The 15 Greatest Women in Video Games


Jen and I in 2010 (“non-civilian” clothes)

Jennifer Wicks and I have united to bring you this more-than-a-list that examines (and lauds) characterization of women in a medium that has not always been so good about it.  If you’re looking at this, you probably know some of the history, whether it be constant damsels and femme-fatales, breasts that begin at the collarbone, or reductive “hottest video game babes” lists.  But in the aftermath of all the damage (and with the revelation that there are more female gamers than male), we might be in the middle of a massive healing period.

Our countdown, which is labeled “15” but includes plenty of honorable mentions, is going to look at things from the standpoint of genuine characterization, depth, and impact.  And we’re going to do it without slut-shaming any of the problematic characters.

Because this is a detailed examination, there will be thorough spoilers for every game mentioned.  Only one character per game or game series is allowed (except in the case of the rare “twofer,” in which two characters occupy the same slot).  Onward!





Tomb Raider

Woman Rescues Princess

Tomb Raider Good news: Tomb Raider (2013) passes the Bechdel Test.  For the unenlightened, a passing grade requires a piece of media to feature two female characters, both with names, sharing a conversation about something other than a man.  Lara Croft, Tomb Raider‘s protagonist, who has finally become a respectable, layered, non-objectified female character after 10+ years of being the quintessential example of poor female imagery in gaming, shoots plenty of breeze with her best friend/roommate Samantha (Sam) about science, survival, filmmaking, and their deep-rooted friendship.  Her rival/frenemy is also female: Joslin Reyes, who considers Lara a greenhorn and blames her for the story’s central shipwreck.  Even the enemy, in the end, is a Sun Goddess (Himiko) who requires another woman to carry on her legacy every generation.

Most of the Bechdel-Test-scrutiny is placed upon media that has widespread influence – that is to say, big-budget films, episodic TV series, video games, and all manner of popular brainjunk, much of which stubbornly retains the view that a man must be a misogynistic, aggressive, meat-eating, alcohol-swilling American cowboy in order to be “masculine,” and women can only be measured by which role they occupy in regards to the man, and how well they can do it: love interest?  Damsel in distress? Dove-eyed sidekick?  Secretary?  Domineering mother?  Stripper?  An old strategy by mostly-or-all-male development teams has been to pander to male audiences by giving the illusion of strong and independent female characters (let’s stay away from the word “empowered,” since we all have different ideas of what that means) through implementation of shopworn stereotypes that still linger in the wrong column of most people’s “sexist or not?” lists.  The Femme Fatale is the one that comes to mind.  Bayonetta, for example, filled the shoes of the Old Lara Croft: she was an action hero who enjoyed murdering enemies with stylized flourishes, after which she’d strike a sexy pose as if she knew the camera was there.  “She uses her sexuality to get what she wants,” someone once told me when I questioned how-the-fuck Bayonetta is an [empowered] character.  We’re talking about a character who wears skin-tight, low-cut black leather, whose legs are twice the length of the rest of her body, and who is built like a telephone pole with two enormous Happy Birthday balloons taped to it.  Is there really any question about the target audience for this character?

But Lara does not enjoy the killing.  Not only does the new Lara Croft game feature un-stupid dialogue between women, but the mostly-or-all-male development team (female writers notwithstanding, since the execs make all the final decisions) resisted even the temptation to have a shot of Lara in her underwear (which they probably could have snuck in, considering she’s trapped on an island wearing the same set of clothes for days straight and would need to clean or dry them after spending hours in pouring rain, muddy jungles, and even a river of blood).  Throughout the adventure, Lara is clad in a tank top, baggy cargo pants, and hiking boots, and can also don a cool-looking bomber jacket.  Even with all of the climbing, rolling, and getting soaked she does, the camera lens is never opportunistic or crude, and never attempts to make Lara an object of the player’s (or anyone else’s) sexual desire.

Sometimes, a big problem occurs when male game developers attempt to verbally sell these games to the public.  Consider that these guys, if I may be so bold, do not, as it were, “get out much” (i.e. social interaction, specifically with and about women, is not on their daily to-do lists, and they’re forced to aim these games at male audiences, despite the fact that plenty of women and girls play video games, too).  Consider also that public speaking is not their forte’.  Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of Tomb Raider, used the word “rape” at a pre-release conference to describe what the island’s scavengers try to do to Lara before she’s forced to kill for the first time.  He also stated – and this miffs me just as badly – “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’”

First off, Lara never becomes a victim of sexual assault in the game.  In one scene, a grizzled island inhabitant who has captured Lara attempts to feel her hip and makes a pretty obvious threat, but before anything goes further, the player is tasked with pressing a button combination that allows Lara to fight back, kill the guy, and escape.  On one level, the enemy character’s actions fit what the developers are trying to say about the people of the island: they’ve been trapped here for years without seeing a woman, and have become savage brainwashed cultists in the meantime, so when they’re tasked with killing Lara anyway, touching her body comes to mind.  Okay, whatever.  But even if the player fails to press the buttons in time and in the right order, the implied sexual assault does not go further (the player does, however, receive what amounts to a “game over”).  With real-life events such as the Steubenville Rape Trial (which I canceled a lesson in order to talk to my students about last week), we don’t need to act out sex crime in games.  Using a term like “rape” to describe what the enemy tries to do to Lara in this scene also perpetuates the inaccurate and frustratingly widespread  assumption that every rapist is a bogeyman in a dark alley (or an island) who jumps out of the shadows to grab the woman, and that the woman always screams and fights.  Young people are impressionable.  If you present this material to a young man enough times, this is how he thinks things are.  Before you say “But this game is for mature audiences; young people aren’t playing it,” consider the fact that when I used to teach kindergarten, I met five year-olds who played Call of Duty.  Send your sixth-grader into GameStop and see what they can’t buy.

Rosenberg’s haphazard comments (which I have to believe were at least partially informed by the need to pander to male gamers who need a “reason” to play female characters in games) caused the problems, nothing in the game itself.  He also likened sexual assault victims to “cornered animal[s],” which again has nothing to do with the actual content of the game, but which is cripplingly reductive and creates a pretty shitty image of his company.  I can only hope he’s looked back on these comments and realized what’s wrong with them (not to mention that one should actually plan out what one says in a public forum).

What disturbs me even more than the rape comment in and of itself is the thought that it was made on purpose.  No, Lara as a character does not ever give the impression of needing protection or help (as appropriately overwhelmed as she is by the story’s events), but was this just a way to get men to want to play the game?  Just like the Femme Fatale, the Rape-and-Revenge trope has only been perpetuated by male storytellers and is aimed at male audiences who get off on the idea of women as victims (whether or not in tandem with the Chicks With Guns trope).  Lara gets plenty roughed-up in this game, even if the player never “dies” or fails at a task.  She jumps off cliffs, slides down waterfalls, is shot non-fatally by arrows, does plenty of bleeding, and spends lots of screen-time tending to her flesh-wounds.  I immediately think of Nathan Drake, the main character of the Uncharted series, who was originally envisioned as the male Lara Croft and who never receives so much as a bruise in his games.  Is this because, when playing a male character, a male player wants to be completely dominant and in control, but with a female character, the titillation that comes with the victim/protection/violence against women nonsense is too much to resist?  I know this is not how all men and male gamers feel, but maybe it’s still what the gaming industry considers a safe bet for getting a game sold.  To briefly counterpoint this, I don’t think even my kindergarteners would have “believed” the story of this game if Lara had emerged from the adventure without a single cut.

Onward.  If I had anything like an epiphany during this game, it was that during the second-to-last scene of the story, after 20-ish nonconsecutive hours of play, I realized that this ended up being a story wherein a woman rescues a princess.  Yes, Sam turns out to be descended from Japanese royalty and is the “chosen one” Himiko requires in order to remain in control of the island.  Lara’s final task in the game is to rescue her.  After she does so, we witness a long sweeping hero-shot of Lara carrying Sam from Himiko’s lair to the beach, where safety awaits.  Throughout the story, the duo have a very chummy rapport.  They are referred to as “best friends” and “roommates” on occasion, and Lara goes to incredible lengths to save Sam multiple times.  Not only is Woman Rescues Princess noteworthy, but there’s some gay subtext here.  I’m not the only one who has noticed; there’s even a Tumblr page devoted to “shipping” the Lara/Sam relationship (note the word relationship; no one is saying “I wish they made out onscreen!”).

This is encouraging: are gamers more willing to accept and love LGBT characters in their games?  Mass Effect 3 included openly gay male and female characters, and the option to place the player character in a steady relationship with either of them (depending on gender of course).  Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Tomb Raider, says this concerning Lara’s sexuality:

“There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure [the developer] would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either. Who knows what the future might hold?…But people have talked about Lara’s boyfriends and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that to be part of it!’ This is about her. I didn’t feel like a boyfriend or that side of things fit into it. But I do like the fact that people speculate about what Lara’s relationship to Sam might have been…”

And the following concerning Lara’s identity as a female character in gaming:

“I wanted to make a human story. But I never wanted to forget that [Lara] was female either. And, I mean, certainly the way she reacts to things could be said to be more female as a reaction. I’m not talking about being scared, or being vulnerable. But the way she interacts with other characters, her friendship with Sam in particular…you wouldn’t see a male character holding the hands of an in-pain male character or hugging a dying male character…And certainly her friendship with Sam, especially when it’s fleshed out in the camera sequences, it’s quite a female friendship. It’s quite sort of playful and fun and girlish. And that underlines Sam’s importance in Lara’s life. They both have their differences, but they’re both ambitious women in their field. And they care a lot for each other. Maybe with a female character it’s easier to show those kind of emotions…But there things—the language she uses, or the way that she interacts—that could be said to be more feminine. I’m very much not talking about her sense of vulnerability or being scared. That again has been rolled out as: male characters aren’t shown as being scared or vulnerable, why should female characters? Well, just because it hasn’t been done with male characters doesn’t make it wrong! It’s probably more of a problem of the way we depict male characters.”

Subtext, then, maybe be enough to work with for now.  More significant is the desire of the game’s fans to see a relationship like this not only canonized, but portrayed as wholesome and equal, not steamy and exploitative.  We certainly have issues with how we portray male characters (see my comments on masculinity above and throughout this blog’s pages), rugged heroes and gay men alike.  When they’re one-note tough guys, no one has a problem.  Same with female characters: if they fit a familiar role, male gamers are satisfied and the game sells.  Give them some substance, realistic quirks and ambitions, anything to rock the boat, and there’s “controversy.”

We need to be able to go all the way with the idea of women being “equals” in gaming if we’re to go there at all.  Mass Effect made strides when revealing that more players, including men, chose to play the female version of Commander Shepard, and BioWare (the game’s developer) subsequently released the final game in the trilogy with a reversible cover that could feature hardened, cool-looking versions of either gender of the hero (yes, you can still have the pervy-looking buzzcut Shepard gracing your shelf if you like).  The previous two game covers, however, feature only the male version of the character.  Why not have the mandatory “FemShep” printed on this one?  Could the assumption be that male gamers would not want a female character, however strong and deep, on display in their home lest their friends consider them – gulp – feminine?  How about the marketing campaign of the new Bioshock Infinite that featured Elizabeth, the male protagonist’s female partner (action partner, not romantic), with her breasts mostly exposed and a crosshair circling her head as if to declare her a victim that must be rescued by any man who would purchase this game, only to realize that in the game, she’s actually a well-developed character who keeps her clothes on?  Come to find out, the game developer left the marketing to another company altogether.  What is it?  The need to “possess” the female character?  The need to let male friends know that you do?  This one really killed me.

With game-scripters like Pratchett taking risks and breathing life into characters like Lara, who has traveled as long a road as any game character to earn her place, maybe we’re not far away from something that truly feels like inhaling new air, something that will dissolve the conflict some of us have about enjoying video games vs. smashing the status quo, or even just admitting to colleagues with preconceived notions about video games (and often how video games should be steadfastly discouraged) that we find enjoyment in this stuff.

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