Over the three decades that video games have been a mainstream medium, the representation of female characters has been wildly divisive. This discussion reached a peak at the start of the 2010s when female-led video games were a scarcity among the announced titles every year. A resounding demand was shouted from the audiences: They wanted strong female characters in their video games and were willing to scream and shout until someone heard their demand. The video game audiences were tired of the lack of female leads in video games or, when they did appear, their over-sexualized (such as the dismissive sex symbol that has become Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft) and rather trite representation (the frequency of female characters being killed off for character motivation). This demand has been met over the last seven years in the industry but improvement can still be made.
There are two main categories of strong female characters that have debuted in the last few years. The first category contains instances where the female character is the protagonist and/or player character. The second instances those where the female characters are still important to the game’s narrative and gameplay but are companion or partner characters that the player does not take the role of during the game.
Among the most prolific of the female leads in the last several years would have to be 2013’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Lara Croft, the protagonist of the series, has widely been considered video gaming’s flagship sex symbol since her creation twenty-two years ago in 1996. In the third reboot of the franchise, developer Crystal Dynamics took the concept of Lara Croft as a character and developed a more grounded and serious take on the character. No longer would she be a flirtatious and scantily clad archaeologist spewing as much snark as bullets from her pair of oversized pistols. Instead, Lara is reasonably well dressed and more emphasis is placed on her ability to survive and her knowledge of anthropology as tools to complete objectives during the game. While some elements of her character were mixed, such as a scene from an early demo where an enemy threatened to rape Lara, the reboot of Lara was ultimately well received. Crystal Dynamics listened and changed the product based on fan reception establishing their commitment to displaying Lara as a well-developed character first and foremost.
In a more middling ground, the Assassin’s Creed franchise was criticized for years for its lack of female protagonists, especially because they aren't constrained by a flagship main character who must lead every installment. In 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Elise De LaSerre was touted as a Deuteronomy (though she is unplayable during the game) who is just as important as the male lead, Arno Dorian. In fact, the game was advertised as an outright romance between the two characters. However, upon release, the game was not as well received as Ubisoft would have hoped. Elise herself was well received and quickly become a fan favorite. However, critics were quick to point out that her role was sidelined for most of the game and at the end of the game, she is ultimately killed off to facilitate Arno’s character development, an incredibly unpopular trope.
The franchise’s next installment, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, took the next step by splitting the narrative between Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins in Victorian London. Evie was much better received with her own fleshed-out character, development, gameplay goals, and well-acted performance. Seemingly, Ubisoft listened to the criticisms of the previous installments, but it is unclear if this change in protagonist will continue. Their 2017 release, Assassin’s Creed: Origins with a deuteragonist in Aya, suggests that the trend will persist.
Possibly one of the most endearing characters, even if she herself would scoff at the idea, is the character of Ellie from The Last of Us. The narrative is mostly told from the perspective of Joel, a hardened cynical man, as he escorts Ellie, a young rebellious teenager, across a zombie apocalypse-fallen world in hopes of curing the zombie outbreak. Despite the cliché nature of that premise, The Last of Us is currently considered a modern masterpiece with excellent performances from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in the lead roles of Joel and Ellie. The developers avoided the pitfalls of rebellious teenage characters that many audiences find annoying and instead kept her both sympathetic and developed a dynamic examination of the character’s emotional depth growing up after a zombie outbreak. Fittingly, the developers have announced that Ellie will still be a central character in the upcoming sequel to the game where she’ll surely have more time to shine.
Among games with great ensemble casts, Bioware games are often the first to be mentioned. 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception with a near fifty-fifty split between male and female leads within the fifteen-person core cast to the game. Two of the three leaders within the titular Inquisition are female, with the possibility of three of four should the player opt for a female player character. Of these characters, all of them have wildly different personalities and character arcs over the course of the eighty-hour game. Vivienne is cold and powerful, Josephine is bubbly and ever the professional, Sera is a trickster and never lacking in immaturity, and Cassandra tries to maintain a stony façade while secretly trying to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. All of these women help round out the cast and create interesting dynamics with other characters, and overall add plenty to love about this installment.
Video games are hardly perfect in representation. They still lack entirely in gay and other minority leads and, while many series have made strides in better female representation, a lot still haven’t tried to correct those failures. Unfortunately, video game communities also tend more often than not to be sexist and toxic cesspools that shun or attack the women who want to just play the games they love. Video games have come a long way since the 1980s, but the industry has a lot to learn.
If you would like to read more about the conflict and controversy about gaming communities, you can read Melissa’s blog post, Game Over, to get more information right here.
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