I struggled with how to approach the topic of “strong female protagonists” in video games. Not because of the issue of who to pick, but more along the lines of why I should focus on them. What kind of traits and characteristics do we consider to be valuable in a strong protagonist? And more importantly, does gender play a role in affecting that?
When I was little and first introduced to video games, it was through the NES. My days were consumed with Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros., and Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers (which is an oddly challenging game). When my family finally invested in a PS1 and became the Sony loving entity that we are, I started to get into games that were less cartoon-based and more realistic.
Tomb Raider, Legend of Legaia, Crash Bandicoot, Clock Tower, GTA2… I could reminisce for a long time. (And spoiler, I definitely will be at another point in time.)
Considering the assortment of games I have played over the years—both PC and console—it’s no surprise that I inevitably have played games that have had a main female lead. The perception of women in video games has changed throughout time, just like what we expect from video games has too. As a whole, we now have a much higher standard when it comes to the newer releases that flood the market because technology and society has developed.
To dig a bit deeper into the notion of what was expected now from character leads in video games, I asked my students a relatively simple question: What makes a strong protagonist? They answered with: charismatic, engaging, brave, dynamic and round (some of my Language Arts lessons peeking through there), a good back story, believable, judged by their actions and willingness in situations, and to just be that much more than a regular human. To not simply just be good, but to be the kind of character that inspires.
The next day I presented them an almost identical question, but with one small alteration, what makes a strong female protagonist? They gave me two answers.
First, they’re the same as any protagonist. And secondly, clothing.
Lara Croft, from Tomb Raider, was my obvious choice when it came to the topic of women’s wardrobe in video games. I was still a little too young to play the first Tomb Raider by myself, so my dad would play it for me, and my brother and I would watch on. Solving puzzles, killing mummies, and watching a woman be the hero was everything I wanted to see growing up.
The Tomb Raider franchise was a staple in our house. She was brave, intelligent, and never played the damsel in distress. The only issue was she seemed to have no regard for the weather. Hurricane? Crop top and shorts. Ancient booby-trapped temple? Crop top and shorts. Traipsing through the jungle? You guessed it: crop top and shorts.
Thankfully Lara’s wardrobe has grown just as the video game industry has. Of course, there are female characters like Ivy, from Soul Calibur, who’s somehow seemed to lose clothing along the years… But, there has been a lot of changes in how women are dressed and what kind of outfits their characters should have. Bioware does a fantastic job at creating armour for women, which is not overly sexualized and characters that were, like Lara, have now gained weather-appropriate gear.
Obviously, clothing isn’t a defining characteristic of what makes a good female protagonist. Clothes are just that: clothes.
However, it helps define how we view them and what kind of message the game developers are trying to portray to us with their design choices. Lara Croft still discovers artifacts in ancient temples, gets into gunfights and uses her brains to understand and solve puzzles. She’s the OG character when compared to the likes of Nathan Drake and has owned the corner of the gaming world’s “take no nonsense archaeologist” since 1996. The only difference is that she now does it in a way that we, as consumers, focus on her versus her physical attributes that are left bare to the world.
And while characters like Lara have developed and adapted over time, we also have new female protagonists making a splash. Aloy, from Horizon Zero Dawn, is a female lead much like Lara, who not only dresses appropriately but is prolific in her athletic abilities.
Both women are strong female protagonists for a variety of reasons. Most notably is their aforementioned athletic ability. Both characters climb, jump, and shoot like they were born to do it. They are the heroes of their own story and often other characters rely on them, versus them needing the rescue. Their compassion and willingness to act in difficult situations are seen as virtues and not weakness. Their emotions are what help develop their backstories and make them the well-rounded, dynamic, believable characters that they are today.
More importantly, using the Bechdel–Wallace test as a guide, it’s easy to see we have narratives not just involving women but revolving around them. Women who not only have plenty of dialogue, but dialogue that often has nothing to do with a man or about a romance. It’s refreshing to see a female voice that doesn’t rely on the need to focus on a male-driven story-line.
For at the end of the day, these aren’t just women. They’re their own heroes. They’re the ones who have their own story that is engaging and based on their strengths. The losses they experience throughout their respective games is never portrayed as a weakness but is instead built upon to further their reliability. Tomb Raider and Horizon Zero Dawn are just small examples of where I hope the video game community is going.
I cannot wait to see more games and stories with female protagonists that do it right. Ones that help empower women and allow them to be strong in their own way. That being said, I think it’s important to note that I could’ve written about plenty of female characters, and I think it only fair to make some notable shout outs.
Ellie from The Last of Us, Samus for Metroid, Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Bayonetta from her self-titled games, Zelda from The Legend of Zelda, all the female leads from the Final Fantasy franchise, the list could go on…
I simply wanted to focus on two female characters that I feel have made a strong impact on not only myself but the gaming world in the last few years or so. There are some games that I listed in the notable mentions that I haven’t played yet and therefore didn’t want to comment on, or in which women weren’t the sole protagonist. Ultimately, I wanted to highlight the way that women are now being portrayed in video games through both adaptions over time and by creating new strong female leads from the start.
Thankfully, there’s a wonderfully succinct quote from George R. R. Martin that summarizes all of that: “You know I’ve always considered women to be people.“