Okay, so quick show of hands: who here thinks that the gaming industry has improved recently?
I know it may seem otherwise with every other post I write, but I’m glad to argue that there’s been progress. Indie titles are doing the lord’s work, as usual. Some of the biggest releases of the last year or two have tried to push the envelope in various ways. There’s innovation to be truly excited about; would you ever have guessed that Nintendo, of all companies, would release an online multiplayer shooter and instantly have it become a success?
Yes, things are better than they were. But of course, they could be even better. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on multiple fronts, with the treatment (or even usage) of female characters well among them. We want a better future, and people are trying to get there however they can. That’s true even if some days it seems like “progress” is made while seemingly wearing a suit of armor during a triathlon.
But in order to see where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been. So it’s time to do something I’ve never, ever done before…except for the last time I did it.
So let’s be straight here. Do video games need more female protagonists? Yes, absolutely, and direly. Does that invalidate every other female character just because she doesn’t take top billing? No. I’m a firm believer in the idea that a main character is one of the most important parts of a story, video game or otherwise; still, the rest of a cast is 100% critical, and shouldn’t be thrown out just ‘cause. We should be able to celebrate good characters whenever and wherever they appear.
I’ll assume there are about eleventy zaptillion people in the world right now that want the fabled “strong female character” to show up in the stories they take in. I’m one of them, for sure. But that’s a phrase that’s become muddled, as has its definition. Speaking personally? I want a female character without limits -- someone who has the freedom to explore various avenues, and be more in terms of design and/or execution. So as long as it’s within reason? I don’t care what they look like. I don’t care what their base-level role is. I don’t care how much ass they can kick. Just give me someone that’s good, and I’ll honor that. As you’ll soon see. And hopefully enjoy.
So once again, I’m making a list of some cool video game ladies. Note that this isn’t even close to a complete list, because there are too many ladies and games to compress into one post. Likewise, these are the characters I’ve had significant experience with, either through direct play or observation. I’d love to give a spot to Ciri from The Witcher 3, but I don’t know if I’ve got it in me to watch/play through a 100+ hour game. Again.
Whatever the case, I’ll use the same rules as last time. I won’t use to name any of the more common choices, so the following characters are BANNED from this list: Jade, Faith, Samus Aran, Elizabeth Comstock, Ellie, Clementine, Bayonetta, Chun-Li, and Lara Croft. Similarly, I’ll tie a hand behind my back and avoid using some of my personal picks. In other words, Juliet Starling, Peach, Zelda, Rosalina, Palutena, all of the Shin Megami Tensei ladies, all of the Fire Emblem ladies, and all of the Tales series ladies are BANNED. And since I’m doing this again, I’ll not only ban myself from using the same characters as last time, but also the same games. No Mass Effect, no Metal Gear, no Tekken, etc. Is it even possible to dig up another 10, then? Of course it is -- but you’re free to name your own ladies as needed. Might as well, because this post will NOT hold back the spoilers.
Now then, let’s begin. And we’ll start moving forward by going waaaaaaaaaaay backward.
Not counting the stuff in my schools’ computer labs, this is one of the first PC games I ever played. Does it hold a special place in my heart? Well, it must if I actually managed to remember it unprompted. And while it’s probably aged horribly, the skeleton of merit is no doubt still there -- plus it’s got a cool lady in the leading role.
Like the cover of the game implies, Maya’s more than willing to put her massive gun to good use. She may spend most of her days living as a scavenger on a desolate floating continent, but she’ll also do her part to keep the peace -- whether that means solving the problems that crop up, or standing up to crooks looking to misuse innocent robots. She’s strong and firm in the face of opposition, but not without her caring side.
She’s also more than willing to get a little pragmatic; part of the plot involves having her disguise herself as a lady of the evening to get what she needs. It does come off as pandering (for those looking for some sweet Diablo-style ass), but it doesn’t take away from the fact that she’s willing to play hero in the face of assaulting mutants, a continent-spanning war, and a band of self-righteous zealots on track to ruin pretty much everything ever.
It’s a good thing she has that gun. Because gosh, isn’t it nice when a female character in an RPG isn’t just a doe-eyed, waifish white mage?
Confession time: my favorite character in Until Dawn is actually Jess. She was more or less built to be a bratty queen bee, but the game pulled it off so well -- and infused her with a shocking amount of charm -- that I strove to keep her alive at any cost. She would take this slot, but Sam gets a lot more play. I have to respect that.
It’s true that Until Dawn bounces between eight characters, but (with the exception of the mentally-unstable mastermind Josh) Sam is the one that gets an incredible amount of focus. In a cast built on and filled with stereotypes, she’s arguably the closest to being a real human. She’s willing to call out the others for the prank that incites the whole incident; she’s eager to try and stop the bickering between her pals; she’s capable both physically and mentally, especially since she starts the game with some impromptu climbing in snowy conditions.
Is Sam the best fighter? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but she does as well as she can against masked assailants and screeching wendigoes. It’s not exactly with raw firepower or weapon skill, though; it’s with her wits and resourcefulness. Even if she has to do a lot of panicked running, give her a second to breathe and she’ll find ways to mess up a pursuer’s day with bats, vases, and even a good old gas-fueled explosion. And while it may not sound very impressive on paper, I think it’s worth noting that she’s one of the few characters to secure victory (and win a final boss “fight”) just by standing still. Can you imagine the amount of composure it takes to do that when you’re getting swarmed by near-invincible, cannibalistic hell-beasts? Probably not, because you wouldn’t be able to survive just by setting your controller on a flat surface.
It’s incredibly tempting to name Elma as one of this list’s cool ladies, and she certainly is -- least of all because she’s arguably the main character. But that would mean I wouldn’t be able to recognize Lin, and we can’t have that.
It would’ve been way too easy for the devs to make the 13-year-old Lin into a stereotypical cute girl you’d expect from any given moe-driven anime. But they didn’t. Even if Lin isn’t even tall enough to reach the top shelf in the kitchen, she’s exceedingly mature for her age -- a woman of science who spends most of her days trying to develop flight technology for the mechs of humanity’s last bastion. Part of that has to do with her personal passion (she’s a little too into giant robots); part of that is to pay tribute to her parents -- people who were engineers, but passed when humanity came under fire.
Lin puts on a brave, cheery face most of the time (and isn’t afraid to let the jokes fly), but there are times when she cracks. It’s hard to blame her; time is running out on the human race, she’s facing near-insurmountable odds on an alien planet, and as a BLADE there’s no shortage of officials counting on her on the battlefield and in the lab. She basically had to grow up fast -- and yet she’s able to make it through day after day, week after week without breaking down. She doesn’t need a babysitter. She’s more than worthy of standing beside Elma, which is pretty obvious given that she’s supposed to be one of the game’s primary tanks.
So yeah, cool character. Now, if only she’d stop joking about eating Tatsu…
Controversial opinion, but I respect the crap out of Life is Strange. While it does invite a lot of scorn with its hipster stylings and characters that are -- to put it kindly -- an acquired taste, I can’t even come close to hating the game for trying to offer up something it thought was special. So I want to take a minute to honor it by honoring a character that might have flown under a few thousand radars: Joyce.
Whereas most of the other cast members are art school students (with all the baggage that that implies), Joyce is a grown woman who makes a living via the local diner. It’s hardly glamorous, but there’s something refreshing about seeing a normal woman in a normal situation -- an oasis in a medium awash with fantastical worlds. There’s a level of weariness about her, but that won’t stop her from being kind and accommodating to anyone looking for a meal. Not that she’s a total pushover, mind, given that she’ll call out anyone who causes trouble. That includes her new husband David, who forces a very important duty upon her: bridging the old and new members of her family together.
That’s a struggle you don’t see too much in video games, and I hope the success of Life is Strange convinces other devs to branch out. In the meantime, I’ll say this: you could argue that Joyce deserves to be on the top of this list. Why? Because prior to the magic of character development, she has to be the mother to Chloe. She’s not the nicest person to be around. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
I’ve never been a big fan of Mortal Kombat, but I have more respect for it now than I did in the past thanks to strong showings from Injustice and the recent MKX. Admittedly it’s been a hot minute since I’ve played MKX, but it’d be nice to get back into and learn how to play someone besides Jax. And who better to start using than a member of the Kombat Kids, AKA Jax’s daughter?
Calling her “self-made” seems strangely appropriate. Whereas Jax’s infamous metal arms are effectively a part of him, Jacqui pretty much has to strap some gauntlets onto her wrist -- which implies that she has to take pretty good care of them if she wants to fight the likes of Quan Chi or Ermac. She joined the good fight against the baddies no matter what others said, which denied her of some crucial training.
And even though she’s the daughter of a famous fighter, she doesn’t have the I Win Button that Cassie Cage inherited from Johnny. Note that none of those issues stop her at all; not only does she hold her own, but she also proves herself infinitely more competent (and worth taking seriously) than ostensible team leader Cassie, who gets shafted and bumbles about until it’s time to resolve the plot at the very end.
I guess there’s not much point in dwelling on that, though. The important thing is that Jacqui can prove how dedicated of a JoJo fan she is with her best impression of Star Platinum.
You don’t need a crack team of scientists and historians to figure out that Sophitia’s gotten a lot more ogle-friendly as the series has progressed. I don’t fault anyone who calls that out as a problem, because boy there some negative connotations there. Even so, I’m willing to forgive and forget because -- setting aside the fact that it’s just as negative to pass judgment on looks alone -- it doesn’t change the fact that Sophitia’s pretty cool.
In a world where fighters come together and clash for the right to own an evil sword (or a holy sword which is evil in its own way), it’s nice to have someone whose core goal is to do the right thing. Chosen by the gods to sort shit out, Sophitia ventures forth with sword and shield. Fine and dandy, of course, but what’s critical about the character is that she gets what everyone, male or female, needs in a story: progression.
She has the opportunity to fall in love, get married, and even have kids. None of them hamper her status; if anything, her family’s presence actually makes her stronger. Of course, that strength and willpower end up being used against her, because SCIV has her get strong-armed into helping the bad guys -- including protecting an evil sword -- in order to save her daughter’s life. It’s a real turnaround from where she started, and it gives her the chance to be more than just a basic outline.
I’m down for a new SC entry that puts her back in players’ hands (given that her death has apparently been retconned), but there’s yet another elephant in the room worth addressing. And to do that, we’ve got to move on to…
One of the big talking points for SCV is that it takes place after a time skip of nearly 20 years. That’s fine in principle, but as others have noted, there was a disparity. The time skip meant that the series famous for its beautiful women would have to age up its beautiful women -- and instead of doing that (save for Hilde), the devs just went “LOL, NOPE!” and dropped pretty much everybody but Ivy…who doesn’t age because magic. Perfect.
The point here is that you don’t really get to see a lot of older ladies in video games -- which not only makes Ana an anomaly, but also a welcome face. It’s not as if Overwatch is lacking in fantastic femmes, but Ana is certainly one of the newest and worthy of respect. Given how chaotic a match can get when the clock ticks down and the ults start flying, I like to think of Ana’s experience and professionalism as a soldier shining through despite the lack of a narrative-driven campaign. She can support her comrades from a distance, dismantle her foes, and even provide a critical assist with her Nano Boost. Sun Tzu would be proud. Maybe.
It’s a tragedy that the game’s story is scattered across the four corners of the earth (i.e. in supplementary materials), because there’s a hell of a lot of potential with the character. And indeed, Ana already has plenty of story beats spelled out: her blossoming sympathy for her enemies, her costly hesitation in a critical moment, her terse relationship with the cast’s key players, and so on. Even if she’s literally a hero, she’s a complex character with a story to tell and foibles to her name. So yes, she’s absolutely a cool character.
A lot of people have thrown shade at BlazBlue for seemingly taking Guilty Gear’s place, only being “worse” at it. I’ve always thought that there’s room for both franchises, but as BB progresses and new content gets introduced -- how many scantily-clad little sister clones does one franchise need?! -- I start losing interest. Even so, there are some absolutely fantastic characters among the cast, and Tsubaki is my favorite of the female side.
It’s worth noting off the bat that when she first came out, people named Tsubaki as one of the worst characters. It’s not hard to see why; even though she could link various normal and special attacks together, her damage and range were generally pitiful. She’s gotten better over the years -- considered A- or B-tier by some of Japan’s top players -- but I found it interesting that there was synergy between the gameplay and the story. Even though Tsubaki is a high-ranking soldier with smarts and skills, she ended up being shoved aside so the bigwigs could give preferential treatment to the clearly underqualified Noel Vermillion.
She doesn’t take it well, which feeds into my bigger point. We need good female characters, but that’s only going to happen more often if we achieve parity -- a willingness to have ladies that can be anything, do anything, and experience anything. So while Tsubaki by default is a kind, noble, intelligent young woman, she’s also someone with an arc and -- more importantly -- genuine flaws. Driven by jealousy and lust for series mainstay Jin, her push for justice is as much a result of duty as it is a way to lash out at the world that wrongs her on a regular basis. Suffering is an intrinsic part of her character, to the point she actually goes nuts and/or evil for a bit. Soooooooooo…yeah, somebody give that poor girl a hug.
I wonder if this is another one of those instances where people are left going “Who? Who?” at the sight of her. I know Dangan Ronpa, but I have a hunch that not a lot of others do. So I’ll do you a service and explain.
The franchise revolves around exemplary high school students being pulled in to a prestigious academy. People like the Ultimate Chef, Ultimate Swimmer, and the like all get brought into “Hope’s Peak”, only for it all to be a ploy by a freakish bear (and his shady cohorts) to have them kill one another and name the culprit in a series of class trials. Sonia shows up in the sequel as the Ultimate Princess, with all of the responsibilities and burdens that come with it. Moreover, she has to deal with murders aplenty -- and stave off the despair so desired by the baddies.
Though the odds are against her, she handles the situation like a pro; she never gets killed, never gives in to any murderous impulses, and manages to command respect as well as show compassion. Crucially, Sonia is never, ever wrong throughout the entire game. It’s up to the player to solve the murders, but Sonia offers a serious push toward the truth on multiple occasions. And then there are other times where she professes her love of serial killers, admits that she did some “disgraceful” things in front of cameras, and has a tenuous grasp of slang. Somehow by saying “Jesus! Shit! God damn!” near-unprompted, she manages to become one of the game’s funniest characters -- and it’s a game featuring anime punk rock girl Deadpool.
So how the hell do you top that? Well…
“It’s a good thing she has that gun. Because gosh, isn’t it nice when a female character in an RPG isn’t just a doe-eyed, waifish white mage?”
--Voltech, about 2400 words ago
This is going to come off as a contentious choice. Final Fantasy is a long-running and storied franchise, with no shortage of highs and lows. Worse yet, opinions are as varied as there are stars in the universe. Which game is the best? Which game signaled the downfall? Who’s the best character? Who’s the worst character? We’re never, ever going to come to a consensus on that front, so there’s only one option: if you have something you like (or dislike), you have to use your skills and wits to make a good case. Hopefully, I’ll do that within the next few paragraphs.
2001’s Final Fantasy 10 was the franchise’s first foray into a new generation, with far greater capacity for cutscenes and voice acting. It was (and still is) about as awkward a transition as you’d expect. Be it with the audio or the visuals, there’s a ton of awkward, stilted, and bizarre moments -- execution problems that still kind of hang around to this day. Yet somehow, the game managed to stick to some familiar territory. FF10 is built around having you play guardian (literally) to Yuna, a soft-spoken priestess who regularly gets kidnapped, slots in to the love interest role quite neatly, and has a whole subplot devoted to being forced into marriage. On the surface, things don’t look good for her. Good thing there’s more going on under the surface.
There’s a built-in defense for pretty much every facet of Yuna’s character. Oh, she’s just the squishy healer? Turns out she’s actually a better black mage than Lulu by default, and thanks to the game’s mechanics you can make her into the dedicated tank if you want. Oh, she’s just Tidus’ girlfriend? She falls in love with him over the course of their journey, with all of the bonding and mutual understanding that that implies. Oh, she’s just a pure and innocent priestess with no personality besides “is nice”? That’s kind of the entire point of her character, born from years of societal pressure and years of religious dogma she has to cast off before game’s end.
And let’s not pretend like Yuna’s efforts are undeserving of respect. We’re talking about a young woman -- not even old enough to drink in our world -- who was willing to journey across the land of Spira, brawl with undead nightmare creatures, survive encounters with atheist mechanics (any one of which could’ve been a secret relative or friend of the family), use herself as a bargaining chip to banish a creepy government official from the living world, and solve some of the dumbest puzzles imaginable. And her reward for it would’ve been death, if not for the power of the plot.
Yuna’s dedication and resilience are what really sell her as a character. Even when she finds out that her sacrifice would only earn temporary peace (if that) and her world’s religion is basically a sham, she’s still willing to soldier on to defeat a nigh-invincible kaiju. She won’t let anyone sacrifice themselves in her stead. She won’t let the innocents of Spira have to live their lives in fear, or without a symbol of hope. She absolutely won’t run away, and stands on the frontlines with Tidus even after the team destroys their supposed saving grace. I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like a pretty strong female character to me.
And that’s what it’s all about. We can’t limit our way of thinking to a single path, or expect every fictional woman ever to conform to a set of standards. If we do, we’re doomed to hamstring ourselves. More importantly, we’re bound to overlook the efforts of countless creators and the quality of their works. A world where female characters can generally, consistently, and honestly have the essential elements -- traits, arcs, foibles, uprisings, downfalls, bonds, desires, and more -- is a world I’m eager to see for myself.
And maybe I’m reaching a bit here, but I have a feeling that I’m not alone on that front.
Thanks for reading. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment. Name some of your cool ladies, mull over some of my choices, or do the sensible thing and set a wicker replica of me ablaze. Presumably, you should do that third thing after you’ve gotten the proper permits. I wouldn’t want you running into legal trouble on my account.
Or would I? [ominousness intensifies]