The female video character has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. A number of factors have contributed, but the Gamergate controversy which shook the industry in 2014 appears to have been the biggest catalyst for what has been a gradual but undeniable shift in the way developers are choosing to depict woman characters in video games.
As welcome as these changes are, they’re undoubtedly overdue. The industry has been at times embarrassingly archaic in its depiction of female characters, and it has felt out of step with even the notoriously old-fashioned movie industry in terms of progressiveness for many years.
But even as the games industry takes these tentative steps forward, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that since the early appearances of the likes of Princess Peach and Ms. Pac Man, women have featured prominently in some of the most popular games of their eras. Female characters have always played a huge part in video game history, however they have been depicted.
Of course, the Mario series’ perpetual damsel and a yellow pie-chart with a pink bow aren’t exactly the best examples of strong, fully realized female characters: You can find some of those compiled below for your consideration.
First appearance: Metroid (1987)
It’s amazing to think that one of the most popular female characters in Nintendo’s current stable, renowned intergalactic bounty hunter, Samus Aran, began her video game career as an androgynous sprite few had any idea was even a woman.
But despite the developers apparently being inspired to include a female protagonist by Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film Alien, the decision didn’t come from a particularly progressive place. Samus’s gender was only revealed at the game’s climax, intended more as a surprising Easter egg than a reformist move. The fact that in successive games, fans were shown pictures of Samus sporting ever more revealing costumes in reward for faster completion times didn’t help matters.
Sexualized from the very beginning then. But far from being distasteful to female gamers, Samus, perhaps helped by the way she is often depicted as an athletic, confident woman who owns that oft focused-on sexuality, has risen above those objectified origins to become a beloved character and even an LGBT icon for some. The way Samus succeeds in what is presumably a male-dominated profession, without ever calling attention to her gender also makes her hugely relevant in today’s climate.
First appearance: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
First envisaged as a side-kick to the Master Chief, like many of the other characters on this list, Cortana has evolved drastically over the years since her inception. It was perhaps her stoic determination and surprisingly wry sense of humor that originally won her such a large following during the early years of the franchise, helped in no small part, of course, by the always excellent voice performances of Jen Taylor.
As the series has worn on, Cortana has become ever more central to the story, lending a human element to the game’s dialogue despite, well, not actually being human. Her rescue is the focus of Halo 3’s endgame, she serves as a touching allegory for dementia in Halo 4, and in Halo 5 she effectively takes on the role of the game’s main antagonist.
Despite criticism from some that as Cortana’s character has become deeper, her clothing has become ever more absent, she remains a firm fan favorite.
First appearance: Half-Life 2 (2004)
The importance of Alyx Vance’s appearance in Half-Life 2 cannot be overstated. In a game which set a new bar for cinematic storytelling, it was only fitting for it to include the most believable female character to have ever featured in the medium up to that point. This was the watershed moment to which all subsequent female characterization in gaming likely owes at least some debt.
Revolutionary animation, a snappy script, and top-caliber voice acting from actor Merle Dandridge combined to create a female character with unprecedented depth. Alyx is daring, pragmatic and capable, but also beautiful in a way which needs no over-sexualization.
Simply put, Alyx was the first video game character to truly feel like a tangible human being, and her charm and abundance of personality meant she pulled off the tricky feat of complimenting Half-Life 2’s silent protagonist (and incessant dullard), Gordon Freeman.
First appearance: The Last of Us (2013)
A true child of modern cinematic storytelling, Ellie didn’t evolve with the industry. She came into the gaming world as a fully formed, wholly realized character. This was no accident. The success of The Last of Us depended so much on the relationship between leads Ellie and Joel that there was no margin for error. Ellie had to be empathetic. She had to be believable. Luckily this is not an area where developers — Naughty Dog — cut corners.
Despite the set up, The Last of Us may have suggested, Ellie is far from the impetuous teen archetype. Her complex personality, and how that leads her to interact with Joel, makes their relationship one of the most fascinating in gaming.
In a move many weren’t expecting, Ellie was revealed to have a romantic connection with another female character, Riley, in The Last of Us add-on Left Behind. The way Ellie’s sexuality was revealed in such a gentle, sympathetic way was commended by many, yet some questioned Naughty Dog’s motives, declaring them too willing to harness the zeitgeist to court publicity. The developers have addressed this pretty unequivocally by doubling down on their exploration of Ellie’s sexuality for the upcoming The Last of Us Part II, further cementing her as a genuine trailblazer of the gaming world.
First appearance: Mass Effect (2007)
The only character on this list that is playable as a male or female, Femshep was a creation Bioshock got right.
Despite the many thousands of choices the player makes as Shepard throughout the epic Mass Effect trilogy, a few key traits which characterize Shepard are set in stone: Strength; confidence; toughness; resilience. These traits aren’t exactly revolutionary for a lead video game character. The difference here is they can be expressed by a female character, and moreover, one who is never over-sexualized (unlike many of Mass Effect’s other female characters).
In fact, while playing as a male, Shepard’s personality can come off as cocky, even chauvinistic, with more than a hint of the problematic male savior. Play as Femshep, and that strength and confidence feel novel and refreshing. Add to that the mostly non-gender-specific dialogue, and the ability to run the full gamut of romantic involvements, including same-sex and interspecies, and you’ve got a genuine revolution in player-character design. Props also to Jennifer Hale, whose performance gives Femshep a vibrancy Mark Meer’s male Shepard simply cannot match.
First appearance: Tomb Raider (1995)
For many, the first and last word in female video game characters, Lara Croft enjoys an incredible amount of mainstream recognition. Much of that came from her early days, and that initial character model — the original Lara may not have been rich in polygons, but she had famously plentiful proportions. Built to appeal to the teenage boys who were really the only audience targeted back then, Ms. Croft’s look was beyond embarrassing by today’s standards.
So how did she become an undeniably cross-gender cultural icon?
Well, look past the comically generous dimensions of those early character models, and the evidence is there. In Lara Croft, we had a female character who was the undisputed lead in her own game, something that was far from commonplace in the testosterone-driven world of nineties gaming. She had a great deal of agency, too: a female Indiana Jones, master of her own destiny, unafraid and unperturbed by the colossal, often fantastical challenges she faced with every expedition, driven by a thirst for knowledge, and a lust for adventure. Perhaps most importantly of all, she relied on precisely no one but herself.
Present-day Lara has been engineered into a much more believable figure, both in her physical proportions and as a character, with modern technology lending her a much more realistic look, and advances in storytelling facilitating a credible tale of a strong young woman finding her place in the world. While shamelessly pillaging UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of course. Some things never change.