Hello, Ladies: An Exploration of Female Game Protagonists

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.


22 Comments

  1. Benny Bedlam January 16, 2013
  2. Dez January 16, 2013
  3. Greg January 16, 2013
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  6. Sara Clemens January 16, 2013
  7. Mark Miller January 16, 2013
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  11. Dragonchild January 16, 2013
  12. Dave Bast January 16, 2013
  13. Mark Jr January 16, 2013
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