also make me cringe, as it seems the game is offering 8-bit titillation as a reward for short game completion times and playground code trading.

One step forward, two steps back.

Lara Croft

The artwork for the new Tomb Raider reboot fills me with joy: sexy, strong, normal body proportions.

Indiana Jones is awesome. I remember a time when I really, really wanted a hat just like his, and I was constantly tempted to buy a bullwhip every time I went on the school field trip to the stock show. Then Tomb Raider came out and suddenly the world had Lara Croft, the female equivalent to Indy in almost every respect, except she was English (I’m an Anglophile). I could never put my finger on it, but an accent is definitely what Harrison Ford was missing.

But those boobs! Look at them up there. She looks like that boy in your class who would put two balloons under his shirt, leaving them to stiffly float there while he pranced around speaking in a high-pitched “lady” voice. And you’d laugh along with everyone else, even while that familiar nagging thought tugged at the back of your mind—is the idea of being a woman really this funny and ridiculous?

Why can’t she just be lean and muscular and proportional? I get that male protagonists don’t have realistic body types either, and video games are all about playing out fantasies. But those are obviously implants, and spending money and precious recovery time on fake boobs doesn’t exactly jibe with Lara’s personality. Thankfully, her boobs did get smaller over the years (but then got bigger again—the ups and downs with this girl), and I simply adore her look for this year’s reboot.

FemShep

We’ll figure it out, Garrus. If it takes all night. WINKY FACE.

I’m still on ME1, and am head over heels for Garrus (best voice). I’m totally using Kaidan for his body until ME2 when Garrus is a relationship option. Oh yeah, and also working really hard on saving the universe or whatever. I’m a terrible person.

Jane Shepard is undoubtedly awesome, and one of the best things about modern RPGs is gender customization. Unfortunately it can also be one of the most disappointing. RPG/Adventure games where you choose your gender (Fable, Fallout, Mass Effect) often end up telling the exact same story for both the male and female protagonists. This means many plot points happen in spite of your being a woman, which is interesting, but doesn’t ring true to life. Oh, the male high-school bullies in Fallout 3 want to beat me up? As in punch me in the face? Sure.

Mass Effect definitely treats female Shepard as an afterthought, using the same (male) motion capture for both John and Jane. Which makes for some very strong strutting and posturing from Jane, but lord help us all if she tries to sit down in a dress.

Chell

I think you may need to hike up your britches there, miss.

Chell is nearly perfect, and I love her, and I want to be her when I grow up. I also adore the Portal series for being so incredibly female-focused, making both the hero and the brilliant villain members of the feminine persuasion. There was nary a male voice to be found in the first game, at least not until you encounter the alternate personality cores during the endgame.

She does suffer from the same Metroid conundrum though, as many gamers may not discover she’s a girl until halfway through the first game (though it does force you to see yourself very briefly right at the beginning). And one thing that has always bugged me, an absolutely nitpicky thing, is the way both versions of the long fall boots are designed so Chell is essentially running around in high heels.

The high heel trope is my biggest pet peeve in all forms of media. Nolan’s Catwoman was totally utilitarian, with her “ears” turning out to be functional goggles, but she’s running and fighting in stilettos? And listen Nolan brothers: writing in a throwaway line about how the heels are really knives doesn’t make that shoe choice okay, or believable to anyone who’s worn stilettos for more than thirty minutes.

Also, Lisbeth Salander in spiky platform pumps? No.

Bayonetta

I’m a feminist, I swear.

Oh man do I love Bayonetta, and oh man am I conflicted about it. Her special attacks involve all her clothes flying off! She’s sucking on a lollipop every. Single. Cutscene. And talk about high heels! But she punches enemies with a giant fist made of her hair! Sometimes a lollipop is just a lollipop! AND HER HIGH HEELS ARE GUNS. I don’t have any idea how she pulls the triggers, but when she stands on her hands and shoots angels in the face with her feet, I can’t help but thrill at her/our stylish power. I will make an exception to my no high heel rule if the heels are the barrels of guns. Not knives, but guns.

Bayonetta’s confident, witty, intelligent, way strong, and possesses unbelievably powerful magical abilities. She’s an unabashed femme fatale, and uses her sexuality as a weapon. I grow as tired of the sexy vixen trope as much as the next female gamer, but I have to admit it’s done really well here. Hey, we’re all allowed our guilty pleasures, right?

Future Candidates for Favoritism: Jade from Beyond Good and Evil; Aveline from Assassin’s Creed III Liberation

I haven’t played either of these games yet, but they’re both on my shortlist. I’ll have to keep my sixth New Year’s resolution to make sure I get a chance to check them out.

So it seems the female protagonists I really like seem to boil down to two tropes, the somber heroine or the femme fatale, the gaming equivalents of the standard madonna/whore figures seen in so many other forms of mass media. The male protagonists I really like are usually likable scumbags, especially Rockstar’s. Hopefully someday someone will be okay with writing a female likable scumbag, especially if they’re already spending time crafting three separate storylines for one game.

Or hell, maybe I’ll just do it myself.





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21 responses so far

  • http://commanderbedlam.com Benny Bedlam

    Quantic Dream always has strong female protagonists. I know they usually have more than one protagonist, but I always look forward to playing the female characters.

    Carla Valenti was the tough New York city detective in Indigo Prophecy. Madison Paige was the heroine alongside Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain.

  • Dez

    “This means many plot points happen in spite of your being a woman, which is interesting, but doesn’t ring true to life. Oh, the male high-school bullies in Fallout 3 want to beat me up? As in punch me in the face? Sure.”

    That completely happens in real life. I’ve had plenty of dudes threaten to beat the shit out of me over the course of my life. Someone who’s scumbag enough to be a bully isn’t usually so particular about niceties.

  • http://www.lightdarkandshadow.com Greg

    Great article!

    I would only quibble that in Mass Effect the voice acting does change the experience for the different gendered Sheps. Jennifer Hale takes the exact same dialogue and improves it for FemShep, adds in gravitas and nuance that is just lost in the Dude Shep. So although it’s the same experience in terms of narrative I think everything about the story is elevated with the female protagonist at the helm.

    I agree that it would be nice if there were some gender-specific differences, but I think FemShep is one of the best female role-models in the sci-fi genre since Ripley. Smart. Capable. Courageous. Kudos to Hale for that.

  • Mark Jr

    Even though I primarily play a MaleShep, I wholeheartedly prefer FemShep over him simply because Jennifer Hale brings that extra “umph” that Mark Meer doesn’t (though I prefer his speech voice, FemShep has a better voice for everything else).

    I would just like to point out that Chell’s boot/high heel/thingies do serve a practical purpose (making sure she doesn’t break her legs on those long falls).

  • Janna

    Jennifer Hale is brilliant. I LOVE this article much like everything you write for this site. I am an avid Sara fan!

  • http://saraclemens.com Sara Clemens

    You all are so right on, Hale is the bomb diggety. She’s definitely one of the strongest actors in the whole series. If a woman did the motion capture, FemShep would actually be the perfect female protagonist. That’s not to say a woman has to mince around of course, but it’s sooooo clear they’re using the same animation rig for both.

    I totally get the practicality of the Long Fall Boots, I do. But this is the same world where spilling a thin layer of blue liquid on the floor results in the ability to bounce ten feet in the air, so I would be just fine with it telling me those boots are soled with a special layer of shock absorbent rubber. Because Aperture science. And it’s a minor quibble in an excellent game. Note: Ellen McLain is also the bomb diggety.

    Dez, I couldn’t figure out how to articulate that example any better, so mea culpa. There’s just something about the bullying scene with the Tunnel Snakes where it’s obvious that Butch is supposed to be talking to a guy. Believe me, I know there are some men who would actually punch a woman, and I’m sorry you’ve had to make the acquaintance of even one.

    Benny, Heavy Rain is another one I have on my shortlist! I totally can’t wait to get into it. I’ll look for Prophecy, too.

    Thanks for the compliments everyone! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my stuff.

  • Mark Miller

    Femshep is far better character than male Shepard in my opinion (I actually started again to swap half way through the first game) part of this is due to the fact that her voice acting is more expressive and she comes across as far less awkward but I can’t help but think that the role is just better characterised by a female character. Further more the motion capture works better for her I feel (outside of a few awkward moments) and it seems clear that she wasn’t an after thought but a victim of limited resources.

  • http://remycarreiro.com/ Remy Carreiro

    On point, as always, Miss Clemens. I was gonna call you Miss Jackson, but I am not nasty.

  • Dragonchild

    Um, I’m guessing you don’t game much? Off the top of my head:

    Alis from “Phantasy Star” (which, incidentally, was designed by a woman)
    Aika from “Skies of Arcadia” (same designer)
    Brigitte “Rosie” Stark from “Valkyria Chronicles”
    Lenneth from “Valkyrie Profile”
    Chris from “Suikoden III”
    just about every female character in “Grandia” (and there are many of them)
    Celes from “Final Fantasy VI”
    Jill Valentine in “Resident Evil” (the first one)
    femhero in “Dragon Quest IV”

    I could go on but this is getting ridiculous. Action games are as regressive as it gets, but JRPGs have been. . . well, mixed overall (later FF heroines are either Mary Sues or effin’ tools), but if you’re going to write an article on video game heroines, it’s criminally negligent to walk past the gold mine.

  • Mark Jr

    @Dragonchild I personally own and have finished over about three hundred video games since I started back in ’94 and I’ve only heard of one of your listed characters (Jill Valentine). Part of it can be explained away by the fact that I can’t stand JRPGs, but having not played those games doesn’t automatically mean someone doesn’t game much.

  • Dragonchild

    Ah, OK. Let’s keep going then, no JPRGs this time:

    Linn Kurosawa, “Alien vs. Predator”
    Alexandra Roivos, “Eternal Darkness”
    The Guardian, “Guardian Legend”
    Princess Peach, “Super Mario Bros. 2″
    Eriko, “Illbleed”
    Heather, “Silent Hill 3″

    . . . nope, not having any problems. Mind you, I’m not out to compare collections. If the point of this article is that video games don’t feature female protagonists, then consider it soundly debunked. OK, the titles I came up with are a tad on the old or obscure side, but maybe there’s something to that. As we can see here, the studios made game after game after game with strong female characters, but gamers finishing “over about three hundred video games since ’94″ somehow managed to miss ALL of them. Who’s to blame here, the video games that exist but that never get played, or the gamers that never seek them out?

  • Dave Bast

    I’m really glad you wrote this, very well done. I’m also still blown away about Samus being a woman, definitely one of my first ‘WTF’ moments as a child.

  • Mark Jr

    Funny enough I’ve played most of the games you listed the second time around (haven’t heard of Illbleed). I don’t think Peach can be considered a strong female lead (having appeared in Mario games) because she doesn’t seem to have much of a personality, even disregarding her being one of the first video game damsels in distress. Keep in mind the last Mario game I played was Super Mario 3, so if her personality developed I didn’t hear of it. Alexandra Roivos was definitely a miss in this article (and that game was frickin’ awesome).

  • http://saraclemens.com Sara Clemens

    This isn’t an article listing all the female protagonists that have appeared in video games.

    This is an article listing my favorite female protagonists and the issues I have with them. There isn’t much room for “misses” since I said “here’s my five favorite female video game protagonists” and then listed my five favorite female video game protagonists.

    Alex Roivos (also voiced by the great Jennifer Hale) would definitely be a contender for sixth place. I also love Eternal Darkness and have written about it elsewhere on this site.

    I’m glad to know there are apparently many complex female leads in JRPGs (a genre with which I’m admittedly not as familiar), though I can’t help be somewhat dubious since you’ve listed Princess Peach as a complex female protagonist with a straight face. She’s no more complex than Mario is a complex male protagonist.

    I also think it’s a fallacy to suggest I “don’t game much” simply because my gaming experience doesn’t match up with yours. I’d hazard a guess I’ve played far more Infocom games and text-based MUDs than you have, but I would never suggest you were less of a gamer because you weren’t familiar with the medium.

  • zligo

    No Mirror’s Edge ? Im disappoint.

  • trashcanman

    “I grow tired of the sexy vixen as much as the next gamer…”

    Have you met gamers? We goddamn LOVE sexy vixens! Yes, I love my irl ladies strong, intelligent, sweet, cute, independent, vivacious, or any combination of the above but there is not a damn thing wrong with a fictional girl being over-the-top sexy and badass just because they can be any more than it’s wrong for the dudes to have muscles in places there aren’t normally muscles and talk like Duke Nukem. It’s fantasy….so fantasize! Oh, and FemShep > MaleShep. Score that one for the ladies.

  • Dragonchild

    FWIW, I read the article as a lament for more female protagonists from Rockstar. I’ll cop to being flippant when I suggested you don’t game much; it’s a comment that rankled far more than it should’ve. I don’t necessarily think Sara or Mark don’t play many games; I wouldn’t know and honestly don’t care. It was just a jab because, to be honest, this read as just another gaming article whose feminist lament was based entirely on excessively narrow scope. If you’re waiting for Rockstar to suddenly catch a wave of feminism, you’re better off waiting for the NFL to employ male cheerleaders, and anyway the complaint rings hollow when games WITH complex heroines already exist. It’s kinda like you’ve eternally friendzoned JRPGs while waiting for that misogynistic wife-beater to change. That’s frustrating to watch from the sidelines, if only because it makes the next game with a strong heroine that much less likely to be released.

    As for Princess Peach, I only included her because of Super Mario Bros. 2, where she is arguably the best character with which to defeat the final boss. Besides, Samus Aran is really just a space suit that happens to contain a woman inside, which is awesome, but her presence at the top of the list severely challenges the notion that complexity is the theme. If Samus Aran qualifies as complex, then Peach is fair game — even if she was “strong” for exactly one game.

  • Jess

    I actually sort of liked that they use the same motion capture for FemShep. I had her walking around in the little black dress she gets from the Kasumi DLC for a while, because I am easily amused and thought it contrasted hilariously with her personality. Anyway, at some point there was a scene of her sitting down in that dress, legs spread and not giving a shit, and I had a really intense feeling of identification with her at that moment. I don’t wear dresses or skirts that often, but when I do, it’s not uncommon for my mister to have to remind me to cross my legs unless I want to give the world a show.

    In general, the Mass Effect games have a lot of strong, diverse female characters. And I think all of them are more overtly feminine than Shep–which is not a complaint, I love those ladies and think they’re all badasses. But as a woman who is not particularly feminine, I like that yeah, Shep probably doesn’t necessarily know how to carry herself in a dress. Because I certainly don’t.

  • http://saraclemens.com Sara Clemens

    @zligo Fair. Faith is amazeballs.

    @trashcanman Hahahaha, yeah that was a silly thing I wrote. I just fixed it to better convey what I meant. Thanks for being my defacto content editor. I’m with you on the fantasy, believe me. Bayonetta really rides the border of female empowerment fantasy and stripper cliche, so she’ll be awesome one minute, then hurt my soul the next. It’s a complex relationship we have, Bayonetta and I. But seriously, I will probably buy a Wii U just for Bayonetta 2.

    @Jess I can relate. I’m quite the tomboy myself. I think keeping the male motion capture for FemShep does create a way, way interesting juxtaposition that could be the subject of an entire article (and is the subject of many articles). I also think that interesting juxtaposition was a happy accident for Bioware, as a result of not providing the same resources for the development of the female version.

    @Dragonchild Thanks for coming back. I’ll admit to being defensive about the gamer comment. In these days of the “fake geek girl” meme, it’s hard to read a “I guess you don’t game much” comment when I’ve been at it for 24 years.
    You also bring up some excellent points, especially regarding Peach vs. Samus. I wanted to reach the broadest possible audience, so I culled a list of five fav characters that skewed towards a “two classic, two wildly popular, one wildcard” format. It’s definitely not ranked; Samus was merely the first time I (and many, probably) played as a female character. But you’re totally right about her lack of complexity in Metroid! Though she certainly grows more interesting throughout the rest of her franchise. And poor Peach. I fear I’ve been too hard on her. Her game for the DS is actually a decent platformer, and you’re also right on about Super Mario Bros. 2.
    And I am glad you brought up JRPGs that feature strong women, in all seriousness. You’ve left me a nice list to explore. I haven’t friendzoned them at all, but they tend to be deep and I’ve got limited hours in a day to play. Being an adult with bills is lame. I’m currently playing Xenoblade Chronicles, and I just picked up The Last Story for a song. Final Fantasy VI is an absolute classic, so we can certainly agree there.
    And why not lament a little about Rockstar? I am disappoint. Bonnie MacFarlane, some damsel-in-distressing aside, was a good female character on the whole, so it’s not like they need to turn into a bunch of militant feminists before they can write a believable female protagonist. Something else I didn’t get into here is the worry that three main characters in GTA V will end up exponentially diluting Rockstar’s usually great writing. I hope I’m wrong about that, obviously, but if that does turn out to be the case I have to admit it would be nice to be able to say, “well, at least I get to play as a girl!”

  • WolfStark

    What I don’t like about Samus: Her skin tight blue bodysuit and the perfect blonde hair. I would like to get a more realistic or normal female fighter but instead without the armor she is more like another princess (from another space castle). The picture above is so much more the character I like as Zero Suit Samus.

    What I don’t like about new Lara: She is a tiny teen. It is great to reboot the series, making it more cineastic, more atmosphere, more personality and all but I really hope they let her grew up to a women and won’t stay with a teenager. And I also think it was a bad idea to shrink her down. She was 1,80 m back than and now she’s 1,65 m. Is it really that bad if a woman is not a dwarf?

    Regarding Rockstars: I have to say, my GTA is Saints Row. It has more of the old GTA spirit as the successors. I still like them but not so much and you can play as a female in Saints Row, yeah you even have a character editor and they managed to have six voices (8 with zombies). It was an awesome experience and it proved that it is possible to make one game and have to genders to choose from.

    Oh and to Mass Effect: I still dislike that I wasn’t able to be badass lesbian. Yeah, there was Liara but she wasn’t my type. It wasn’t a problem to do but they weren’t able to promote FemShep for years and to compare with CD Projekt. I love FemShep, she is great, Hale is awesome, together they merged to a diamond but EA is garbage and I won’t buy an RPG from them ever again. I am looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, hopefully I am able to play as an equal great female heroine.

  • Shambrook

    Chell? Really? Even calling her a character is being generous. She has no personality, says nothing, has no… well character. She is functinoally identical to Gordon Freeman.

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