Before the dawn of the new millennium, women in gaming were ample, though, generally only in appearance. Very few striking females in games were nurtured into full characters prior to 2002; though that is not to say that women are no longer being misrepresented as sex symbols with gigantic flotation devices attached to their chests (2011’s Duke Nukem Forever made that abundantly clear). However, what is clearer, is that females have actually been fleshed out in more ways than simply physical terms. Since 2014, in particular, there have been some truly outstanding representations of female ingenuity in the form of strong and independent characters.
As a basic standard definition for the following list, strong females are those considered deviations from the way in which their gender has been represented in gaming up until the beginning of the millennium.
(10) Kat (DmC: Devil May Cry reboot 2013)
One may not consider Kat to be an especially ‘inspirational’ female character, but her strength comes, not from her physical ability or fighting style, but from her mind. Kat is, by all accounts, a witch. She uses her knowledge of ancient wiccan recipes and spells to help Dante fight Mundus and his minions. Kat makes the list because of exceptionally bravery: since she was a child, she was able to see the world of Limbo (a parallel world populated by demons), and even entered this traitorous land voluntarily to escape the abuse she suffered at the hands of her foster father. Instead of these events turning her into a simpering, whining little child, they made her a fighter, as she had found a way to escape the horrors she suffered. Even after being kidnapped, she used the opportunity of her torture to enter Limbo and use the knowledge she gained there to guide Dante and Vergil through Mundus’s lair. Dante himself even says that nothing he and Virgil accomplished throughout the game would ever have been possible without the help of Kat and her gifts.
Kat’s bravery and faith in the Order – as well as fighting for what she believes is right, even if it kills her – makes her a strong female character. Plus, she keeps her spells handy by putting them in a spray-can; that’s just brilliant forward-thinking.
(9) Elena Fisher (Uncharted series – 2007)
Uncharted is, in so many ways, a rebooted version of the Broken Sword series. Both series revolve around an adventurous male-lead, who often finds himself in difficult situations, while his female partner, Nico – also a journalist, like Elena – saves him from these situations while their frequent flirtatious banter keeps the mood light.
Elena makes the list, despite her character being confined to a sidekick role, because of her driven journalistic persistence. She chases stories with passion and hunts history with the same gung-ho, adventure-junkie approach as Nate.
The problem with Elena is that she is openly considered “the female version of [Nathan] Drake“, and acts as both an emotional crutch and a moral compass to her protagonist companion. Though this may sound like the time-old tale of the female sidekick, Elena, like Nico, proves capable of taking care of herself, armed with a devil-may-care attitude towards danger.
(8) Tripitaka “Trip” (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – 2010)
Trip’s strength comes not only from her determination, but, like Kat above, from her brilliant mind. As a mechanical genius, she is capable of constructing a headband powered by large volts of electricity, which she attaches to the head of the male lead, Monkey. Her ingenuity not only ensures her own survival, but, more importantly, her ticket home to her village and family. As if being a technological wunderkind is not inspiring enough, she is also an incredibly likeable character, and the player feels sympathy, empathy, and fear on her behalf. Trip’s motion capture and voice actress, Lindsay Shaw, does an exceptional job of enhancing the nuances of Trip’s emotion, thereby making an ordinary CGI character come to life with fine-tuned intensity.
A pivotal scene illustrates our connection to Trip’s emotional journey: Trip and Monkey find their way through landmines and hordes of robotic enemies, and stumble across a self-sustaining aquarium – the only life either of them had seen up to that point. While Trip explains the beauty of the evolution of aquatic life to her companion – while making comparisons to her own wind-energy harvesting community – an enormous demolition robot rips through the serenity of Trip’s reverie and smashes the fish tank to smithereens. After destroying the robot (with the help of Trip’s various contraptions), the true nature of the world seems to have been revealed to her, as is for the first time: beauty cannot exist in a dead world.
Trip’s innocent nature may seem to render her ‘yet another emotional female character’, but her emotions are genuine, and without them, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West would not have been half the game it became.
(7) Claire “Lightning” Farron (Final Fantasy XIII trilogy – 2010)
Like her chosen moniker, Lightning strikes quickly, with precision, and without a second thought. Light is an adept fighter with almost no emotion attached to her seemingly endless butcher of enemies. In the third instalment of the trilogy, Lightning Returns, her lack of emotion is shown to be a symptom of her need to protect those she loves – in other words, her extreme selflessness is, ironically, what causes her to lose the spontaneous and good-natured facets of her personality.
Lightning has had her share of tragedy – her parents died while she was young and was forced to raise her sister, Serah; then Serah was taken from her own planet, Cocoon, for being a l’Cie and turned to crystal. Eventually Lightning saves Serah from her crystallised form, the world, and even time itself, but loses many people she loves along the way. This, however, never restrains her, as she does not let emotion cloud her judgement of duty, which is expected from females (through one such female does appear in FFXII: Vanille. Very needy).
(6) Nariko (Heavenly Sword – 2007)
It seems that Ninja Theory has knack for creating multidimensional and engaging female characters (they published DmC, Enslaved, and Heavenly Sword). Nariko beats both Kat and Trip, because, unlike them, she needs no man to protect her. Instead, she fights her way through the game with her Heavenly Sword poised and ready for the kill.
Nariko was a pariah to her kin from the day of her birth, as an ancient prophesy had foretold the birth of a boy who would lead to the salvation and prosperity of the clan. Instead, Nariko was born. She soon proved herself a skilled and dauntless fighter – the true saviour of her people. The eponymous Heavenly Sword is a god-made weapon meant for only the gods to wield, which will inevitably kill any mortal who dares attempt to harness its power. From the beginning of the game, we know that the sword has taken Nariko’s life, and the game takes the form of flashbacks leading up to the event of her spiritual transcendence.
A prolonged period of indecision accompanied the resolution to choose Nariko over Bayonetta for the No. 6 spot, but the final decision came in the form of the intended audience. Both games have female leads, but Bayonetta was clearly made to cater more to male players, as her unrealistically shapely body, frequent flirtations, and sex-symbol status disqualify her from being a worthy competitor in a list of mentally and emotionally strong females. Yes, both Nariko and Bayonetta are designed to cater to the eyes, but Bayonetta’s primary weapon is her long hair – which just so happens to double up as her clothing – and thus, she is often naked during battle for the pleasure of the gamer. Nariko, on the other hand, shows relatability in her struggle to defeat the corrupt Lord Bohan, and, while her clothing may be revealing, her body is not a character in the game, as is the case with Bayonetta.
Brave, selfless and willing to die to free the clan that renounced her (while fully-clothed), Nariko sets aside personal uncertainty and strife in order to become a woman to be reckoned with.
(5) Ellie Williams (The Last of Us – 2013)
Ellie is the only hope for humanity in the post-apocalyptic world overrun by mutated, cannibalistic creatures, because she holds an evolutionary mutation in her brain that immunises her from the virus – a discovery found after she is bitten by an infected mutant, to no ill effect. This very fact makes her a target, which is why Joel is tasked with protecting her. However, Ellie does not make Joel’s assignment easy: she is a typical teenager in an atypical world – the only semblance of normalcy during an apocalypse.
Ellie was even given her own spin-off DLC, Left Behind, chronicling her relationship with her best friend, Riley. The DLC serves as a prequel to the base game. Interestingly, Ellie – the 14-year-old gun-toting hope for humanity – has since been confirmed as being gay, as shown in Left Behind when she kisses Riley. Though this titbit has little to do with the overall plot, it makes Ellie a gender-bender, as she is not the typical young-girl-in-danger, but an actual person, with actual wants and desires. She is made more human through this revelation, and it is inclusive of any and every gamer who can relate to a teenager discovering his/her own sexuality, particularly in a world they don’t understand.
(4) Cirilla “Ciri” Fiona Elen Riannon (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – 2015)
If Geralt of Rivia is the most badass guy in gaming, his daughter, Ciri, cannot be far behind. In fact, with her Elder Blood and Source-status she could probably kick Geralt’s face into the muddy swamps of Velen.
Here is a young woman who is being pursued by a troupe of flying death-elves, and yet she still manages to put on mascara (even if it is runny). Cirilla is the lynchpin that holds the story of The Witcher 3 together, and not once does she succumb to the role of damsel-in-distress; in fact, she demonstrates time and time again that she needs no one to save her, as she is quite capable of saving herself, and everyone around her.
Yennefer’s wrath does not come close to the menace of Ciri’s blade. Both women are incredibly well-written and strong, but Cirilla fights for what she believes in, regardless of politics, and without the attitude. The females of Andrzej Sapkowski’s adaptation often have a fatal flaw – Keira is covetous, Triss is needy, and Yennefer is just a bitch. Ciri does not care for the fine life or the political power that the sorceresses desire – she just wants to escape the Wild Hunt: not for herself, but rather for the good of the world, because if Eredin had her power, who knows what wrath he may condemn mankind to?
Thus, Ciri is selfless without being pathetic, and feminine without being weak. She seems to be the perfect combination of Geralt’s physical prowess and Yennefer’s sharp mind. I suppose it does pay to be raised by two of the most complex characters in gaming history.
(3) Samus Aran (Metroid Prime series – 2002)
It is not often that one sees a female character in full armour – almost the female version of a Space Marine, in more than just appearance. A bounty hunter for the Galactic Federation by trade, Samus, like Space Marines, had her DNA altered to make her superhuman. Her Power Suit is her primary combat weapon, and has become synonymous with her character. The massive armoured suit makes her a formidable foe to any creature stupid enough to stand in the way of her mission.
Similarly to Lightning, Samus hides her emotions behind a brooding exterior; in fact, the game developers chose not to delve into her personality in order for the player to transfer their own emotions and backstory onto the character. The only true fear explored by the game is Samus’ fear and hatred of Ridley, a Space Pirate who slaughtered her family. In fact, after encountering Ridley, Samus develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was not a popular character choice for fans, who saw this as weakness on Samus’ part. However, an unrealistically cold and brooding character is not a true portrayal of life. Samus’ fear and trauma make her human, and therefore more relatable. She bends her gender by assuming the role of a genetically modified warrior (with one hell of an armour set), but stripping a character of all emotion does not make them ‘weak’, only more real.
It is interesting to note that Samus’ gender was unknown to players in the first instalment of the series, due to the sexless appearance of the suit (implying most players would assume that Samus was, in fact, male – which, until mid-development of the game, she was). Thus, her androgyny is what makes her a gender bending female, as she proves herself to be capable of everything a male version of Samus would be, thus garnering the respect of players, before they received the shock of her womanly revelation at the end of the game.
(2) Morrigan (Dragon Age series – 2009)
There was not a single Dragon Age fan who didn’t shed a tear of disappointment when Morrigan was nothing more than a passing comment in Dragon Age II, as she is as much a staple of the series as the dragons themselves. Morrigan is an enigma: she is no wilting flower, nor is she a righteous warrior. In fact, there are really only two words to definitively sum her up: incomparable bitch.
Let’s be honest, there have been a myriad of emotionally-stunted female characters in gaming, but Morrigan takes the cake in this category, as, unlike her unlikeable companions, she has no redeeming attributes to aid gamers in identifying with her. She is a confounding character with very little empathy and even less concern for her fellow characters in Dragon Age: Origins. Her isolated early upbringing as a swamp-witch alienated her from society to the point were she was forced to take care of herself (as Flemeth sure as hell wasn’t about to). Thus, she learned how to survive, with only her sociopathic mother for guidance – which tended to veer towards advice against people, and men in particular. She is a completely independent woman with her own agenda that cannot be altered, even by those players who choose to romance her. Not only are other characters incapable of changing her, the player of a game based almost solely on choices cannot alter her motives, proving independence on even a meta level. She is a symbol of strength and determination, who certainly does not need a man to rescue her, nor anyone else, as she can take care of herself – and she does so with gusto, as evidenced by the Sacred Ashes trailer promoting Dragon Age: Origins.
(1) James Kidd/Mary Read (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – 2013):
The ultimate gender-bending female rightly goes to a character that was not only incredibly well-written and based on a historical figure, but also one who dared to board a pirate ship with a vagina. Blackbeard may seem like an decent fellow in Black Flag, but in the world of piracy and pillaging, being a woman on ship full of men who haven’t seen women in months cannot be an easy task. Luckily for Mary Read, her features were androgynous enough for her to pass as a young man.
Not only does Mary defy gender roles by becoming one of the most feared of pirates and a contributing member of the Pirate Republic of Nassau, she found time to learn the history and skills of the Assassins, and passed this knowledge on to the decidedly undeserving male lead of the game, Edward Kenway.
In a final act of spitting upon traditional gender roles, Mary, along with her fellow female pirate, Anne Bonny (historically, the most famous female pirates and the only women to be sentenced to execution for piracy), staved off their execution by using their bodies as a weapon against the law: they became pregnant in order to be given a stay of execution, because the law forbade the execution of a woman with child.
Although while playing the game, the suspicious lack of facial hair growth hints strongly that Jim Kidd is not what he appears to be, the pirates of Nassau were permanently drunk so its not too much of a stretch to imagine Mary passing as Jim for such a long time. She truly was an inspirational character and extremely likeable – if not for her, the game’s primary protagonist would have continued to be a selfish douche and Desmond might never have been an Assassin in the first place.
Honourable Mention: Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi (Dragon Age: Inquisition – 2014): Though not technically ‘female’ in this sense of the word, Krem deserves a spot for being the only in-depth look at the life of a transgendered character in mainstream gaming. The lieutenant of the Bull’s Chargers ran from Tevinter as he was not about to live the rest of his life as a man in a female body. He therefore represents one of the strongest characters on this list for literally bending genders in gaming and having the courage to live as he was meant to against the constructs of society, which, ironically, makes him a very inspirational woman.
17 years into the millennium and already women are making their own unique mark in gaming. No longer are they simply the sidekick, or there purely for the player’s titillation. Yet another wall of gender bias is crumbling beneath the weight of a more discernibly female fan-base: the Entertainment Software Association’s 2015 and 2016 reports show that almost half of players are female. Woman are finally not only getting recognition as gamers, but also being portrayed as real people in the games that they play.
There really is only one thing left to say, and I’ll let George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) say it: