Female Heroes in Games

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.

16 comments to Female Heroes in Games

  • Bongo Bill

    If you ask me, most game characters are hardly characters at all. If you’ve got a complete non-entity, a robot that’s just there to shoot when you press the shoot button and jump when you press the jump button, making the robot appear male isn’t exactly the same thing as having a male main character. Maybe count the number of male main characters who are actually characters and things won’t look so bad?

    One could digress at length about the significance of the tendency to depict the “default nondescript human” as a male, but in my experience that digression never leads anywhere pleasant or interesting.

    Other M isn’t really as bad as people say, but I doubt you’ll believe that until you play it yourself.

  • …and the other five? Spill, sir! I assume that one of them is Shantae, but the others? And are we counting RPGs with ensemble casts here?

  • MCBanjoMike

    Off the top of my head, I can think of a few: Aquaria, Eternal Darkness, Final Fantasy XIII (and probably VI), The Longest Journey…admittedly, not all that many. Does Okami count?

    • Brickroad

      I haven’t played Okami, but the mention of it just reminds me of Twilight Princess, which would have been way better if it starred Midna instead of Link. So I guess it’s kind of a wash.

      I got mad at Aquaria and quit playing it, so I forgot it existed. Which is a bummer because there is a SERIOUS lack of good mermaid games out there.

  • I should be getting Other M in via Gamefly, which is actually a decent service in my area, so I shall see. I heard it’s awful, but I expected that. I also expect Golden Eye, Sonic 4, and Epic Micky to be awful.

  • Other M feels like Fusion. It’s simply garbage.
    “HEY SAMUS! Explore this fire area that damages you just by being there. BUT DO NOT USE YOUR VARIA SUIT UNLESS I GIVE YOU PERMISSION!”

    It’s completely batshit retarded. I know they have to limit your progress in some way but man! Ever since Super the designers completely forgot how to do it. Super Metroid also put up certain barriers, but in most cases there was a way around those. They guided beginners into the right direction, but a skillful player could explore pretty much the entire world after a few minutes.

    Other M is a complete failure because it breaks every rule a good Metroid game should follow.

    Oh wait we we’re talking about female heroes in games! It’s just that the mere mention of Other M sends me into a nerd rage.

  • DragonShadow

    Ugh. Reading these comments is disheartening. I wanted Other M to be awesome.

    But I agree with the first comment… are video game heroes all that deep to begin with? I have a hard time thinking of a protagonist in a video game that really has much personality at all, regardless of gender.

    I think the fact that they’re female sort of creates an expectation for the character to be unique, and stand out as an individual among the army of heroes whose character synopsis is “dude who kills stuff”. It’s really two problems here that you’re addressing as one: A) There aren’t enough female heroes, and B) Protagonists in video games don’t have much personality.

    That being said, I don’t think Samus, or any female lead for that matter, needs to have an exuberant amount of personality to be awesome. Samus was cool the way she was. The developers deciding to humanize her is fine, but the game is still awesome with her being this mostly-silent badass who kills a ton of aliens -by herself-. Really, do you need a back story in such a case?

  • Lys

    If someone told you that Mirror’s Edge has a memorable heroine, there’s a liar in your life. 😛

  • Tomm

    There is a really good issue to discuss in Other M, and it’s not sexism, it’s cultural differences. I’m disappointed everyone’s blogs and posts are so focused on how Samus isn’t a strong female anymore (not the thought behind Other M) rather than the differences between Eastern and Western authority (the actual thought behind Other M). I would bet lots of money in an alternate universe where Samus is a man, Nintendo would have used the same exact conceit.

    • I’ll try to avoid spoilers. Anyways she fought X like what? 6 times now in total? And all of the sudden now she starts to freak out and acts all helpless while a big strong man has to save her. What the crap?!
      For the most part I have no problem with the way Samus acts. Sure I didn’t want it in my Metroid, but it’s not as if she’s some kind of whiny emo git. Her emotions and reactions are pretty normal. Not the type of stuff I would associated with Samus, but then again, what DO we know about her? Not a whole lot, except for the fact that she wouldn’t crap herself when X appears again.

    • Brickroad

      That conversation is boring because nobody cares about cultural differences in an outer space game. The whole point of having an outer space fantasy is there aren’t supposed to BE cultural differences. Western sci-fi has been getting better and better about this as time goes on, so it’s jarring to see a Japanese studio be like, “Japanese conventions! But in SPACE!”

      What I’m getting at here is that Zoe didn’t spend all 20-ish episodes of Firefly living in fear of Mal, despite being black and also a woman and being written by a dude from a culture that has a long and storied history giving the short stick to black folks and women. It’s the FUTURE. White people speak Chinese, lesbian prostitutes are commonplace and religion is a quirk rather than a way of life.

      Metroid Prime 3 got this way right: it showed us an alien culture and some of the people that lived in it, rather than showing us the boring stupid culture we already have, except with lasers etc.

      (No, I still haven’t actually sat down and watched the Other M story sequences. I’ve been too busy sitting around bummed that I don’t have an FF14 beta key.)

  • SpoonyBard

    “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.”

    Are you thinking about Alys from Phantasy Star IV here? Because I am. I can’t be the only one who wanted her to stay the protagonist instead of that little wiener Chaz. All they had to do was give her a few more ass-kicking Skills, and with her ‘melee attack that hits all enemies’ business I would’ve been good to go.

    • Brickroad

      I wasn’t counting Alys, because PS4 is older than ten years, but yes, that’s a remarkably good example. That’s the only PS game I’ve played, but I understand earlier games in the series was already kind of revolutionary for having a starring heroine in a time where Games Didn’t Do That.

      I wasn’t counting Terra in FF6 either, again because the game is older than ten years but also because the character who supplants her is another woman. And also because FF6 kinda cheats by not having a solitary hero.

      I WAS, however, counting Krystal from Star Fox Adventures. So heads up: there might be a post about that in the future.

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