Women have always been a minority in the video game industry (only three percent in 1989, and 12 percent as of 2012), so it’s no surprise that historically most video game protagonists have been male, just like their creators. If women appeared in games, it was predominantly as a damsel in distress. This has sometimes been frustrating to female gamers (now representing 46 percent of all gamers) who are forced to see the virtual world through a limited perspective they don’t always relate to. Although to be honest, as the mythos of hypermasculinity slowly fades away, a larger share of male gamers might also find game heroes to be a shallow entry into their games.
Especially in recent years, we’ve seen the number of playable female characters grow (both as main player characters and as playable options). While some of them are powerful heroines, others’ designs rely on scanty armor and “jiggle mechanics” for their appeal. As in the real world, this represents the massive sexist disparity between seeing women as individuals (relatable video game characters through which we discover a virtual world) or as objects of sexual fantasy (jiggle jiggle jiggle).
We can see these characters’ evolution below. This isn’t a complete list, but the most popular games with playable heroines all get a shout-out. Who’s your fave?
Samus Aran—”Metroid,” 1986
Image courtesy of Danny Choo
Although technically Kissy from the Japan-only arcade shooter “Baraduke” (1985) was the first playable female character, Samus may have left the bigger mark. She’s made appearances in every “Metroid” game since the original, in which players did not at first realize she was female, since Samus wears a massive power suit when fighting the Space Pirates. Only at the end of the game was it revealed the cybernetic human inside the suit was actually a shapely woman. Without her power suit, Samus in “Metroid,” “Metroid II” (1991) and “Super Metroid” (1994) Samus appeared in a swimsuit/leotard getup. However, in the “Metroid Prime” series, she appears in a skintight jumpsuit, or “Zero Suit” (pictured).
Jill Valentine—”Resident Evil” (1996)
Image courtesy of sunnyd_57
Jill Valentine was one of two player character options in the first “Resident Evil” game and makes appearances in a number of the franchise’s sequels. Although physically weaker than the male player character Chris (she has fewer health points and runs slower), she has an advanced weapons arsenal to make up for it. And she’s tough: an explosives expert and former Army specialist.
Lara Croft—”Tomb Raider” (1996)
Image courtesy of Justin Taylor
An adventurous archaeologist to rival Indiana Jones, Lara Croft is often considered the first massively popular female character, whose development encouraged the creation of more playable female options. However, she’s also widely considered to be the first video game sex symbol. I mean, check out that cleavage. What is happening there? (OK, OK, this image is from a later game in the series, but it’s really hard to find screenshots of that early, boxy chest).
Tifa Lockhart—”Final Fantasy VII” (1997)
Image courtesy of Julian Mason
Speaking of sex symbols: Tifa Lockhart. In FF7, Tifa’s the childhood friend of the main protagonist Cloud, the member of an eco-terrorist group, and a hand-to-hand fighter (check out the gloves). Cloud fluctuates in affection between tough-girl Tifa and another player-character, the too-perfect Aerith throughout the game (so much depth to these lady characters, right?).
Alice Liddell—“American McGee’s Alice” (2000)
Photo courtesy of Torley
In some ways, Alice represents a break in female video game portrayals; she’s sarcastic, violent, and literally insane. After her experiences in the Lewis Carroll universe, Alice survives the house fire that kills her entire family. Suffering from guilt and severe depression, she’s committed to an asylum, where years later her visions of Wonderland resurface in nightmarish ways (as you can see from this screenshot). To save Wonderland and her own sanity, Alice must defeat the Queen of Hearts. (Oh, and there’s an equally macabre sequel).
Image courtesy of Qetesh
Since “Portal” is played in first person, it sometimes escapes the player that the protagonist is actually a very normal-looking, normally-dressed woman. You don’t worry about what Chell looks like, because you are Chell, and your relationship is with the antagonist AI, GLaDOS. Chell doesn’t even speak, and you don’t learn anything concrete about her origin during the game. But she’s clearly very resourceful, and she can rock an orange jumpsuit. She’s sometimes compared to the also tastefully-rendered first-person shooter character Zoey in “Left 4 Dead.”
Lara Croft—Tomb Raider (2013 Reboot)
Image courtesy of Joshua Livingston
Yes, Lara gets two mentions because her most recent incarnation is so, so different from her first appearance. The gaming experience is also very different in that the cinematic sequences give the player a lot of insight into the character in emotionally powerful ways, such as the scene in which Lara must kill another human in order to survive. Also, it seems Lara’s designers turned her toonish chest into a more realistic, less Barbie-ish rendering.