Strong Female Protagonists

There was a comic floating around on reddit the other day which was attempting to “prove” that the complaints about gender diversity in video games are false by listing few dozen “strong female characters” in a rapid fire sequence of panels. Most reasonable people of course will agree that the aforementioned problem does exist. Most games throughout the history of the medium used white, brown haired males as protagonists, and the list of actual interesting, relatable female video game characters who are more than eye candy is rather short. But I sort of appreciated the effort the comic creators put into their research of the subject.

That said, I’m not going to embedd it here because is is extremely shitty. The whole purpose of it seemed to show that gaming is diverse and that gamers do not have a problem with women, but the author felt it was necessary to put in several rape jokes, ablist and transphobic slurs, and make the final punchline involve a woman lying about rape threats. Other than the list of characters it contained, it has literally zero worth (even from the artistic perspective since it is the same panel copied and pasted over and over again with different speech bubbles).

So instead of wasting space, and making you scroll through dozens of of panels which may or may not involve surprise bigotry or hate speech, I will simply reproduce the list in a compact and searchable HTML format for your convenience:

  1. Faith from Morror’s Edge
  2. Bayonetta
  3. Lignting from Final Fantasy
  4. Claire Redfield from Resident Evil
  5. Parasite Eve
  6. Chun Li from Street Fighter
  7. Samus from Metroid
  8. Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Fame
  9. April Ryan from Dreamfall
  10. Alice from American McGee’s Alice
  11. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
  12. Zoe and Rochelle from Left 4 Dead
  13. Kaine from Neir
  14. Characters from Touhou
  15. Curly Brace from Cave Story
  16. Momohoime from Muramasa the Demon Blade
  17. Lilith and Maya from Borderlands
  18. Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark
  19. Recette from Reccetear
  20. Chelle from Portal
  21. Ayumi from X-Blades
  22. Lara Croft
  23. Femshep from Mass Effect
  24. Sofia Lamb from Bioshock 2

Keep in mind that this is a representative list that is supposed to showcase the best examples of strong female characters in video games as chosen by the Gamer Gater author of the comic. All twenty four of them! And after rattling off about dozen characters from major AAA titles or cult fan favorites they started scraping the bottom of the barrel including obscure indie games, fighting games and etc.. I don’t know about you but I have problems with more than half the characters included on this list.

For example, how is Bayonetta even there? Her special moves literally make her clothes disappear and she wears guns as her high heels so that she can strike better combat poses for the benefit of male gamers. Chun Li, Zoe and Rochelle are optional playable avatars from multiplayer games that are light on story and characterization. Samus is consistently problematic – the very fact that revealing her sex at the end of the game was considered a huge twist should be a clear indication that representation of women in gaming is a problem. And then the Other M took and destroyed everything that was cool and interesting about that character. Same goes for Lara Croft who started as a pinup doll designed to be ooggled by male players, and graduated to a heroine who is almost raped and tortured throughout the game to make male players want to defend her.

Then there are all the obscure Japanese console games that I, as a PC gamer, have not played (or in some cases have not even heard about). I can’t really comment on any of these but I question whether or not an average gamer is even familiar with these titles. Are those household names among the console gamers, or were the authors of the comic grasping at straws at this point?

Out of the characters I recognize, Faith is the only one I really don’t have any problems with. While I was not impressed with her game as a whole, I think she is a great example of a strong female protagonist. She is not a silent protagonist cipher like Chell, and she has both personality and motivation. She is never objectified like Bayonetta or tortured for sympathy like the new Lara Croft. As a player, you’re not supposed to fall in love with her, or worry about her, or try to save her – you are supposed to identify with her. When you play Mirror’s Edge you “become” Faith. I think this is exactly the hallmark of a good female characters in general.

I personally think that this is the one question writers need to ask themselves when they sit down to write a compelling female character: would I want to be her? Is she interesting enough for me to identify with? Because, despite of what many gamers and game designers (cough, Ron Rosenberg, cough) would have you believe, men can totally identify with female characters. If your character is not relatable, then you just end up with yet another “disposable female protagonist”:

Disposable Female Protagonist

Superfelous Female Protagonist via SMBC.

The saddest thing is that the even though the authors of the comic were completely clueless they still managed to list quite a few interesting named female video game characters who are not helpless damsels, vending machines or victims brutalized to further the story of a male protagonist. They actually identified more of them than I could think of on my own. And yet, the list seems very underwhelming…

Almost all the women on it are either NPC’s or secondary characters in games headlined by white, brown haired, gravely voiced, unshaven dudes. Only few of them are actually playable characters, and even fewer are sole protagonists of their own game.

How many strong female video game protagonists who are heroes of their own stories are there? What does it even mean to be a strong female protagonist? Lets try to define some minimum set of requirements that they would need to meet:

  • Should be a default protagonist – people always bring Femshep from Mass Effect as a good example of a strong female protagonist, but they seem to forget she is not really the cannon hero of the franchise. Yes, the female voice actor is better than the one voicing Dudeshep but he is still the default choice when you start the game, and his face is on all the promotional materials. Femshep did not even get a recognizable “default face” until the third installment of the series, and even then she only appeared in a few online ads.

    So yes, she is an option but you have to assume that most people don’t pick her, because most people tend to go with default settings. This is an actual thing we know about from focus testing all kinds of different types of software. So choosing the right defaults is very important.

  • Should not be a silent protagonist – similarly, gamers always put Chell on these lists. But who is Chell really? What is her story? As much as I love Portal, I don’t really know anything about it’s protagonist. Chell is a cipher with less personality than Gordon Freeman. We at least know that Freeman graduated from MIT and was a physicist working at Black Mesa. Chell’s past is a complete mystery. All we know about her is that she is a vaguely Hispanic looking woman. So for all intents and purposes she is barely a character.

    Ironically, the most fleshed out and interesting character of Portal 2 is neither Chell nor GLADOS, but Cave Johnson. So in a game with female protagonist and female villain, a man still manages to steal most of the spotlight for himself.

  • Should not be objectified – I already mentioned Bayonetta whose other qualities are seriously undermined because she was designed top to bottom to be a sex object. This is not to say that a character can’t be attractive or sexy. There is a clear difference between sexiness and objectification and it has everything to do with context. If your female protagonist wears a chain-mail bikini when most of the men in the game wear plate armor you are probably objectifying her. If your protagonist uses “sexy martial arts” when everyone else fights normally, it is probably done solely to titillate the male player.

    If every time your character enters the room, you frame the shot like this you are definitely doing it wrong:

    Male Gaze

    Male Gaze

    This goes back to the “would you want to be her” thing. If you are designing a character who is over-sexualized, wears revealing clothing and uses sexy combat moves you are not creating someone players can relate to. You are creating someone players can be attracted to and ooggle as they play.

  • Should not be infantilized – another trend you often see in video games is the tendency to make the female characters overly “cute” and child like. You see this a lot in Japanese games, and several names on the list we discussed fall into this category. Instead of being explicitly sexual, the characters are presented as overly naive and simple minded. The players are not expected to identify or empathize with infantilized female protagonists but instead feel protective of them.

    One particular method of infantalization in western games is “torture for sympathy” tactic. It allows an otherwise capable female character to be temporarily rendered helpless and completely vulnerable for the sole purpose of enticing protective feelings in the male player. Consider the new Tomb Rider reboot in which Lara is frequently beaten, hog-tied, wounded, mistreated, and has to fight off at least one rape attempt. The amount of punishment heaped up on her is unprecedented, and it is framed in explicit manner. There are whole cut scenes devoted to showing Lara shuddering uncontrollably, sobbing quietly by fire, fighting back tears, crying, groaning in extreme pain and etc. Games’ designers admitted this was done on purpose to evoke sympathy. Ron Rosenberg went on record saying he did not believe male players could identify with Lara, so they intentionally went overboard with the torture port to make men emotionally invested in protecting Lara from further harm.

  • Should have agency – how can you have a player character without agency? Well, it happens rather frequently. Agency can be taken away from the player during cut scenes, regardless of gender however but it tends to happen to female characters more often. It is not uncommon for games with more than one playable characters to suddenly damsel the female protagonists and have her rescued by her male companions.

    The lack of agency can also be imparted by making the protagonist subordinate to some authority figure. For example in Other M Samus must ask her supervisor to remotely enable combat subsystems in her armor which were disabled by default. While this was intended as an alternative game mechanic to replace in-game power-ups it established a highly problematic power imbalance between the two characters. Especially since not having access to all the upgrades from the start could prevent Samus from getting hurt or dying early on in the game.

Note that I didn’t pick these specifically to exclude specific characters. You could run character of any sex through that list and I would bet that all male protagonists would pass it with flying colors. And that’s really the problem. None of the items on my list is even specifically designed select for a
“strong” protagonist but rather strong character design choices that are already used for men, but almost never for women.

How many female characters from that initial list would still count if we run them through the above? I’d say Faith, April Ryan and maybe Alice. I’m not familiar with all the games on the list so there definitely may be more.

Who are your favorite female protagonists? Were they on the list? Would they pass my test and if not why?

Not that the test is definitive or authoritative – it was just my way of organizing some thoughts on problematic design choices when it comes to female character design in video games. If you want something more exhaustive, I recommend this Guide to Gender Design in Games.

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4 Responses to Strong Female Protagonists

  1. crackofdusk Google Chrome Linux says:

    Are we only talking about playable female characters? I would argue that Alyx from Half-Life 2 and its episodes is a strong female protagonist.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ crackofdusk:

    Yeah, I think the original comic was mostly about playable characters so I omitted both Alyx and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. If we would open this list to sidekicks and team-mates then the selection becomes better. For example I’d add Tali from Mass Effect alongside Alyx and Elizabeth to my list of favorite female characters in video games. They are all very well realized, fleshed out, interesting and designed without overt focus on making them sex objects.

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  3. Zekiel UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    And for non-playable characters, Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2 is a splendid example – a rare mother-figure/mentor character.

    But for playable characters… yeah. Not a great range.

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  4. Max NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox OpenBSD says:

    Yes, Kreia is awesome ;)

    I think Heather from Silent Hill 3 would fit on the list, but I don’t remember any more if she gets more “torture for sympathy” than the characters from the other games. I mean, she’s certainly less stoic than the guy from the first game. He just walks around and calmly recites his have-you-seen-a-little-girl-around-here speech at everything that doesn’t try to eat him. But I chalk that up to bad writing and voice acting. As for the other games, no clue.

    My favourite female protagonist would be April Ryan, although I only played Dreamfall’s predecessor The Longest Journey. (I heard Dreamfall wasn’t that good, so I didn’t bother with it.)

    I also think Samus is pretty cool, but she’s a mostly silent protagonist in the classic games. I’ve never played Other M, and after this post I’m kind of glad I didn’t.

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