It seems to me that many people perceive video games to largely sexualize women, and I would like to directly address this perception. I’m not denying the existence of sexualized female characters, but there are countless strong female characters that go completely ignored when people begin to discuss female portrayals in gaming.
I think that we simply have a tendency to focus more on the controversial games – those that have a tendency to sexualize – than we do on the games that get things right. After all, “This game is abhorrent” brings in a larger audience than “This game treats women with respect and the female characters are well developed.” It is the same logic that most news utilizes, and it is for this reason that you are more likely to hear about a tragedy than a good deed when picking up the local paper.
In the spirit of awareness and celebration, I would like to take a moment to introduce you to 10 of my favorite strong, well developed, and non-sexualized female characters. If you’ve grown tired of the apparent sexualization of female characters, then check out…
1. Red (Transistor)
In Transistor you play as Red, a famous singer who is nearly assassinated by a high-tech sword called the Transistor. The sword instead misses her and ends up killing her lover. In a strange turn of events, the sword absorbs both her voice and his consciousness. Red picks up the Transistor and hunts down those who sought to do her harm, traveling through a strange cyber-punk land to exact her revenge. Though she cannot speak for the majority of the game, the developers manage to instill a high degree of personality into her character, and the player can feel her rage and heartbreak at having had someone she loves taken from her.
2. Recette (Recettear)
In Recettear you play as Recette, who has taken over the family item shop to pay off the debt left behind by her father after his disappearance. Recette is a young woman, but she manages to run her business better than her father ever did, and she eventually escapes financial hardship through nothing but hard work and perseverance. In addition to this, she braves dungeons filled with typical RPG monsters so that she can keep her shelves stocked.
3. Joanna Dark (Perfect Dark)
In the cult classic Perfect Dark, you take on the role of super-spy Joanna Dark. Joanna not only infiltrates skyscrapers in acts of espionage and saves the president’s life, but she also settles an ancient war between two alien races by effectively blowing one of their planets up. Not bad for a days work!
4. Max Caulfield (Life is Strange)
In Life is Strange, you play as Maxine Caulfield, a seemingly average teen who suddenly discovers that she has the ability to rewind time through sheer force of will. This is a pretty new release, so I won’t spoil the plot here, but things get bizarre–it’s a strange sort of coming-of-age tale with the added twist of reality bending powers.
5. Moira Burton (Resident Evil: Revelations 2)
In Resident Evil: Revelations 2, there are four playable characters, and three of them are female. While the other two female characters would have been equally eligible for this list, Moria earns this spot because she has the best dialogue I’ve ever heard from any character in any game. She speaks in a mixture of unique profanity and slang, delivering a lightning fast stream of wit, despite the fact that she’s simultaneously fighting hellish monsters on a derelict island. Moira also grows more than most characters, as she goes from being terrified of guns in the beginning to being a firearm expert by the end of the game, a change that forced her to confront childhood traumas and deep psychological wounds.
6. Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
I know what you might think when you hear that name, as the original Lara Croft was a highly sexual, arguably shallow character that many have decried over the years. But I’m talking about the 2013 reboot here, in which the character was transformed from a sex object to a powerful, unbreakable, hell-bent explorer. The trailer above, however, is for the upcoming sequel: Rise of the Tomb Raider. This game is set to focus on the psychological trauma that Lara incurred during the first game and how she’s conquered it to become an even stronger person than she once was.
7. Jennifer Simpson (Clock Tower)
Jennifer starts the series as an orphan and her luck doesn’t improve from there. Her would-be adoptive family turns out to be a bizarre supernatural cult and her would-be adoptive brother stalks her with a giant pair of scissors. With no means of defending herself, Jennifer manages to escape using nothing but her wits.
8. Cate Archer (No One Lives Forever)
No One Lives Forever is a sort of lost classic–it hasn’t been released digitally and copies are hard to track down. This is a shame, as the main character is one of the best female spies to ever be portrayed in fiction. Not only is she the first female spy to join the in-universe espionage agency U.N.I.T.Y., but when there are mass, coordinated assassinations of her fellow spys, she’s one of the few to survive, and also the one to hunt down the people responsible.
9. Amanda Ripley (Alien: Isolation)
In this video game sequel to the cult classic horror film Alien, we see Amanda Ripley (the daughter of Alien protagonist Ellen Ripley) facing the titular creature on a space station that’s become a madhouse. Whereas some characters are driven by revenge or romantic love, Amanda is driven solely by a desire for answers: she desperately wishes to know the fate of her mother. It’s a mother daughter bond through time, all of it connected by the always brutal Alien that only Amanda has the courage to face.
10. Zarya (Overwatch)
Overwatch has yet to be released, so I have not yet played it, but I wanted to finish off this list with Zarya because she’s a drastically different character than the others we’ve looked at thus far. Zarya doesn’t fit into the typical rail thin, trendy, traditional ideal of feminine beauty that we see so often. Instead, she’s buff and powerful, sporting short hair and a visible scar on her forehead. This is not to say she is not beautiful, but more so that she defies what we are usually told that a woman must be to be beautiful. She also just so happens to be a heavy hitting, powerful character who blows people up with a particle cannon.
These are just 10 characters, ranging from business owners, to orphans, to tomb raiders, to super spies. I could list dozens from every genre imaginable, and I attempted to avoid obvious inclusions (such as Chell from Portal or Faith from Mirror’s Edge, as they are already so well known) It is worth noting that many of the creative teams behind these games were headed by men, which one could take as a negative in the sense that there is still a need for more female game developers.
Yes, there are sexualized characters, and sometimes some characters are deserving of a critical evaluation, but it is also important that we take the time to discuss good female characters. If we don’t give these characters and their games the attention and support they deserve then it’s harder to justify being angry when developers act like they don’t know what kind of characters we want to see. Let’s make strong female characters popular and encourage developers to follow these examples!