Legendary Women in Games — An Intro to Five Terrific Video Game Heroines

52% of the gaming population is female. Surprised? That average has grown steadily since the early days of home consoles and computer games. While women are still under-represented overall in games and game development, more and more game developers are introducing both playable and non-playable (NPC) female characters with well rounded, realistic story lines. Here’s a look at some of my favorite examples:

“But there’s no use going back to yesterday, I was a different person then.” ~ Alice, Alice in Wonderland

Alice Liddell — American McGee’s Alice

American McGee’s Alice is based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories, but this wonderland is not just Alice’s imagination: its her retreat while dealing with the traumatic loss of her family. The game confronts mental illness, gender bias, and windup teapot villains ably. There’s no tragically beautiful but mentally frail damsel here — Alice uses her “weakness” to regain agency over her own mind while confronting class and gender discrimination head on.

“In our darkest moments, when life flashes before us, we find something; Something that keeps us going. Something that pushes us.” ~Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

Lara Croft — Tomb Raider

Lara’s origins are sketchy — for a long time the focus for this series was as much on the programming glitch that created the overly endowed original as it was searching for historically inaccurate treasures.
Square Enix’s recent foray into the series (written by the incomparable Rhianna Pratchett) has spun that image around 180 degrees giving us an intuitive, determined Tomb Raider. In addition to self-agency (and a more realistic body type), this tomb raider can both swing across a gorge AND show compassion for her friends.

“On the flotilla, we don’t have the luxury of sexism. We need the best hands for every available job.” ~Tali, Mass Effect

Tali Vas Normandy — Mass Effect

I know all the Mass Effect fans are thinking, “What about Shepard?” Bioware did such a great job of making a playable character that could be either male or female and still have a rich, fulfilling story arc that the argument over which version of Shepard is considered canon still rages.

There are a lot of interesting, strong female characters in Mass Effect — I chose Tali’Zorah because she has the most growth of any character through the series. Tali’s story is the search for self and one’s place in the universe. Throughout the games Tali is constantly evolving: breaking past institutional racism and cultural norms, learning to think for herself, to be vulnerable and discovering her own strengths and weaknesses. Tali’s journey shares aspects of every woman’s life journey.

“Well, I couldn’t leave when you were clearly in over your head” — Elena Fisher, Uncharted

Elena Fisher — Uncharted

One part Lois Lane and one part Marion from Indiana Jones — Elena Fisher is accomplished long before she meets the protagonist of the Uncharted series. Creative director Amy Hennig says that Elena was created as a female version of Nathan Drake. Notably, she has the best moral compass of any character in the games, but being good doesn’t translate to being a pushover. Throughout the series she is definitely Drake’s partner, and the final installation even manages to break through some of the standard long-term relationship tropes.

“Nothing I can’t handle. If you want my help you better get moving.” Alyx ~Half Life 2

Alyx Vance — Half Life

If the original Half Life introduced the action gaming world to the idea of an in-depth story, Half Life 2 introduced one of the first well-developed female protagonists in the form of Alyx Vance. She is the earliest example of a sidekick/partner character that had an interesting story and development and just happened to be a woman. Alex isn’t eye candy, nor is she around to be rescued (she rescues Gordon more often then not). Valve also stayed away from making her an emotionally devoid robot, giving her more emotional range then had been seen in most video games at the time. Alyx’s introduction inspired many early gamer girls, and continues to positively affect modern games.

While the industry still lacks an equal distribution of great female characters and stories, long past are the days when your only choice for seeing women represented in games was Ms. Pacman. And with games like ReCore (a survival game featuring Joule and her army of robots), Horizon Zero Dawn (role playing as Aloy in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by dinosaur mechs), and Mass Effect: Andromeda lining up for release later this year, the future looks pretty good.

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