-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
I recalled this quote the other day in light of what was, really, a throwaway point I made last post: “Yeah… I game… PS4, Xbox… so what? Stop looking at me like that. I really like games with strong, well-written female protagonists.” Several people --- not gamers --- commented, their thoughts tending to centre around two themes: 1) “Isn’t the gaming community mainly composed of adolescent male misogynists?” and 2) “Aren’t most games tailored to that market, with mainly over-sexed, impossibly muscled, aggressive male protagonists, tended by fawning, scantily clad, submissive females?”
Now, I don’t claim to be a gaming expert, but my answers are: first… I think there’s the usual cadre of lunatic misfits in gaming, as in any field of human endeavour (COVID seems to have brought this out with a vengeance) --- although I’m prepared to admit there may be more than usual in gaming. But I don’t run into them --- I’m a lone wolf, not doing multiplayer. Second, gaming may have begun with a bunch of Neanderthal male protagonists, but there’s a number of excellent, thoughtful games these days featuring ‘strong, well-written female protagonists’… and those are the games I find most worth playing. (IRL, I also find most women far more interesting than most men, but that’s another day’s subject.) Herewith, I submit for your approval five ‘strong, well-written female protagonists:’
Commander Shepard, Mass Effect Trilogy: ME was the first game I encountered where you choose your protagonist’s gender; my oldest daughter said the female voice acting was superior, so that’s what I chose. Either way, Shepard doesn’t, unfortunately, have an official first name --- I named mine Cat, short for Catherine, because she seems to possess nine lives. Shepard is a badass military commander/starship captain rolled into one, and through the course of a sprawling, sweeping trilogy, literally winds up saving the galaxy. Interestingly, this is the only game discussed here where you’ve the option of selecting a relationship --- either gay or straight --- for Shepard, adding an interesting subplot.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider Reboot Trilogy: Now, let’s be clear --- the original Lara Croft was clearly designed to appeal to those adolescent male misogynists I referenced earlier, right down to her scantily clad, big-breasted appearance. But in 2013, Crystal Dynamics, the game developer, rebooted the franchise and gave us a far more intelligent take on the concept. Lara’s a recently graduated archeologist, interested in --- well, she doesn’t know it at first, but three games indicate her obsession is with the paranormal. Lara’s a bit intimidated at the beginning by the scope of what she must do, but she shakes that off pretty quickly.
Max Caulfield, Life is Strange: Maxine (I’d shorten that to Max, too) is an 18-year-old high school senior who discovers she has the ability to “rewind” i.e. turn back time, invariably to stop awful things from happening, particularly to her BFF, Chloe Price, a scrappy high school dropout with a lot of baggage (you get to play Chloe in the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm). Unfortunately, as myriad time travel stories teach us, you can’t mess with the past without creating all sorts of problems/paradoxes, and by the climax, Max has to choose between saving either Chloe or her town from total destruction. (I chose Chloe, BTW.)
Ellie Williams, The Last of Us 1 and 2: TLOU is a post-apocalyptic tale --- twenty years before the game begins, civilization is destroyed by a fungal plague turning infected people first into raving maniacs, then into gruesome mutations. (Hopefully, COVID isn’t taking notes.) 14-year-old Ellie, it emerges, is the only person immune, making her invaluable: if her immunity can be replicated, humanity is saved. TLOU deals with her journey across the United States’ ravaged remains to the only place a vaccine can be made. She’s shepherded by Joel, a 50-something smuggler less than enthusiastic about his task, and the game’s main thrust is the father-daughter relationship developing between two characters who initially loathe each other. (The sequel is waaay darker and as a result, I think, met with decidedly mixed reviews --- though I thought it also superb. It deals with hatred and the futility of the revenge cycle.)
Aloy, Horizon Zero Dawn: HZD is another post-apocalyptic story, but this time technological rather than biological. Humanity has been brought low by its own mechanical creations, and now lives in varying degrees of savagery. Aloy, a 19-year-old outcast from her tribe, begins the story wanting desperately to fit in, although as she becomes more aware of humanity’s frailties, grows less interested in that and more focused on her quest, which deals with putting to rights a world falling dangerously, lethally apart.
So… what makes these five appealing? They’re:
Willing: while not cocksure (pun intended) about their abilities, they know the job’s gotta be done, and they’re the lucky nominees. So, no whining.
Characters with Attitude: Little Women, they ain’t. They don’t sit around with gloved hands folded primly in laps, being well-behaved, passive/docile ciphers; they’ve thrown that stereotype in the trash where it belongs.
Independent and Emotionally Secure: they pass the Bechdel Test (look it up). None need guys to present plans or save the day. They’re fully capable of doing that themselves, thanks very much, so they don’t go around wishing they were guys: they know perfectly well women can do everything just as well.
Intelligent: there’s problem-solving elements to be confronted before characters can advance, and they do it with aplomb. No “math is hard” gender stereotypes.
Vulnerable, but Strong: to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there’s a time for strength, and a time for vulnerability; a time to suck it up, and a time to weep forlornly. These characters know which is for when.
The odd thing is, all these characteristics are what make great characters great regardless of gender, and it’s incredibly unfortunate we even have to have this discussion; that in this day and age, these qualities in women characters specifically should be worthy of note --- or at all remarkable. But… *sigh* …here we are, in 2020, and it’s painfully obvious from current world events that, while progress has been made, we’ve still got a long way to go.
In the meantime: Shepard, Lara, Max, Ellie, Aloy… you go, girls. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Just keep on kicking ass.