Why female protagonists make memorable video game characters?
In 2003 I fell in love with a green lipped brunette called Jade. She is the heroine from the Ubisoft’s game, Beyond Good & Evil. Although the game was not a commercial success, it did get a cult following and received solid reviews with mostly 8/10 from critics. What made the game special for me was the fact Jade used her intelligence to figure out a way to defeat the bad guys and her weapon of choice was a camera (she did come armed with a combat staff that she used for defence…. obviously!). Ubisoft will release a sequel to Beyond Good & Evil and the reason could largely be because Jade is such a unique, memorable character that gamers find appealing.
Jade was not a flash in the pan. Female video game protagonists have been around for some time. One of the best endings in video game lore was the surprise revelation in Super Metroid. The combat heavy game featured a character in a heavy-duty exoskeleton. Before the final credits rolled the exoskeleton vaporised to reveal a buxom female with long blonde hair. That was back in 1986. Perhaps the most memorable example is Lara Croft. Her Wikipedia entry sums up the character perfectly in this paraphrase:
‘She is presented as a highly intelligent and athletic English archaeologist …inspired by strong female icons, Lara Croft was designed to counter stereotypical female characters’
Lara Croft has been so successful that her fame now surpassed the franchise from which she came from, Tomb Raider. In recent years there has been a re-invention of the character to someone younger and grittier but the image of Lara Croft that was born in the nineties of the posh khaki-short wearing, ponytailed, dual pistol adventurer is hard to shake off. When most people think of Lara Croft, they remember that character. She spawned three Hollywood films, numerous merchandising products and became a cultural icon. When you think of video game characters – she is up there with Mario.
What Lara Croft started, Alyx Vance ameliorated. The release of Valve’s Half Life 2 back in 2004 was a huge event. It kickstarted Steam, re-invented the first-person shooter with dynamic physics thanks to the Source engine and it is still considered one of the best narrative games ever written. More importantly the game introduced the character of Alyx Vance. Although you never get to play Alyx as she is a non-playable character, she was pivotal to the game’s success. She appeared throughout the entire game, guided you to your next mission, filling in plot points and introducing events and people that made the world-building of the Half Life universe memorable and real. It could be because the central hero you play, Gordon Freeman, is a mute. Throughout the entire game you say nothing. All the conversation Gordon has is one way. This made Alyx’s character pivotal to Half Life 2’s success. The best part about Alyx is how well written her part is. She is intelligent, resourceful and loyal. It made fighting beside her, and for her, even more visceral.
Valve doubled down on the female protagonist in Half Life spin-off game, Portal. Warning spoilers ahead. This time the female was the bad guy – GLaDOS. The great thing about GLaDOS is that she is pure evil. She comes across as helpful at first but her insidious ways come out in the final act. Her reason for wanting you dead is just for her sadistic entertainment. There is no grand plan here, she likes to tease you, then betray you. If GLaDos was voiced by a male I think the impact of the maliciousness would be less shocking because of the maternal instinct that comes from following a female voice. You want GLaDOS to keep you safe and so when she turns against you it feels even more gut wrenching.
The best female character I have played was Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Personally, having the exact body that could never do parkour, it was liberating playing Faith as I leapt from building to building, skidding through barriers and making the impossible happen with flying kicks. If Faith was a man, it would not have same resonance. Faith is the embodiment of freedom, hope and resilience. What better way to show that, than to give those characteristics to a woman?
If you want more examples of empowered female protagonists how about Princess Zelda or Ms. Pac-Man or Cortana from the Halo series or Ellie from The Last of Us or Clementine, the teenager who fights for survival in the Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead games.
When playing an RPG and given the freedom to choose a character’s gender, I would always choose female. I have not given this much thought and I can only presume it is because if I am to follow a video game character for hundreds of hours I would rather chose someone that is as different from me (I am a man by the way!) as possible. I, not only want my heroes to be tough and brave but I also want the opportunity to play someone that will bring nuance to the story or a new perspective. That could be because video games are saturated with male protagonists. Anecdotally most of the characters I have played have been male but not out of choice. I believe I read somewhere that when gamers can choose the sex of their protagonist, male is the preferred choice. Back in 2003 a poll was carried out for the Mass Effect game to see which type of character was constructed by gamers. The male soldier was the ranked highest. To me this was not a surprise (I of course chose a female). There have been numerous polls and consumer research that point out that violent games are predominately played by men, so the choice to play a male protagonist will resonate high. However the tide is turning.
I recall back in 2014 there was an outcry when Assassin Creed’s Unity launched as to why you could not play as a female assassin. That situation was quickly rectified by Ubisoft. Today I believe that video games can be whatever they want to be, it just comes down to money and code. So, if we want, perhaps demand, more female protagonists, we should get them.
With that said I want to venture that the next game I will play is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. No prize for guessing on what gender Senua is.
Consultant and analyst at B2Boost