They have been objectified, relegated to the background, been one-dimensional love interests and damsels in distress. The last few years, however, have seen a change in how women are depicted in video games. We decided to map the long route they took to reach the centre stage of interactive entertainment.
When Metroid first débuted in 1986, you got to fight space pirates and monsters as a hero in an androgynous space suit. In a master move by Nintendo, it was a surprise twist at the end that revealed that the character was female. Thus, Samus Aran became one of the first playable female heroes in the gaming world, and she continues to don her iconic suit and kick ass as a galactic hunter for hire to date.
Then came the stoic, strong and super-focused Chun Li, who made her début in Street Fighter II, as one of the first fast fighters. At the same time, Mortal Kombat gave us Sonya Blade. However, these two were just two characters in an ensemble. This would change with the arrival of Tomb Raider.
The Rise of the Tomb Raider
One of the most recognisable female characters in gaming today, Lara Croft was the de-facto sex symbol of the ‘90s. While the first few games were excellent, somehow her depiction was as more of an object than a strong-willed woman. This set in motion a chain reaction of using female protagonists as fuel for prepubescent gamers. The ‘90s, incidentally, also marked a rise in female antagonists, namely SHODAN from System Shock and Ultimecia from Final Fantasy VIII.
As gaming grew up with the times, so did the role of the central female characters. Jill Valentine of Resident Evil fame was one of the first heroes to emerge, as did Aya Brea, Yuna and Aerith from Squaresoft’s iconic games. Lara Croft’s popularity was still undeniably strong, with the character undergoing a successful reinvention. The reboots of the franchise over the last decade have changed our hero into a vulnerable, yet iron-willed individual with purpose, thrown into the dark and gritty world of relic hunting.
To the forefront
In the last few years, games with female protagonists have been etched in our memory. The Uncharted series, despite having an iconic male lead, made room for Elena, Chloe and Nadine to steal the show, with Chloe eventually taking the starring role in The Lost Legacy, widely accepted as one of the best Uncharted games. The traditionally male-dominated Assassin’s Creed also saw the stealthy style of Evie Frye used as a counterpoint to her brash brother in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
2017 saw Wonder Woman in theatres, but it also saw Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, breaking that stereotypical perfection heroines have to have. Her visual flaws did nothing to take away from her lovable character, great attitude, and excellent robot fighting skills.
While they have been doing their fair share of shooting and slugging, female leads have been vehicles for some great emotional storytelling as well. The Last of Us let you play as Ellie, a small girl, as she makes her way across zombie-infested cities, surviving not only monsters, but all manner of madness. In the upcoming sequel, we see that she has grown into a formidable fighter, and in a beautiful narrative choice, identifies as gay. Max from Life is Strange is also a similar character, who takes players on a journey where several subjects from sexuality to suicide are maturely tackled.
Smarts and sass
Several games have chosen to go down a more stereotypical route, but have gone to great lengths to add depth to the characters. One example is Bayonetta, a sassy, sexy, fashionista witch, who wears clothes made of her own hair and prefers to accessorise with guns on her hands and feet. She occasionally breaks into over-the-top pole dancing moves, but is always a compelling character, who is not only strong but also highly individualistic, with a serious set of principles. From the same studio as Bayonetta, there is also Nier: Automata, featuring the blindfolded android 2B, a perfect woman made to make jaws drop. However, her personality constantly questions her very existence, making you stop and ponder this very ‘Ghost in the Shell’-like existence and the perversion of creation in her world.
The upcoming Assassin’s Creed Odyssey lets you choose your own sex, with both sides properly voiced and fleshed out, a trend that was previously reserved for massively multi-player online games and role-playing games.
While we would love to see more games starring characters like Ellie, 2B or Aloy, the prospect of choosing what sex we want to play as or identify with, is refreshing, and takes the experience in a body positive direction, where we have female role models our sons and daughters can respect. After all, it is them who will be playing these games.