Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Repost: Top 10 Female Game Characters


Another repost from the old blog. This one was written in 2012, but I stand by every last one of these entries.

I may have to do another list though, because in the meantime I've fallen in love with so many new characters. The sisters from the heartbreaking indie Gone Home will always have a place in my heart. Magi and Hopi from Wasteland 2 are my new favorite couple in all of media forever. Rosangela Blackwell probably deserves a mention too. Basically I've been playing a lot of indies lately.

Maybe I'll do another list. In the meantime, enjoy!


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The women! They are in our video games, being hot and/or badass! Sometimes they wear clothing! Super Multitask! This is a thing that is happening right now people!

If there's one thing the internet loves to do to female video game characters even more than disrobing them on Deviantart, it's listing them, using the tried and true classification method of pantsfeels. So basically Lara Croft near the top, Chun Li in the middle, some anime-looking bikini babes sprinkled throughout, plus Samus as the token badass. That's a rough deal, but it makes sense. Top Ten Hottest Female Characters is a much snappier title then Top Ten Female Characters From Video Games I Wouldn't Mind My Impressionable Preteen Daughter Playing If She Were So Inclined. And yet that's my only criteria for putting characters on this list, so I'm shit out of luck, title-wise.


This list contains spoilers for all of the games!

They're all really good games though. You should seriously consider putting them on your Christmas list and then playing them.

#10. Tourette


Game: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Protagonist: No
Occupation: Malkavian
Likes: Shotguns
Dislikes: Daddy
Quote: "... all over the silly clown wallpaper!"







Did I warn you about the spoilers yet? All of the spoilers, right here. This game is like 20 bucks on Steam. It's really good. Stop reading and go play, okay?

Okay.

Holy shit, did you see that! I know, right! Oh my God! Oh my GOD y'all!

Tourette, quite simply, is the single greatest mindfuck character ever conceived in any storytelling medium. I really shouldn't be telling you this, because we had an understanding, and you bought and played the game, because you trust my judgement. But you know what? If you haven't, that's on you, and I'm going to teach you a lesson about always, always doing as I say. For your own good.

Tourette is what fans of the game call the insane amalgamation of Therese and Jeanette Voerman. The vampire player character meets both sisters. Jeanette is an irresponsible insane club kitten, while Therese is the responsible sister, with good business sense, political ties and a great power suit. At one point in the game, if you pay attention, you can hear the sisters arguing in their bedroom.

Except there are no sisters. Looking that... thing up there in the eye and slowly realizing that you never really saw the two of them together with your own eyes, then realizing why, all while it stares at you and screams about smearing her pedophile dad's brains all over her childhood bedroom is something you won't soon forget. It's been, oh, let's say eight years since I first played the game and I'm still not over it.

Tourette might not be an inspiration to young women everywhere, I'm not saying that. Please don't be like Tourette. But you have to admit, if after eight years she's still the first person my mind goes to when I hear the words "female video game character", she's doing something right.


#9. Kreia


Game: Knights of the Old Republic 2
Protagonist: No
Occupation: Sith Lord, Pain in the Ass
Likes: Infuriating vagueness
Dislikes: You 
Quote: "Perhaps you were expecting some surprise, for me to reveal a secret that had eluded you, something that would change your perspective of events, shatter you to your core. There is no great revelation, no great secret. There is only you."




Knights of the Old Republic is one of those games where you want to get your companions to like you, for good times and benefits. They all have their own stories and side quests, so it's worth the hassle. If you do nice things, the good characters will like you. If you kick babies, the bad characters will like you. Such is the way of video game morality.

Except Kreia always hates you. Always. Whatever you say, it's wrong. Whatever choice you make, it's the wrong choice. And it's all your fault. Dumbass.

Video games have a real hard-on for morality systems. It's the holy grail of game design right now, and has been for a while, because nobody ever does it right. Can't be done. Your character is either Pope Beneficent the Gentle or Flaming Douchebag of Pettiness. You can cheat the system a little and just be opportunistic, see things through on a case-by-case basis, but it's all very black and white. Especially when it comes to the "bad" characters. They're never delightfully evil or philosophically radical. They're just petty and mean.

And Kreia might be a royal pain the ass, but she is intriguing. On my first playthrough, I played the good guy, saving puppies and kissing babies and whatnot, and Kreia disapproved every step of the way. I assumed she was a "bad" character and resolved to do her sidequests and character development on my next playthrough. That did not work. She didn't approve of my kitten-drowning ways either.

If there's one thing Kreia does well, it's making the Dark Side seem like more than a douchebag collective. She's intelligent, and more than that she's wise, she's tricky and sneaky but, in retrospect, surprisingly honest. Learning about her takes more effort than giving her presents or kicking her shins. Her morality and intentions stay shrouded in mystery until the very end, and I've been told that after three playthroughs, I still haven't discovered everything about her.

On the whole, Kreia rejects the notion that you, the player character, are the center of the universe around which all plot must revolve. She makes you feel like you are the sidekick in her adventure. Maybe that's why she's such a goddamn pain in the ass.


#8. The Reds


Game: The Path
Protagonists: Yes
Occupation: Children
Likes: Grandmother
Dislikes: Wolves 
Quote: "The tenderness of giving in can defeat any power."







The themes explored in this indie are different for every single player. It's like an abstract painting. Whatever you project on it, that's what you see. To understand why I put the six red girls on this list, I'm going to have to share my take on the themes of the game.

For me, The Path was all about femininity and growth, about six stages of a woman's life, represented by six girls and their trek to Grandmother's house. In my mind, the Reds represented the status quo of those life stages, while the wolves represented the inevitable progress, the things to overcome to "graduate" to the next stage of life, for better or worse.

Yeah, it's that kind of game.

Robin, age six, is all about childhood innocence. She is excitable and unafraid, tackling the world head-on without any real concept of the danger she puts herself in. Rose, eleven, is an innocent as well, but she is more grounded and aware of the world around her. Ginger, on the brink of puberty, knows that childhood is all but over for her and clings to the last of her innocence, but the knowledge that it is almost over is in and of itself a sign that these are the last days of her childhood. Ruby, fifteen years old, has completely lost all innocence. Like any teen, she believes she sees the world for what it is, a dark place filled with danger, with no escape. Carmen, seventeen, discovers something new though. She is all about budding sexuality, and this new aspect of life dominates her every thought. And Scarlet is almost grown up. Childhood and puberty are over, and instead she feels the weight of responsibility and order, and the duty to be maternal and caring, sometimes despite her own wishes.

It's an allegory about growing up with strong gender symbolism. The girls, on their way to the maternal wise woman, are waylaid by strong male symbols that act as catalysts for their growth. Which says more about me than it does about the game, of course. But that's what I saw, and that's why the Reds are here.



#7. April Ryan


Game: The Longest Journey
Protagonist: Yes
Occupation: Art Student
Likes: Painting, friends, not being The One
Dislikes: Saving the world 
Quote: "Note to self: the next time anybody says the word "destiny", run like hell."






Adventure games on the whole do a pretty good job when it comes to female characters. Kate Walker, Nico Collard and Phoenix Wallis immediately spring to mind. (See also #4 on this list). But if we're talking adventure games, you gotta go with the classics.

The Longest Journey does its name credit. It's a very, very long game, and quite the journey. April Ryan finds herself in a place many heroes have found themselves in before: the fate of no less than two worlds hangs in the balance, and somehow she's got something to do with it. It sounds remarkably trite, and in a way it is, but the story is told extremely well, and the characters are delightful. And not "for a game". The Longest Journey is a fantasy epic that can hold its own amongst the classics, and April Ryan is one of my favorite The Ones.

Bit by bit she is drawn into an adventure she doesn't quite understand. There are very little grand revelations to be had. The story unfolds layer by layer, and it takes its time, and April is expected to be a good sport about all of it. She isn't. Not always. For the most part, she does what needs to be done with a can-do attitude and optimism you expect from The One. But as the stakes get higher, she is tempted to throw in the towel on more than one occasion.

Or, to put it simply:



It's a tale as old as time. The call to adventure, the mentor, the helper, the unknown world, the guardians, the low point where all seems lost, it's all there, and April Ryan is still one of the best hero archetypes in gaming today.



#6. FemShep


Game: Mass Effect
Protagonist: Yes
Occupation: Military Commander, Spectre Agent
Likes: Saving the Galaxy, functional armor 
Dislikes:  Cocktail dresses 
Quote: "I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing you- I'm getting a lot of bullshit on this line."






Mass Effect is a game with a customizable main character. There's plenty of those around. Because I don't have screenshots, and those games take a while, here are some approximations of my characters from Oblivion, Dragon Age 2, Skyrim and Mass Effect:





In my head, those are the main characters of those games. But that's just my head. Here are the boxes for those games:





Problem.

And yes, it's a problem that shows up with a lot of games that have customizable characters. My theory as to why FemShep (the female Commander Shepard) sticks out is because BioWare isn't very good at this female protagonist thing. FemShep is pretty obviously an afterthought, a deviation from the male default. She gets no special romance options, which somehow are a big deal in this game about saving the galaxy with big guns. When players protested the lack of male/male romance options, they responded that Shepard was designed to be heterosexual, and that's why there's no gay.

Problem.

There is gay, if you play FemShep.

Basically, BioWare's idea of a female protagonist was to put a wig and lipstick on their real hero.

And that's why FemShep works. She's just ManShep who happens to be female. The animations and cutscenes for ManShep don't change when you decide to switch genders in character creation. Femshep doesn't do an elegant little twirl when ducking for cover, the camera never lovingly pans over her firm buttocks, her dialogue is ManShep's dialogue read by a female voice actress, and the NPCs aren't programmed to respond differently to FemShep. When they put her in a cocktail dress and heels (because of course), Basic Instinct reenactments promptly ensued.

So basically, through their rigorous yet apathetic application of the Smurfette Principle, Bioware stumbled ass-backwards into a great female character: one who wasn't specifically designed to be a great female character. Because Lord help them when they actually try.




You fail, Bioware. And through your shameful failure, you achieved equality.

FemShep struck a chord with female gamers because she represents everything that's horribly wrong and delightfully right about female protagonists in action games. She is a deviation from the male default. Commander Shepard is a man who can be a soldier or an engineer or a vanguard or a woman. But because they were too lazy to put effort into this deviation, she came out looking way more progressive than intended. Paradoxically, through a complete lack of effort, she became a symbol of everything female gamers want from games: not a game that works its fingers to the bone to include them, but a game that doesn't go out of it's way to purposefully exclude them.

And hey, apparently FemShep fans are making a difference. As of Mass Effect 3, they have acknowledged that FemShep exists. Victory. Yup.


#5. Maya Fey


Game: Phoenix Wright series
Protagonist: No
Occupation: Spirit Medium. In Training.
Likes: Burgers, the Steel Samurai, friendship
Dislikes: Murder, miscellaneous crime (theft is okay)
Quote: "... he definitely did it! Murder! At least once! Maybe twice."







Honestly, I could have put any female character from this series here. The women in the Phoenix Wright universe are prosecutors, lawyers, nurses, mediums, students, police officers, femme fatales, bimbos, geriatric fangirls, waitresses, singers, managers, CEOs, maniacs, powerful, meek, innocent, duplicitous, vicious, anything really. Playing these games, you'd almost get the feeling that half the world's population is women.

But Maya is on this list, and with good reason. So many lists of decent female video game characters are brimming with boobed badasses, it's easy to forget that the Strong Independent Woman has become a cardboard cutout stereotype of its own. Maya is not particularly strong, nor is she independent, and while I'm sure she'd be fine without a man, she really does prefer to hang on to Phoenix. She's a bit dim, and very childlike, and more than a little sheltered.

But when push comes to shove, you will want Maya in your corner. She saves the day in court more than once, purely because of her unwavering belief in justice, she will gladly take a taser shot to the face to help a friend out, and when she finds herself on the business end of a kidnapping, she saves her own damn self. The fact that she has a very high status in her home village is not something she flaunts, or even seems to fully realize. She has every reason to be haughty and aloof, but isn't. She's been framed for murder twice so far, and it didn't do one bit to weaken her resolve.

Maya Fey is simply a Good Person through and through. She believes in justice, she believes in people, and most of all she believes in her friends. She may not kick ass and chew gum in a man's world, but it doesn't make her any less of a great character.


#4. Liz Allaire
 

Game: The Next BIG Thing
Protagonist: Yes
Occupation: Journalist
Likes: Journalism, Dan
Dislikes: Crocodiles, Dan
Quote: "Twenty, twelve, one, four!"







I could go on and on about why I love Liz Allaire, so much so that I would have put her at the top of this list if the top three hadn't been so strong, but all you really need to know is pretty much contained in this video:




Liz is a dork. I am a dork. This is perfect!

See, there's this thing that happens in movies that I've dubbed the Sandra Bullock Paradigm. If you're writing a romantic comedy with a female lead, she is going to be played by an A-list Hollywood actress made to look perfect and gorgeous and shiny, yet your movie is about her pursuit of love, which she does not currently have, so obviously she needs to have a flaw to explain that. You can't make her mean, or anti-social, or shallow, because the audience wouldn't sympathize with her. So you make her clumsy. When a female lead needs to exhibit a flaw that isn't too off-putting, you go for quirky and clumsy, call it a day and stick your head in a bucket of cocaine. I'm hardly the first one to have noticed this either.

The clumsy, cute pixie is the bimbo for the 21st century. Big-breasted lollipop-sucking dumb-as-bricks blondes are out, doe-eyed manic pixie hipsters dream girls are in. While the old-timey bimbo was nonthreatening because of her low intelligence and cutesy demeanor, the clumsy girl is nonthreatening because her quirks are just too gosh darn precious. And it'd be easy to mistake Liz Allaire for one of those (especially since she was created by the same studio that gave us the Runaway series, and while those are some of my favorite games of all time, the duplicitous, bitchy character of Gina is a constant thorn in my side).

But Liz Allaire is certifiably insane. She is not helplessly clumsy and quirky in a way that elicits sympathy and illustrates her utter helplessness. Her antics are embarrassing, not endearing. She is not elegant, she is not cute, and she is definitely not helpless.

Liz shares the spotlight with her co-worker Dan, and the two of them embark on an adventure that... honestly defies all description. The Next BIG Thing is a comedy game, that's all you need to know here. And the thing that amazed me was that Dan, her male counterpart, is the straight man, while Liz gets to do all the whacky slapstick. Dan gets in the occasional joke, and he has more than enough quirks of his own, as does everyone in the game world. But in their double act, he is the Burns to her Allen.

That's not a role that is usually reserved for women. In fact, I can only think of one from the top of my head, and that's Miss Piggy. And even she was just holding her own among the boys in terms of comedy. In a world that is just full of straight man sitcom moms and girlfriends to act as foils for their whacky male costars, I would give anything to see this combination more often.



#3. GLaDOS


Game: Portal
Protagonist: No?
Occupation: Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System
Likes: Testing, cake
Dislikes: Chell 
Quote: "We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success."





Originally, this spot was reserved for Chell. She's on all the lists, after all. The main character from Portal could have easily been male and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference. She never speaks, and you can only see her if you're willing to bend the laws of physics. And yet she's a woman. Just because. That's neat.

I say main character, but... Is she? I mean, don't get me wrong. Chell is awesome. She's tenacious and resourceful and she's got a steady shooting hand. But imagine playing Portal with just your standard run-of-the-mill Evil AI as the antagonist. It's... not quite the same, is it?

GLaDOS is Portal. You could replace Chell with a man, or a dog, or a striped rainbow trout, although I'd prefer it if you didn't, and it wouldn't change the game that much. But take out GLaDOS and the whole thing falls apart. It would still be a fun and unique game, but the sheer force of personality that is GLaDOS pushed the game from "good" to "classic". Because at its core, what is the Portal series other than one high-stakes chick fight with guns that shoot physics?

GLaDOS might be the most talked about video game character of all time. Every line she has in the game has been analyzed to death, she's been attributed with every psychiatric disorder from pathological narcissism to crippling co-dependency. Her goal could be anything from ultimate freedom to petty revenge. My favorite fan theory states that Chell destroying GlaDOS represents the "good, quiet female" destroying the "clever, upstart feminist". What I'm saying is, everyone's trying to get into GLaDOS' head, and nobody agrees with anybody. Just clear your schedule, google her name and see where the night takes you. It's a pretty neat trick for a video game character as trite as the evil AI stock character.


I mean, someone drew that picture up there, and put it on Deviantart, and it's not a sex thing. That alone should tell you something.

So I couldn't tell you a thing about GLaDOS, really. I don't get her, and I never will. That's why she's so fascinating, that's why her Wikipedia entry has almost 10000 words, that why people are still debating about her to this day, and will for quite some time. GLaDOS may not be a good role model, but one thing you can't deny is that as a character, she is mind-bogglingly complex.


...


We're done here.

...


Oh, alright. Here you go. Enjoy, buddy.






#2. Sofia Lamb


Game: Bioshock 2
Protagonist: No
Occupation: Psychiatrist, usurper
Likes: Collectivism, the propagation thereof
Dislikes:  Objectivism, the Great Chain, Subject Delta
Quote: "To serve the world, we must grow deaf to the self. Are you ready?"







Bioshock is an action RPG about the pitfalls of objectivism, so, you know, obvious bestseller material right there. Bioshock 2 is an action RPG about the pitfalls of collectivism, just like the upcoming Bioshock 3, an action RPG about the pitfalls of capitalism, proving once and for all that high-minded concepts and gimmicky crap are not mutually exclusive.

The embodiment of objectivism in the first game was Andrew Ryan, whose utopian underwater city of Rapture was run according to the principles of Ayn Rand (spoiler: this did not work out). During the events of Bioshock 2 however, it becomes clear that Ryan did not rule unopposed. Sofia Lamb, the psychiatrist he brought to Rapture to help the people adjust to life at the ocean floor, grew to disagree with his methods and quickly rose to power preaching her own social philosophy. She became such a big threat Ryan had her thrown in prison. So Lamb pretty much took over prison from the inside. After Ryan got his face remodeled with a golf club, Lamb took his place as enlightened dictator of Rapture, seizing her chance to create a society where the needs of the individual would be second to the needs of the collective. Spock would approve.

Throughout the game Lamb makes life hell for the game's protagonist, Subject Delta, who is looking for the little girl he is bonded with. Unfortunately for him, that little girl happens to be Lamb's daughter Eleanor, her home-bred perfectly selfless "Daughter of the People". Sofia's reaction to seeing her little girl with an inhuman mass of power drill and death? Exterminate.

While she is incredibly strict with her daughter and willing to sacrifice entirely too much for her beliefs, she does see her plans through to the end, and never doubts that everything she does serves the greater good.

Highly intelligent, charismatic, empathic and determined, Sofia Lamb deserves to be on every list of great video game villains ever. Seriously, she executed a Big Daddy with a handgun. She wins at psychiatry.


#1. Jade


Game: Beyond Good and Evil
Protagonist: Yes
Occupation: Photojournalist, IRIS Network Operative 
Likes: Sticking it to The Man
Dislikes: The Man 
Quote: "If there's a chance to stop this war, we can't let it pass us by."







Such an easy win, it's a cliche. Jade tops every Cool Video Game Women list, which is quite a feat for a character from a decade old underperforming little game. And for very good reason. Everything that is good to have in a hero, Jade has in spades. Tenacity, resourcefulness, compassion, big guns, a hovercraft, Jade has it all. Plus, she has the distinction of being the only woman on this list who isn't white, maybe, unless you count Maya as Japanese, which is a whole nother can of worms.

I'm usually not a big fan of female characters who exemplify everything that is good about humanity, because it works in favor of a trend I find excruciating: white-knighting on behalf of female villains. If you cast a woman as anything other than a shining hero or virtuous angel, you're going to get accused of misogyny. It's just the way of things. I can't explain it, because for me to explain that I would have to accept the existence of people who assume that uteri are magic niceness glands, and I'm just not ready.

But sometimes, it's just cathartic to play a Big Damn Hero, and that's what Jade is. Big guns, big adventure, and a big heart. Plus it's got that bitchin' song. That helps. You could be ironing your stamp collection in a frilly apron still look badass if this song is playing.





Jade isn't what every little gamer girl should aspire to be. She's what everyone should aspire to be.



Problematic Mentions

Here's the ladyfolk I was thinking of including, or are regularly included in similar lists, but through no fault of their own did not make the cut.


Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)


Close...

Lara really isn't so bad. Actually she's remarkably human, a well-developed character with history both in-universe and out, a badass female protagonist in a time where it was weird for those to exist. I hear the reboot, or whatever you want to call it, is going to focus a lot more on adventure and storytelling, and I look forward to it, even if it is another tired shi- I mean gritty reboot.




... but no Cigar

It really did go downhill from there, didn't it? One innocent mistake and your legacy is forever tied to your chestcones. That Angelina Jolie unpleasantness didn't help either. I'm sorry, Lara. It's not your fault. But you're why we can't have nice things.
 



Samus Aran (Metroid)


Close...

Samus always ends up on these lists too, because she's a badass in power armor and she rolls like a dude, and it didn't even matter that she wasn't a man, and all that is true and awesome...








... but no Cigar

...until Metroid: Other M, where Samus is constantly insecure about her ability to impress the menfolk, going so far as to storm into battle pretty much unarmed to impress her boss.

Metroid: Other M came out in 2010. If your 21st century game about a badass space chick is somehow less progressive than a 1986 Japanese arcade game, you have problems, and all of them are internalized misogyny.



Jack (Mass Effect 3)


Close...

Just by looking at Jack, you can tell she's something else. This is not how women in video games usually look, and that alone sets her apart from the pack, just a little. She doesn't behave the way women are supposed to behave either. She's unapologetically nihilistic, rude, dominant and unpleasant. Having spent her life being tortured and abused, physically as well as mentally and emotionally, she has zero capacity for trust. She is not an anti-hero either, doing bad things for the greater good, or at least driven by noble intentions. Jack is a justifiably bad person. A real tragic character, and a really complex woman.


This being Mass Effect, Jack also has a side mission and personal dialogue and if you want to help her, you're going to have to deeply empathize with her, acknowledge her pain, build a relationship of trust...

... but no Cigar

... and fuck the PTSD right out of her.

The only way to finish Jack's personal storyline is by playing ManShep, and having sex with her. Sex with a person who has suffered gruesome abuse, breaches of trust, annihilation of personal boundaries and complete extermination of her identity. If you're playing FemShep, or you're just uncomfortable about the implications of sleeping with a survivor of extreme and horrifying lifelong abuse, tough shit, Jack actually regresses.



Cortana (Halo)


 Close...

It's rare to see a story in pop culture that includes a relationship between what are ostensibly a man and a woman that has absolutely nothing to do with romance and never even touches on it. Because of what Cortana and Master Chief are, their relationship just feels so healthy and nice. Neither of them is defined by the other. Again, Cortana is not really a woman, I get that, but she is female.






... but no Cigar

And I'm not the first to have noticed that.




I can't say it any better than Luke McKinney already did, because dude gets it.

Cortana was the victim of a bizarre quantum effect where simply being observed causes video game breasts to swell.

Thank god that's not a problem or anything.




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