Happy International Women’s Day! Female gaming characters don’t have a reputation for being feminist-friendly, but there are many exceptions. In that regard, allow me to highlight a few of my favorites.
This being Women’s Day and all, we must lay down some ground rules for who is allowed in the first place. The general concept is simply “don’t be ridiculous”, but since there are so many absurd character designs in gaming, we will need to make a few things abundantly clear.
Rule 1: Practical attire
No exploitative character design. Don’t get me started on Metal Gear Solid. And sorry, Bayonetta. Your hair simply doesn’t cut it. (Har har.)
Rule 2: Realistic proportions
Did I mention Bayonetta already? We’ll come back to her in a bit. Lara Croft will also have to go due to her design in the earlier games in the Tomb Raider series. (And even considering just the more recent installments, I still have some bones to pick.)
Rule 3: Passing the Bechdel test
Meaning, she can’t exist exclusively to support a male character (player or otherwise). In concrete terms, the Bechdel test for movies basically boils down to requiring there to be at least two female characters talking with each other about something other than men. It sounds absurdly simple to pass, which is kind of the point, because so many movies fail. An arguably more helpful definition has been suggested for games, but we’ll just consider the general gist of it.
Rule 4: A modicum of meat on her proverbial bones
This excludes silent protagonists. In other words, no empty Chells. (Oh, how I crack me up.) For this list, we’re after fully fledged characters.
Rule 5: No fanservice
Zero gratuitous titillation. There are a lot of sinners here. Sorry, Samus – you’re denied entry due to bikinis, swimsuits and other skintight suits in Metroid, Metroid II, Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, Zero Mission, and Samus Returns. Cortana from the Halo series is also struck from the list, for obvious reasons – I mean, she’s a naked hologram AI designed with electric circuit details that both strategically cover her “nipples” and emphasize her female form from head to toe. And even though I’d like to consider Sarah Kerrigan, the awesome Human-Zerg hybrid from StarCraft, her design can also be considered exploitative.
I’m also deducting another point from Lara Croft, who in Legends and Underworld gets unlockable, sexualized costumes. If you want to admire ancient ruins, hunt relics, and shoot baddies looking like Trinity from The Matrix, the series has you covered, but it’s undeniably fanservice. A lot of the costumes are also wildly impractical. I mean, would you run around a snowy Siberian installation with nothing but a skintight latex suit? (To be fair, I’ve never worn a skintight latex suit; it may of course happen to be devastatingly hot.)
I’ve touched on Bayonetta already, but she deserves special mention. I’ve heard it said that she owns her sexuality and is “nobody’s bitch”. But consider this: She is wildly unrealistically proportioned. She conveniently becomes almost naked during her more powerful attacks because her magical hair serves as both clothing and a weapon. A couple of her torturous “ultimates” have elements of BDSM. To claim that this is anything other than titillating fanservice intended to increase sales would be sticking your head in the sand. So, to be clear, Bayonetta has absolutely no place on this list.
Even with a lot of big names cut, there are many worthy left. Unfortunately I have to exclude characters from games I have yet to play, which includes Ellie from The Last of Us, Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Solveig from Battlefield V, even though all of these seem like good candidates based on what I can surmise.1
I have now effectively cut most of the “Top X female gaming character” lists I have seen, but there are quite a few candidates left. Strong contenders are Clementine from The Walking Dead, Max from Life is Strange, and Cerys and Ciri from The Witcher 3, to name a few.
But let me now present my personal Top 3 Female Gaming Characters, with the reservation that I may have forgot someone I’d rather put here.
3rd place: GlaDOS from Portal
You just have to love a passive-aggressive, roof-mounted robot called Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, voiced by an opera singer, who slings poisonous remarks about the weight of your female avatar, Chell, while at the same time tempting you with the infamous cake at the end of the tests. The cake, as we all know, is a lie. GLaDOS isn’t.
2nd place: Commander Shepard from Mass Effect
The Mass Effect series lets you choose whether to play as a male or female, voiced by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale, respectively. But as we all know, “FemShep” is the only true Shepard. While both voice actors do a great job, Hale’s interpretation of the galaxy’s saviour is widely considered the superior one. But that’s not really relevant: The dialogue is almost identical regardless of your gender, and even though the reasons are undoubtedly economical, I chose to take this as an indication that we are defined by our situation, not our gender.
Commander Shepard is highly practically attired for her line of work, passes the Bechdel test – she talks with comrade Ashley about faith, among other things – and Bioware has fortunately abstained from silly fanservice. She is well deserving of her spot on this list.
1st place: Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2
The golden trophy is reserved for someone who in addition to being practically attired also has humor, stays with you through thick and thin, and offers helpful tips when you get stuck.2
My top pick is Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2. She feels like a real, three-dimensional human being, with her own motivations, opinions, hopes, and fears, all of which the player can share in during moments where you have witnessed something truly horrendous, your heart is racing, and the traumatized Alyx’s only comfort is your silent presence.
She’s always quick to pick herself up, though. She can wrestle zombies and hold her own in a firefight, and is strong and independent without it being in your face. She’s highly educated and discusses science with other female characters. She’s well written, and the voice acting is great. And the Source engine was good enough in 2004 for the graphics and facial animations to still be believable 15 years on.
But more importantly; for my part, she was perhaps the first to demonstrate this complete package – not just as a female gaming character, but as any gaming character.
All hail Alyx!