Recent discussions about how Samus Aran is no longer allowed to fire her gun or scratch her ass without written permission from her commanding officer has led me to think about the sorry state of female video game characters overall. This doesn’t have to degenerate back into the same old sexism debate (although it may come to that), it’s more a matter of games as a whole just don’t have lady leads unless the game or the plot specifically calls for traditionally feminine character traits.
Which is another way of saying that there are no female Generic Space Marines because there’s no specific reason for a Generic Space Marine to be female.
I wondered if maybe I was overthinking this, so at work the other night I started making a list of every female protagonist I could remember playing in the past several years. I wasn’t that surprised to find that most of my fond memories were actually of characters that didn’t exist. My propensity to gravitate towards girly avatars in MMOs or other create-a-character games skews that particular list of results. I’m the type of player that, if given an absolute cipher to pilot through the game world, will start attributing personality traits to that character. I mean, hell, my gnome warlock had her own blog for a number of years.
Of the ones who were real characters, a surprising amount were simply menu options. By which I mean, they shared their spotlight with other heroes, most of whom were male. Often these were games told from multiple viewpoints (like Folklore), or games that simply let you pick between a sprite with long hair or a sprite without (like Mega Man ZX). I feel like this is kind of a trick; presenting the lady lead as an option isn’t the same as writing a story with her as the star. Sometimes the trick works well, and sometimes it doesn’t… that largely depends on the quality of the game and how well it uses its dual-character setup to tell its story.
There were several “should have beens”. These were games which started with a female lead, were often advertised with a female lead, and could have very well been carried entirely by that female lead… but which supplanted her for a more traditional male hero only a short time in. I will never forgive Shadow Hearts: Covenant for replacing my hot redheaded swordswoman with the boring fanny-pack guy after a single hour of gameplay. (And besides, she remained a much better character throughout the entire rest of the story.)
Of the games where the heroine really was the singular star of the whole game, they were pretty evenly split between sex kittens and generic action girls. These characters were often fun to play as, but their games didn’t really demand much depth or complexity from them.
Two were already-established characters who were simply getting their own game for the first time. I mean, come on, Super Princess Peach barely counts.
Exactly one was a little girl. I don’t own many games where the hero is a little kid, but the ones I do almost universally star little boys or give a “pick your gender” option. This actually surprised me a little bit. I must have purchased hundreds of games in the past ten years, and only one was a story about a little girl?
So with some working, after culling away the bad or boring characters, and the co-stars, and the ones who get supplanted early in the plot… wow. Five. I was left with a list of five really good, well-written female protagonists in my entire console game collection going back a full ten years.
Does that seem a little low to anyone else? I mean, granted, my personal collection is a little small. And it’s unfairly biased towards certain genres. (Then again, it’s unfairly biased against certain genres too, like Space Marine Shooters.) In any case, my own little cross-section might be too small a sample size to base any conclusions off of. Maybe the Big Picture is brighter than I’m painting it.
Still though. Only five really memorable female leads. In ten years. Six if you count Samus, though after Other M you might not want to.
Game developers are never shy about putting wonderful female characters into their games, or even about letting us play as them… but giving them the active spotlight is something that only happens very rarely.
I guess I should point out that I’ve played neither Bayonetta nor Mirror’s Edge. I’m told both of those games have memorable heroines, and are quite fun to play besides. Perhaps a trip to the used rack at Gamestop may be in order.