Apr 6 2013 2:00pm

I Don’t Need a Hero: The Kick-Ass Heroines of Gaming

I'm Commander Shepherd...Recently, game writer Ann Lemay wrote about how creating engaging female characters really shouldn't be an issue in regards to video games. (Her argument was covered pretty well by Jezebel.) As someone who does play video games, and has done so since Mario first saved Peach, I'd like to tell the gaming industry to get over themselves and their male-centric universe already.

One of the men behind the upcoming game, Remember Me, which stars a female protagonist, put it best. When asked about his heroine having a romantic interest in the game, and whether by having that heroine kiss a man he would be alienating his players, he answered with something along the lines of “if your sexuality is challenged by a character in a story you probably have bigger problems.”

I'd argue that games have been messing with our heads and playing with our concepts of gender and trope for a while now, whether or not us guy gamers would like to acknowledge that. So I've taken it upon myself to bring together a list of relatively recent and/or famous characters that any gamer should be familiar with and showing how those characters completly subvert the standard tropes. If you are a gamer, chime in, and if not and you know one, don't be scared of them. Often the stories behind these games are just as good as a favorite book. That being said, let's talk heroines.

Just remember the golden rule.The Princess Waiting to Be Saved

This is perhaps the most infamous of tropes concerning women in video games. A princess is captured by some sort of mustachioed villain, or dinosaur, and you, the male protagonist, must save her. When it comes to this trope and who subverts it, I can think of no one better than the Pirate Queen of Omega, Aria T'Loak. Now you may know about my…admiration... of the Mass Effect series of games, but that being said, Aria could give lessons to Zelda and Peach about personal accountability.

When you meet her in Mass Effect 2, Aria T'Loak is the uncontested ruler of the seedy but independent pirate haven Omega. She rules the lawless space station with a purple iron fist, keeping any number of gangs, murderers, drug pushers, and malcontents all in balance, thus maintaining a seat of power in an otherwise lawless corner of the galaxy. In Mass Effect 3, you discover that Aria has been displaced. She was sucker punched by the evil human organization known as Cerberus and needs you, the protagonist, to help her take back her throne.

Unlike the displaced princesses of the past, Aria has no intention of waiting for Commander Shepherd to make up her/his mind about helping. T'Loak is strictly a quid pro quo kind of gal. She has helped Shepherd in the past and expects the good Commander's help in return. She is ruthless, and will jealously cling to any ounce of power. She doesn't sit back and let you take all the credit. Throughout the battle for Omega space station, Aria is right there at your side, cracking heads and taking names. I suppose Aria does share some things with Peach and Zelda though. When you finally get her castle back, you better believe you ain't getting a kiss.

I'm an archer, archers are cool now right? Let's forget that whole Plague thing...The Mother

So that's a standard gaming model with which we are all familiar. But what about the big three? You know, the three ways in which Western culture defines women: The Mother,  the Whore, and the Maiden. I can't think of a better Mother than Sylvanus Windrunner.  Now, if you are anything like me and you sunk far more hours into World of Warcraft than is healthy, you already probably know Sylvanus's story. But for everyone else, hers is one filled with tragedy and vengeance.

Sylvanus, in life, was a warrior woman of the High Elves, sworn to defend their kingdom to the bitter end as one of their Ranger Generals. When the corrupt Prince Arthas of Lorderon brings his undead army to bear on the Elves, it is Sylvanus who leads the last defense of their gates. Unable to defeat the unrelenting Scourge, Sylvanus eventually falls to Arthas. Being the huge ass that he is, Arthas reanimates Sylvanus as his undead servant, allowing her just enough autonomy so that she realizes what she is forced to do to her once proud people. But that's not the end. When Arthas is called away to defend the frozen throne of his master The Lich King, Sylvanus manages to break away from the magic compelling her to the Fallen Prince's service. After breaking the Lich King's control, Sylvanus leads a rebellion amongst the undead, successfully separating a large portion of the Scrouge host and starting a new kingdom of Forsaken.

Sure, she might be a little miffed about being undead and everyone treating her and her new people like mindless scourge, but she still feels…rage. Rage is a feeling? Anyway, The Dark Lady leads her Forsaken in a very major role in the New Horde, while also, maybe planning the destruction of every living thing on the planet. But, she could easily give any other Queen Mother a run for their money. That has to count for something, right?

If they didn't want it stolen they wouldn't have left it sitting out.The Whore

When setting out to write this article, I told myself that I was going to limit my Bioware references. Then again, I am an unashamed fan-boy when it comes to that particular Studio so to hell with it. (Seriously, if you aren't into gaming, go find a copy of Baldur's Gate, it should be on mobile now, it will change you.) When I was thinking about who in gaming fills the role of Whore a lot of names came to mind, and not really favorably. But there was one name that kept creeping into my head. I can't think of anyone who owns this role more, and by owning it completely depowers the word, than Isabela of Dragon Age II.

When you first meet her in Dragon Age, Isabela is a hard-fighting, hard-drinking pirate hanging around a bar. It's not until Dragon Age II that Isabela is allowed to join your party as an ally.  And what an ally she is. I'm fond of referring to her as the love child of Han Solo and Christina Hendricks's character from Firefly. She is sexy, confident, and willing to carry any cargo as long as there is money to be made. And just like Han, this gets her into more trouble than one lone pirate can handle.

Isabela comes off strong. She isn't afraid to flirt, tease, or just out and out sleep with any man if it means getting her goals accomplished. The product of a very bad marriage, Isabela has since decided to never again play the victim. The other women in your party, the stout Aveline and the not-so-innocent Merrill all look up to Isabela. In return, the pirate queen liberates the very reserved knight, Aveline, and viciously protects the elf outcast Merrill. And if, as the protagonist, you take the time to get to know the freedom-loving pirate, and see past the rather salacious front, you come to find an equally loyal friend, proving that people are more than their labels.

I ain't no princess.The Maiden

Then comes the maiden. I had a hard time with this role. Not because it was hard to find one, more that it was hard to find the right one. There is Lara Croft from the newly rebooted Tomb Raider. Or maybe the silent protagonist and general robot ass-kicker Chell from Portal, but there is one name that overrides those. The original girl gamer, if you will. There just isn't any other woman in gaming who has never needed a man nor been treated as anything other than a complete bad ass quite like Samus Aran.

Samus originally appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. She was the main protagonist of a game series called Metroid. But the thing is, you didn't know Samus was a woman. In the game, you play a former soldier turned bounty hunter. You spend the entire length of the game hunting down space pirates and evil aliens called Metroids.  Throughout the game you are in a gender neutral, yellow and red power suite with a gun arm. It's not until the very end of the game, after having left the mega brain in gooey grey puddles, that Samus removes her armor and revels that she is nothing more than a perky, petite little blonde. Kind of like a sci-fi Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

An argument can be made that Samus has so firmly cemented her role as a gaming icon that she has an uncountable legion of fan-boys and girls. When it was revealed that you've been playing a girl all along, minds are blown. But you know what? Everyone came back for seconds, and continues to come back. Samus is as much a gaming icon as Mario, Sonic, and Master Chief. She is also complete and total proof that if you want a successful female character in a game, you don't need a big chested, small waisted, husky-voiced dark beauty. All you need is a gun and a rock'n'roll attitude. But then that can be said for any medium or character right?

So now I look to you guys, I know that we have gamers amongst us, let's sound out those kick ass girls and be proud!

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Allison Brennan
1. Allison_Brennan
Great article. I was a gamer way back when (I'm 43) when Pac Man and Centipede and Astroids ruled the world. And while I still like video games (I have a thing for Lego Star Wars, and my sons and I devoured both Pikmin and are buying the WiiU only for the purpose of playing Pikmin 3) I haven't gotten into it like my boys.

So this was a fascinating look into video game stories. Right now, my oldest (12) loves Minecraft and plays with all his friends. He plays a few others popular games like Call of Duty and Halo, which it seems every kid on the planet plays. He's extremely bright, and at 12 just wants to be "cool." (though, he likes being a Dr. Who loving geek, and when no one knows the answer in class, they look to Luke, who loves to show off his brain.) Out of all these recommendations above, what game to do you think is the best to get him to expand out of the war games? And, when there's a game series (like Mass Effect 1, 2, 3 ...) do you really need to get all the games, or can you start with the most recent? (I didn't get all the old Halo and COD games, for example.)

Thanks in advance! :)
Christopher Morgan
2. cmorgan
The games above are deffinitely more story driven than say Call of Duty or Halo. In the event of Mass Effect, to get the full impact of the story you really should start from the beginning with 1. Or at the very least 2, it's a little simpler character wise and more shootey. That being said, it might be a nice transition out of the straight shooters. Mass Effect still features a tough as nails marine who is fighting aliens and bad guys. The only difference is that your forced to play an active role, make choices, etc. as opposed to be just a guy with a gun. Dragon Age would be a major departure from the shooter games, and they don't rely as much on previous games. Dragon Age 1 and 2 are both self contained stories, you don't need one to understand the other.

However, it sounds like he is well on his way out of war games. Mincraft is an amazing game. It's awesome that he is playing it. I've never been able to get into it, but had I started younger when I still played with legos I probably would have appreciated it more. It's a great game to learn analytical thinking I think.

World of Warcraft is an online game, and I'm not crazy over the idea of someone so young playing, unless a parent plays withhim/her. At least if the kid is under 15 or 16. It's easy to get sucked in and lose a lot of time.

The Lego series of games are a lot of fun and humorous. And if you guys are investing in a WiiU, I can't reccomend the Zelda series of games enough. You play your standard fantasy hero who has to save the princess. However, Princess Zelda has grown a lot since her early days and now actively helps the hero, Link, in his adventures. The Metroid series is also on almost every Nintendo console, and those are always fun. Again, it's similar to the war games, but changes things up a bit.

There are a ton of games out there, and I would love to help out more, I justt feel as though I'm going to use up a lot of space. Games have come a long way since I started playing, and even further from the days of Asteroid (I still remember that my Grandparents's neighbor had that machine in their garage, many a lost summer there.) A really fun game to play to really stretch his puzzle solving abilities is the Portal series. It is simply a series of puzzles till you square off against an evil robot that has been forcing to risk your life. And the female protagonist from that game, Chell, was a runner up on my list. I hope this makes sense, I tend to ramble from time to time.
Allison Brennan
3. Allison_Brennan
Thanks Chris! I appreciate the input -- I can talk about games forever, too. I always go to Game Stop when it's slow so that I can pick the brains of the geeks, er, guys behind the counter :) ... My son likes Minecraft because it has it's own rules that you have to know, like physics (which he loves) even if it's not real-world physics. He has a headset where he can talk to his friends and they can share the worlds they create, etc. My rule is he has to personally know the people he talks to, and they're all his friends from school or sports. He's not into the more multi-player games (ala warcraft.) We have an old Zelda game from Nintendo, I'll get more when we get the WiiU (I'm not sold on it because I haven't heard enough chatter ... but he really wants Pikmin 3.) SO ... thanks a lot for your input! I think monitored game playing is great for so many kids, and I think video games helped make my son analytical and a whiz at math and science.
Kaz Augustin
4. Kaz Augustin
Allison, I find the Humble Bundles are great value and have previously contained physics-based games. Have you tried World of Goo? It was a family fav for ages. We are also huge fans of the games that come out of Amanita Design (Samarost, Botanicula (sigh), Machinarium). I like the current bundle from Double Fine but they still appear to perpetuate the traditional gender roles, which is a bit of a turn-off.

Both my kids, girl and boy, like playing games and choosing indie gives me more bang for my buck. Good luck!
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