The Games We Play: The Female Character

Brandann Hill-Mann
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DragonAge2 Isabela

If Isabela gives you this Arched Eyebrow of Doom, it is not a Good Thing.



I like to bemoan the lack of good female protagonists in video games. The truth is that video games are not exactly lacking in female characters, per se. It just seems that if you strip the pants off of some pixels and change the way they sashay around, then most developers consider the field leveled enough to make the meager crowd of non-male gamers happy. As if that was the mark of anything.

There has, though, been a quiet roster of characters from the annals of video games who have done the woman gamer crowd fairly well. If we are going to be stuck in the gender binary for characterization we might as well be looking for the best ones we can find. For every five or six tropes and hypersexualized characters we have there are a few that shine for various reasons.

One of the first that comes to mind is Samus Aran of the Metroid series. An icon to women in gaming everywhere, I am constantly reminded of her whenever I am skeptical of the quality of women depicted in video games. Sure, Samus was and still is a remarkable achievement to those who want to see positive representations of women depicted in games—the big schtick being that the player was not even aware that this kickass hero was really a woman infused with cybernetic DNA. Everything would have been well and great if the developers hadn’t felt the need to strip her down to her underthings at pretty much the end of every game. Underscoring all of the great work that had supposedly been done in the name of creating a woman superhero in a super power-suit was this need to ensure you knew that Samus was there for your sexual gratification when all was said and done. All of this is long before you ever get to the train wreck that is Metroid: Other “M”, with more subtle hints of mom and daddy issues than a superhero gal can shake a blaster at. And more of Samus without her suit.

Nariko of Heavenly Sword, a game produced and released exclusively for the PlayStation 3, is a character I came to adore probably more than I should have. The lore and story of Nariko focuses on a sword forged and meant to be wielded by a deity and so powerful it will take the life force of any mortal who tries to harness its power. Nariko is the daughter born to a clan who was expecting a son born to fill the role of the sword’s protector. She is called a curse and a scorn and several other terrible things while she is trying to rescue all of her clansmen from a king bent on their annihilation—all without wearing any pants. However, an overabundance of Quick Time Events aside, Nariko is awesome enough to not need pants, and to wield a sword bigger than she is and that can be used three ways. Once again though, despite Nariko’s clan being from the mountains where there is a ton of snow, she is wearing hardly any clothing and is hypersexualized. It has nothing to do with her character, other than some apparently think having a powerful woman in a leading role might get boring if she isn’t stereotypically “hot.”

Before I am accused of thinking that only chaste women are praise-worthy, one of my favorite characters recently has been Isabela from the new Dragon Age II. Speaking of characters who rock without pants, just like Miss Anthropy at Pop Matters says, she simply doesn’t need them. Isabela romps around the game in little more than a night shift—having washed up on shore from a shipwreck—when you meet her, but a rogue more full of slice and dice bad assery I’ve never encountered until I was inspired to roll my own (and even then, she was my contingency plan “B” to keep my healer safe). Most endearing about Isabela to me, however, is that no amount of slut-shaming is going to bring her down. Is every aspect of Isabela smashing? Certainly not. I can absolutely not wait until the day I see the sole non-white woman not painted the sex pot. But there is a way that Isabela has of reminding me that no matter what people say about you it really is your own opinion that matters. When asked if it ever bothers her that she had been called a “pirate hag,” she simply says “They don’t know me. I know me”. DAII is not a bastion of progressive ideals (not entirely, in my opinion), but Isabela earned some of my respect back when I heard more of her insights as the game went on. Or, perhaps it was the sailor love talking.

So, gentle readers, hit me with your favorite female video game characters. Who has surprised you by being more awesome than you expected? Who disappointed you when you expected more?


Dragon Age II screen capture courtesy of the fabulous Twist Shimmy, who always reminds me to put the coffee down.

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25 Comments Have Been Posted

Chell from the "Portal"

Chell from the "Portal" series...she saves science (specifically the lab Aperture Science) from the psychotic computer GLADoS. She is presented as a smart, brave character and she isn't hypersexualized like most female protagonists.

I don't know if GLADoS counts

I don't know if GLADoS counts as "female" in the traditional sense, but I love her. She's a villain and seen as deranged (which would be interesting to examine in light of the last post, as GLADoS is not human and fills a strange place in the "mentally ill villain" trope), but she's also got what a lot of other female video game characters, good and bad, don't have, which is a lot of hilarious lines.

I'd say GladOS counts as

I'd say GladOS counts as female - in fact, Portal entirely lacks male characters with the exceptions of GladOS's bits at the end.

One thing I like about

One thing I like about Chell's portrayal is that she is pretty much treated the same as any other male video game protagonist. This is mostly thanks to the game being in first person, but her purpose is not to be eye candy, but to be the player's avatar!


Princess from mario2 for the NES. Totally the most useful character the game.

I quite like Faith from

I quite like Faith from Mirror's Edge. I've not completed the game (or even got that far into it so maybe she gets nakey at the end) but I get the impression she is a strong, principled, not over sexualised, attractive (but not as her primary asset) and clothed free running warrior woman...

Good Question

I think that Lucca from Chrono Trigger is probably my earliest memory of a cool, well developed character-who-happens-to-be-female in a video game. She's awesome at science, easily the smartest member of your party, learns the sickest move in the game (Flare) and doesn't really waste her time trying to hook up with the Protagonist. She's too busy building robots and creating time machines.

Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is another of my favorites. She's a Woman of Color (the game doesn't specify as to her heritage, which is actually kind of's not her defining characteristic nor is it played up for the novelty), she's a badass photographer who ends up unveiling a huge conspiracy. She's likable, capable, and she just happens to be a woman. Though the game didn't do well at all, it got tons of critical acclaim and a sequel is in the works, which owns, because the gameplay/universe was actually really cool.

I think another good example would be games like Fable 2, the above mentioned Dragon Age series, KotOR, Fallout 3 + NV, and Mass Effect that not only allow you to pick your gender but your sexual orientation. Mass Effect is by far the coolest and best as far as stories that don't really change for male or female protagonists, in my opinion.

hell yes

I totally and utterly agree with this. Faith is pretty much the character that destroys every single stereotype and trope regarding female characters in videogames. I'm astonished and incredibly happy a game company decided to do this. I greatly appreciate DICE's efforts to make a character like Faith. Why? She's very relatable, she has believable 3-dimensional character - totally not cookie-cutter or off-the-shelf at all. She's very realistic (an athletic body accompanied with realistically average breast size, just as an example), she's totally not sexualized at all, and best of all, she's motivated only by the love and bond she has with her sister. If that's not breaking sexist stereotypes in games, I don't know what is.



Generally, I think Fallout 3 and BioShock both did a good job.

Favorite women:

Moira Brown from Fallout 3. She's smart and quirky and a scientist like me! She feels like my best friend in the Wasteland. Don't worry, the smoke is safe to breathe!

Sentinel Lyons of the Lyons' Pride from Fallout 3. She looks kind of like me, and she leads one of the Brotherhood of Steel's best units! Plus she's got some nice armor and she must be a good leader, or her troops wouldn't be so proud of being in the Lyons' Pride nor so loyal.

Tenenbaum from BioShock. She's also a scientist! And she's changing the fate of Rapture with her knowledge, and there's enough character development for her for her to be a genuinely interesting character. She and her little ones are absolutely key to both the history of Rapture as well as its future.

Sierra with the Nuka-Cola from Fallout 3. Her stupidity is pretty funny, not to mention a good lesson about the dangers of assuming everyone who is nice to you because you're beautiful is actually looking out for your best interests. Of all the women in the game, she's the one most likely to meet a nasty end if you ask me. Instead of Nuka-Cola and its collectibles, she should collect guns like many of the other women in the game. (Like me, for example; I have a workbench just for making Nuka-Cola grenades and better nailguns in my Megaton house.) And the ones that aren't collecting guns aren't blatantly assuming others will save them from the wasteland, they have the good sense to HIDE. And also collect guns.

Disappointed in:

Amata from Fallout 3. If I were really her childhood friend, she'd be less helpless and in need of saving. And more friendly. And if she were my childhood friend but a lesbian, shouldn't the fact that I'm a straight woman and such fond of my friend, but not sexually interested in her, be addressed at some point? Or is she just so shy and/or in the closet she won't even give it a shot? She sure doesn't seem shy.

The Consort from Mass Effect 1. If I'm a straight woman, talking to her makes her look downright bipolar. Now if I were a straight man, she'd be playing some sort of "feminine" game with me. But I'm not, so she just looks like a basket case.

Emily from The Pandora Directive. Cheap perfume? Showgirl? Too much makeup? Really really high voice? Crying? Really? Just a little too much stereotype for me. Can't really relate to her.

Wow, are you me? Really, I

Wow, are you me? Really, I agree with most of your comments. I want to add Sydney to the favourite women list from Fallout :) she is a relic hunter who loves drinking and sex, and is also very independent. I also like Miranda from Mass Effect 2 (ignoring the "sexy" shots).

I tend to stay away from Fallout 3 fandom, because they usually turn most of the women (especially the Lone Wanderer herself) into wishy-washy, useless things in the presence of the men, particularly Charon *yuck!* or even Butch, or, with FNV, Boone, who seems to be a replacement for Charon.

Zanthia from The Legend of

Zanthia from The Legend of Kyrandia 2: The Hand of Fate. I haven't played it for years, but I remember how she remained ironically detached from the absurdity that surrounded her, wielding wisecracks like a protective switchblade. She was still feminine, I remember her desire to wear the perfect outfit in every situation, but this was dealt with in the same tongue-in-cheek manner that really sets the tone for the entire game.

Glad to hear that.

I loved the first Kyrandia (in which one plays as Brandon) but never went further. I always liked the female characters such as Zanthia and Brynn, and it disappointed me that we didn't see more of them.

I like April Ryan from The

I like April Ryan from The Longest Journey for being an awkward young person who isn't sure she at all knows what she's doing. But I was sort of disappointed with her in Dreamfall, though maybe that's because there's this HUGE gap and I don't really understand how she got from the end of TLJ to that. I also didn't like Zoe from Dreamfall. Well, all in all I didn't like Dreamfall that much, especially compared to TLJ, so maybe it's just that.

I also really like FemShep, but that's not entirely a female character like others are. I liked how tremendously untraditional she looks in a dress and how she completely doesn't adjust the way she talks and acts at a party (or adjusts it to what she wears), how she has fish and a hamster but also a model ship collection and her old helmet.
(I also like Tali)

There are quite a few female NPCs from BG1 and 2 that I like.

Chie Satonaka, Persona 4. Her

Chie Satonaka, Persona 4. Her kung-fu kick is so strong she can kick monsters to outer space!



Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3.

Okami and Dragon Age

I actually loved playing Amaterasu in Okami--throughout the game she's referred to as the great goddess, mother of us all--but at the time, Capcom downplayed her gender in all the ads and tried to pass her off as being sort of asexual. Which, okay, she IS a wolf. But she IS a she, and she kicks ass! It was nice playing a character that identified as female without her being all sexed up or cute-ified. She doesn't actually speak in the game, but her facial expressions are classic.

I loved Isabella too--and love that no one's opinion bothers her. Did you ever have her and Aveline together in a party? It was pretty interesting to see that rivalry and backtalk to each other. Isabella kind of reminded me of Morrigan from DAO, but more playful.

When I think about feminist game characters, I also think of Wynne and Flemeth. How often do you see OLD women in games, let alone two? The only downfall is they're both mages, sterotypically associating old women with magic. But I still found it empowering to see women with GRAY HAIR in a game.

The article at Pop Matters

The article at Pop Matters talks about Isabela and Aveline specifically, and how, rather than leaving that relationship as your stereotype of a "catfight", it resolves into a friendship of respect if you leave them together long enough. It is easy to miss if you don't put them together until late Act III. Isabela is also incredibly insightful when talking to any of your party members. Some of the best dialogue, IMO, was between her and Anders regarding what "justice" really is and how it applies to the real world. She has some of that "salty old sailor" depth to her that I adore.

Flemeth is one of my favorite characters in a video canon ever. There is no life she touches that isn't altered, and no one in the DA canon who has done something world changing who hasn't been touched by her. If you read the novels by lead writer David Gaider, you get a better idea of how deeply she impacted the universe. I also have a few more theories of my own as to how she may have personally shaped things that you see unfold in DAII. Whether or not I am right would be something I would have to drag out of Gaider, Jennifer Hepler, and a few other writers. Not that I wouldn't welcome that challenge.

You are so right. While I personally could not stand Wynne (she preached at me too much), I did appreciate her depiction, and how she and Flemeth are indeed outside of what you find the average woman in a video game to be.

Not to mention, both of them are discussed as having sexual appetites and histories. Something that I also appreciate. I think I give the "old women with magic" thing a pass because a) Wynne was always my Arcane Warrior (until Awakenings when I handed that hot ticket over to Anders), so, old woman in armor!, b) Flemeth is just so epic. Plus, she's a dragon! and c) I have a deep respect for old women with history and ties to magic and lore, speaking from a heritage and quasi-religious standpoint.

Other Fabulous Older Ladies

I'm going to betray my limited knowledge of gaming, but how about Sindel from Mortal Kombat? I think of all the characters I've encountered she is nuanced and dimensional as her relationship between her daughter Kitana and Shao Kahn develops.

And her old age is worn like a TROPHY. Her *lovely* gray hair can do some serious damage!

Alyx Vance from Half-Life

Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2!

She's sweet, she's funny, and she's super-smart. Bonus points for being nonwhite (her dad was black and her mom was Malaysian, I believe) and never really sexualized. She's very cute and tomboyish, but she's hardly eye candy; she's there as a character to participate in and advance the plot, not to stand aside and look hot.

Yeah, she's not a playable character, but she IS really cool.

Also an NPC, but Cynthia from gens 4-5 of Pokemon is pretty cool. She's an adventurer archaeologist, killer at Pokemon (HER GARCHOMP AAAAAAGGGHHH), and very friendly and big-sisterly to the player character. (Gens 4 and 5 had the coolest NPCs period, but Cynthia was my favorite NPC.)

As for actual PCs, I love Chell from Portal and Samus.

Also: Everyone in Touhou! The entire cast is female, has awesome (if odd) powers, and being BFFs and drinking tea fixes everything.

I'm going to out myself as a

I'm going to out myself as a total, total nerd, but I always appreciated the female characters in the Naruto games. We never played story mode, though, so I can't speak to characterizations there, but in the Super-Smash-Bros. are an fighting section of the game, it was fun to play as a tiny girl and beat down big dudes twice your size; all the characters were roughly evenly matched.

You might not want to read the manga then...

Despite the very talented female ninja characters in the series, only a scant few of them have any real influence on the overall story. Sakura got a double whammy. In the part 1 arcs (pre-Shippuden), she was only seen as a liability between her teammates Naruto and Sasuke, who both share equal importance in the entire storyline. Then, in the part 2 section, her skills rose exponentially, which made her a valuable assett in battle, but only temporarily. After that, Naruto and Sasuke went into demi-god mode with their progression, which brought Sakura back down to the weakest link. It gets quite annoying after a while.

The other female characters range from "somewhat visible" to "present but irrelevant" to "almost non-existent", with the exception of Tsunade. And even with Tsunade, the way the author uses her is problematic. Still, at the very least, Naruto (the manga) treats female characters better than Dragonball Z does.

Oh, yes

I'm familiar with the manga and animated version. I have major issues with almost everything about the meandering and unsatisfying storyline(s), almost all of the main character development (the main three are Loud, Emo and Girl), and the frustrating lack of control Kishimoto seems to have on his own creation. Don't even get me started. Don't. Even.

But as far as the video game is concerned, the ladies are great!

Konoko from Oni

Admittedly, Bungie's Oni isn't the most well known or well liked game they've made (being released shortly before the Halo franchise). However, the main heroine, Konoko, is an entirely likable protagonist who gets caught up in between a two sided conflict that develops over the entire game. Basically, she's been implanted with a device called the Daoden Chrysalis since birth, which makes her a valuable asset with the "supposed" TCTF good guys, and the crime organization literally known as The Syndicate. Unfortunately, the TCTF eventually find her to be a threat, and try to kill her halfway through the game. Throughout her entire struggle to figure out the truth and fighting against two different organizations, she retains her sense of confidence and independence. Oh, and her partner? A female android. Ironically enough, despite Ghost in the Shell being an obvious inspiration for Oni - at least with the main character's design - the fan service is minimal. Konoko's attire alternates at different stages, but even Konoko's most casual outfit doesn't flash much skin (only a bare midriff). A "mission complete" art piece, however, goes the extra mile (which showcases Konoko's nude body after she dove into an acid pit to escape the TCTF). Still, that aside, if any of Bungie's games deserve a re-do, it's Oni for the story and heroine alone.

kai from heavenly sword.

kai from heavenly sword. despite how nariko and her clan tried to pass her off as someone that needs protection, she kicked major ass and is amazingly nimble. even when nariko was trying to save her from flying fox, kai was the one who dealt the killing blow. and i resonated with her a lot, what with the effects of her trauma (flying fox is an asshole, that is all.)

i really struggled with the ableism that was glaringly obvious throughout the entire game, including how all of the other characters responded to her and roach. but she rolled with it and kicked ass the entire time. could have done without the curebie bullshit at the end though. that felt like an attempt to take away a large part of the strength of her character development from a disability perspective, as if her previous depiction wasn't actually a part of her, just something 'inflicted'. flailing annoyance ensued.

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