I know, it’s not by a long shot possible to speak of gender mainstreaming when it comes to the video game industry, but there has been some progress made since the early days of Lara Croft. Sure, the video game industry is still hugely misogynistic, there are very few video games out there that have created female characters with depth and intelligence. That said, there are some games that have succeeded in not playing into sexist stereotypes and that have based game-play around a female character who isn’t just a walking sex object. There are several lists of top 10 positively portrayed female video game characters but here are my own top picks:
1. Mass Effect
Mass Effect gives the player the chance to play as either a man or a woman, thus the badass protagonist can in effect be a woman if the player chooses to pick a Jane as opposed to a John Shepard. While there are other games that feature women as protagonists (Mirror’s Edge, Resident Evil and Beyond Good and Evil) in my opinion, Mass Effect’s Jane tops them simply because she normalizes the female hero type. Commander Jane Shepard is actually a well-developed, intelligent, capable, person. The fact that she’s a woman doesn’t matter to the game. That is, the kudos Mass Effect deserves lies in the fact that you can play as Jane or John and the outcome of the game is pretty much the same. Male Shep or Fem Shep, the commander is just kick-ass; the game is about her as a commander, not about her as a woman. And that’s real gender equality.
Furthermore, Mass Effect gets bonus points for giving players the option to have heterosexual or homosexual relationships, whether you are Jane or John. You also get to pick whether you hook up with a human or alien, so not only is Mass Effect not sexist it’s also politically correct. Finally, the array of characters in the series is also generally gender balanced, with male and female characters being featured in secondary roles, both as protagonists and antagonists. The last added perk is you get to customize your Shepard’s physical features, so the game can satisfy virtually anyone in terms of how the character looks.
2. Metal Gear Solid
The Metal Gear Series is a great one, excellent poignant story-telling, with great social commentary about the military and the war industry. But in terms of gender fairness, it’s far from being in the same league as Mass Effect. My beef with the Metal Gear games is the fact that despite having created great female characters such as the Boss and MGS 4’s Meryl, these characters are always offset by shallow slutty sidekicks like Eva and Naomi or objectifiable villanesses like Sniper Wolf and the Beauty and the Beast Unit. What’s more, the Metal Gear games include gimmicky gratuitous soft-porn material that serves as a “reward” for players who play the game carefully, something hardly appealing and downright offensive for female players.
That said, MGS 3 and 4 deserve a special mention for their attempt at creating more balanced female characters. The Boss is arguably one of the best characters in video games, and the backbone of much of the MGS plot.
“The Boss is depicted as a woman who gave everything for her country, even her own child, and never wavers in her fortitude.”
The Boss’s sacrifices during MGS3 become the founding drive for what the game’s protagonist, Jack/Big Boss does for the rest of his life. The theme of sacrifice as well as the Boss’ mother/mentor role become one of the game’s most profound reflections on the nature of war and duty, taking the concept of motherhood into an area that is usually exclusively reserved for traditional masculinity.
” For games that, at the surface, seem to be “men’s own” stories about war and the manly men who wage them, to cast the warrior identity as something feminine and maternal in origin is different and quite bold.” [Read more about the women of MGS 3 here]
The only irritating thing about the Boss’ portrayal is that developers found a ridiculous excuse to half undress her and show her cleavage in her last fight scene. Dear MGS developers, a cesarean scar doesn’t run down from in between a woman’s boobs to her navel; the uterus is down in the pelvic region.
Finally, there’s Meryl. Meryl began the series as an annoying pathetic excuse for a female sidekick who always needed rescuing from the lead male character. However, in MGS 4, she develops into a capable military leader. In this installment, she is the decently-proportioned and practically-attired commander of her own elite unit, and she’s done being a love-sick puppy. Meryl tells “Snake” she’s over “playing little love games” and soon after she admits to knowing who her biological father is, she calls him a “womanizing piece of shit” for having fathered her in an affair and for having later married a woman who’s her own age. She tells her former love interest: “Men, selfish egotistical pigs.” But despite what her initial appearance paints her as, Meryl isn’t just a ball-busting Boss-type character.
Later in the game a romantic storyline develops with her dorky teammate Johnny, who proposes to her in the middle of firefight. Meryl, annoyed, says no. But not because she doesn’t believe in romance, she just prefers to do things her way. She ducks behind cover and proposes to him instead. Johnny accepts and the couple go right back to shooting down enemies. As they expertly exterminate baddies a la Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Meryl does do one thing that makes me cringe: she tells Johnny she wants “a real wedding, with flowers, and a cake,” and adds “It’s what I’ve always wanted, ever since I was a little girl… I want to be a bride.”
Now, while I positively gagged at this last phrase, after giving it much thought I have to admit that there’s something good in showing this side of Meryl. Albeit Meryl’s character is a bit too binary, at times the tough warrior, and at others an innocent girly type. But in the end, what Meryl’s character is supposed to shows us is that female warriors don’t have to be either ubber masculine Boss types or ubber sexual Evas either. Although granted the developers did so quite ineptly, MGS 4’s Meryl is an attempt try to create a character that embraces both masculinity and femininty. And that’s why, despite the soppy marriage proposal she still makes my list of balanced vid game female characters.
MGS 4’s bonus point is having anonymous female fighters (FROGS) as the game’s “grunt” adversaries.
- I haven’t actually played Half Life 2, so that’s why I can’t myself praise Alyx Vance as being a good female character. That said, I’ve heard Alyx is quite the promising female sidekick seeing as she’s intelligent, capable, and looks just like your average, girl-next door.
- Ditto for Mirror’s Edge, Faith. And she gets points for being the protagonist too.
- Samus Aran. Yes, her being revealed as a woman at the end of Metroid was big but it was also just an afterthought and a gimmick. As was seeing Samus in a pink 8-bit bikini at the end. Also, compared to the likes of the Boss, Samus is not much of a real character. And in the most recent installment of the game, Samus ditches the armor for a skin tight suit and which puts the tough image she is famous for on the backburner. Still, Samus deserves a mention for being there first. Having come up with an independent female hero in the 80s is surely a very big deal.
- Lara Croft. Much in the same vein as Samus Aran, Croft was among “firsts” and she’s perhaps more important because she went mainstream. But Croft was a double edged sword for women wanting more female characters in video games. We got what we wanted but not how we wanted it. Soon big boobs and booty shorts became the norm, and thanks to her, a woman’s sexuality still is the only prominent part of her identity ever to be portrayed in video games.That said, the most recent installment of Tomb Raider features a Lara with downsized boobs and…. wait for it…. proper pants! Check her out: Tomb Raider Grows Up and Lara Croft Finally Gets a Real Pair of Pants.
Conclusion: we need more Jane Shepards; we need more Bosses and it looks like we’re slowly getting them. But now we also need less stereotypically male characters, though that’s a rant I’ll save for another day, another post.