Top 5: Best Representations of Women in Gaming

It’s no secret that videogames have a history of being less than generous to female game characters. Well, they’re plenty generous, just in all the wrong ways: generous physical attributes, very much lacking in character, depth, development arcs and all the other elements that make you appreciate a well written character as a person instead of exploitative wet dreams designed to appeal to adolescent boys (of all ages). Which isn’t to say that these well developed and well written gaming women don’t exist.

In order to explore some of the better representations of women in gaming, and to celebrate those that do exist, we asked our staff and writers/editors at other gaming sites to list their personal top 5 choices for best written and developed, most empowering, believable female characters in gaming. Obviously we won’t all agree on every character presented here, or the reasoning behind these choices, but at the very least, I hope we can agree that we need more women in gaming that are believable and likable, not for their scantily clad appearance or bulbous curves, but because they speak to the real women in our lives whom we love and respect.

Whether hero or villain, lead role or supporting cast, the women below represent the sort of characters we’d like to see more of in videogames. Not because they’re both attractive and tough (as is often mistaken for positive female representations) but because they are people first and foremost… or super-advanced AIs, exotic alien races, you get the picture.

Alyx Vance and Jade hardly need mentioning, seeing as they should be on everyone’s Top 5 list (imo). Trishka from Bulletstorm I think warrants a mention as she could have been something completely different considering the game’s self proclaimed frat-boy humor. Her proportions are realistic (more or less… well, compared to other games), her character is smart, likable and relatively complex, and when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t come off as a glorified sex-object like so many women in gaming.

Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble lets you build a party of girls that will use the same dialog no mater which characters you choose. And likewise, whatever party you end up with, they will read as one of the best realizations of teenage girls I’ve ever come across in gaming. Similar to the kids in the South Park TV series, somehow they come out smarter and more capable than all the adults in town, and often are the only real moral compass in a place fraught with xenophobia, sexism and small-minded hate. I can’t recommend that game enough.

Finally, April Ryan of The Longest Journey is a character who develops as the story goes on and has an excellent character arc. She starts off as a somewhat whiny, self-obsessed young girl, someone I didn’t much like at all. But by the end of the story, thanks to excellent storytelling and writing, she was my hero. The game is highly recommended (with walkthrough in hand as the puzzles can be pretty silly).

Simply stepping foot outside a vault for five minutes and not dying denotes a certain measure of badassery in the Fallout universe, so the Brotherhood of Steel’s Sarah Lyons’ near-invincibility and unshakable courage make her something special. The player first runs into her and her squad fighting a super mutant behemoth in the middle of DC, facing it pretty much head on. At that point in the game I was cowering and taking potshots with a rifle while her squad did the heavy lifting. She also co-leads the assault on the Enclave alongside the player character and a giant robot, and if you chicken out she’ll step into the overloading reactor to halt the meltdown. To paraphrase an episode of Firefly, she’s a big damn heroine.

Next, there’s Eleanor Lamb from BioShock 2. Ever wonder what happens when those Little Sisters grow up? Well, as you’re playing her pair-bonded Big Daddy, she’s been learning by your example. If you’ve been a heartless killer or ruthless avenger, she will be too. If you’ve been a compassionate giver of second chances, she will be similarly benevolent. For me she just kind of brought out a reason to care about my actions-if you get one of the bad endings you really feel like a monster.  Third is Alex Rovias – she puts up with a lot. Her grandfather dies, she finds a tome of evil and something about the end of the world, and manages to do it without losing too much of her sanity. Bonus points for the fact that she’s voiced by the venerable Jennifer Hale, who has made a career out of voicing kickass women such as Bastila Shan, Commander Shepard and even (pre-Metroid: Other M) Samus Aran.

The number two is one of the most memorable villains in gaming history- the manipulative AI that believes you’re little more than an insect, SHODAN. She makes the list for being one of the most challenging and terrifying villains out there, openly backstabbing the player even as you’re running errands for her. She’s always three steps ahead of you. Finally, we come to Rosella, the princess of Daventry. Hailing from a family of fearless adventurers, she was a brilliant heroine who could think her way out of the most hopeless situations. Perhaps because Sierra had two prominent female designers in Roberta Williams and Jane Jensen, intelligent female protagonists were in steady supply in their adventure games – not just Rosella, but her mother Valanice, detective Laura Bow and Gabriel Knight’s long-suffering assistant Grace Nakimura.

Honorable mentions go to Celes Chere (Final Fantasy VI), Elaine Marley (Monkey Island) and most of the female cast of Mass Effect.

Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3 really stands out for me, because even as a teenager she’s an incredibly strong character. Not only does she brave the nightmare world of Silent Hill by herself, she handles things that would crush any normal person, including the murder of her father and having to fight off the devil-god that was growing inside of her, with incredible strength and resolve. She knew what she had to do and she did it without letting herself become a victim.

Sakura Kasugano from Street Fighter (who happens to be the character I main in SSF4) is a great character herself, with her unyielding motivation to become stronger and someday be able to become an equal to her hero, Ryu. She’s got a very optimistic disposition and is able to make friends with most anyone she meets, including her rival Karin Kanzuki. It would have been very easy for Capcom to say “well, she’s obsessed with Ryu” and leave it at that, but her role as the cheerful kid that refuses to give up is quite refreshing for a fighting game.

Faris Scherwiz from Final Fantasy V absolutely deserves mention, because how many other take-no-prisoners pirate captains are there in games, male or female? Sure, she’s actually a princess, but Faris makes no apologies for who she is and embraces her rough-and-tumble side, making her personality-wise one of the strongest characters to grace a Final Fantasy title.

Claire Redfield is my favorite Resident Evil character because she brings a unique trait to the series: kindness. In Resident Evil 2, she not only has to keep herself alive through the zombie outbreak, but she also winds up rescuing and looking after a young girl named Sherry Birkin. She still has a total badass side, though, clearly evidenced by the opening cinematic for Resident Evil: Code Veronica ( The best thing about Claire is that she steps into whatever role the situation calls for and does it to the best of her ability, no complaints. Resident Evil would have been an easy series to let fall into the “super macho tough guy” stereotype, but the female characters are always incredibly strong (just look at Ada Wong and Jill Valentine if you need more proof) and in many ways even more compelling than their male counterparts.

Lastly, we come to The Dark Lady, the Banshee Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, Queen of the Forsaken from the Warcraft franchise. A prominent high elf in life, Sylvanas was slain by the Lich King and raised as a banshee slave. However, she managed to break free of his will and reclaimed her body. She rallied together other undead slaves who were now free of his grasp and called her new people the Forsaken, claiming the ruins of the kingdom of Lordaeron as their capital. Sylvanas is now cold and methodical, but unwaveringly strong; she’s willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of her people, including the questionable method of raising more undead on her own to bolster their numbers. In a way, she’s becoming more like the Lich King that she hates so much, but Sylvanas gives her people one thing that makes all the difference: choice. To the Forsaken people, personal choice and empowerment mean everything, because without them, they’re just mindless slaves again, and they owe that freedom to Sylvanas. In a genre of fantasy traditionally dominated by gallant male heroes, it’s incredibly refreshing to see such a strong, compelling female character, especially in a role that would be considered brash regardless of gender.

There are many female characters in Lunar: The Silver Star (and its many remakes), but the one with the strongest sense of self and my personal favorite is Jessica Alkirk. As a half-beastman, half-human priestess, she becomes a powerful ally with her healing abilities. Though most of her life decisions are for the sake of her father (her only family) or her boyfriend (the stubborn Kyle), all of them are self-sacrificing choices made from the depths of her heart to protect the people she cares about.

The most recent game I’ve played showcasing an amazing female lead is Bayonetta. She has the same problem as Lara Croft, where most people who’ve not played the game look at her and get all offended because she appears *gasp* too sexy, but beyond her looks that she uses to her advantage, she’s a powerful woman as well. I wouldn’t claim her to be a great role model for girls or anything since she has a tendency to use people, but she knows who she is, she owns herself and is proud to do so, and that is demanding of respect.

Paula Polestar, the female party member in the cult classic Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan), is a young but capable girl with psychic abilities. When you meet Paula she has been kidnapped, but unlike the typical damsel-in-distress theme so widely seen in games, she isn’t willing to sit idly by and wait for rescue. Instead she uses her powers of telepathy to reach out to your main character, Ness, and guide him to where she’s hidden. In fact, in a real show of strength, the only way to destroy the final enemy is by using her telepathic abilities!

One of the strongest female characters I have ever seen is Silent Hill 3’s Heather Mason. She is only a teenager, but when she’s thrust into the nightmare world of Silent Hill and loses her father, she doesn’t run away; Rather, she seeks vengeance and understanding of her past. At the end of the game, she exhibits her refusal to be a tool for the demons and radical cultists of Silent Hill, and risks her own life to oust the devil-god that is forced into her being.

Finally, we have Lara Croft, who comes up an awful lot whenever people are discussing videogames and their involvement in female empowerment. Unfortunately, most of the time it winds up being a senseless conversation about breast size and appearances. The fact is that if you look beyond the tight clothes and boobs, Lara is a strong woman, wealthy, confident and powerful, and she isn’t out to impress anyone. Besides, you would be in shape if you dove around tombs all day, too.

Kreia tops my list for numerous reasons. To call her role in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords significant would actually be a massive understatement. Kreia is, without a doubt, the wisest character I’ve ever come across in a role-playing game, forcing you to rethink every single one of your actions. The tip to succeeding with her character development is to focus on being very neutral – whereas most players typically want to play either light or dark side (or paragon or renegade to use a more modern example), for we tend to naturally align our characters against our own moral compasses. Kreia mocks and insults you for being either the hero or villain in many situations, usually backing up her criticisms with brilliant logic. Her character was perfect at demonstrating the faults that lie with both the dark and light sides of the Force.

Alyx Vance, Paula Polestar and Cortana all fall into one similar category for me. They act as your guiding angels in their respective titles, and thankfully their inclusion is not just a typical “being a female for the sake of it” role. They’re the intelligent navigators that aide you on your quest, and in many instances point out things that you and your character may not have seen. Cortana, for example, is the perfect partner for the Master Chief, her intelligence and analytical skills complimenting his warrior-like nature. Furthermore, although they are technically supporting characters, their importance in the storyline is nearly as great as, if not greater than, the main character.

Lastly, Joanna Dark deserves a mention because, although she was no doubt dreamed up by Nintendo/Rare as a Nintendo alternative to Lara Croft, her character is actually quite compelling. Neither her gender nor her looks (in fact, her in-game appearance is not particularly striking) are ever used in Perfect Dark in a manipulative or stereotypical way. Rather, her character bio focuses on her skills and intelligence, which ultimately make her the perfect agent. A refreshing character, especially back in 2000. This entry, of course, makes no reference to her character in Perfect Dark Zero, although that’s because that game ruined the series.

Isabela comes out of a brand-new game, so she may not yet be familiar to many. However, a pirate captain who takes it upon herself to bare-handedly smash up a gang of armed ruffians who assault her at Kirkwall’s Hanged Man tavern, all while taking care to not spill a single drop of her ale, is immediately bad-ass. The fact that she still has enough energy to cleverly deal with my verbal advances makes her uber-awesome.

Kaede Smith is a small cog in the machine that is Harman Smith in Killer 7, but being the only female in the entire gang of psychotic anti-heroes, she scares the hell out of me – and for that, I gotta say she rules.

Metal Gear Solid‘s Sniper Wolf was at the same time awe-inducing in her calculated coldness and tragically relatable in her grace and love of her pet wolves. It’s easy to see how Otacon could have fallen for her, proving that love CAN bloom on the battlefield, and her death at the hands of Solid Snake is perhaps the most moving scene in a game filled with memorable moments.

KOS-MOS, from the Xenosaga trilogy, is an android based on logic, and the unbiased way in which she operates (sometimes ruthlessly efficient) instills in me a deep sense of respect and inferiority. Oh, that and the fact that she can somehow produce a spaceship-sized laser gun to annihilate pretty much every lifeform around.

Finally, I’ve chosen Grace Nakimura from Sierra’s Gabriel Knight adventure game series. She is by Gabriel’s side, either physically or mentally, and stands by him to take on Voodoo cults, werewolves and vampires. All the while she redefines the meaning of the word “sidekick” and easily becomes an equal fifty percent in their partnership. No guns, no swords, no agile fighting moves; just intelligence, bravery and cleverness in the face of danger. Which might be a much more potent combination, giving her the top spot of my Top 5 kick-ass females.

I also have to nod in approval at Joe’s pick of Lady Sylvanas Windrunner (Horde FTW!), Armand’s choice of Jade and Chad’s mention of Celes Chere. I concur, brothers.

I’m pretty sure I’m the only one crazy enough to put Eva from MGS fifth on this list. She was awesome though, wasn’t she? Remember the first time she hit that guy in the face with her motorcycle? I was instantly impressed. In Metal Gear Solid 3 she was the best part of the game, and was an absolutely amazing love interest for Snake. Then, not content to simply vanish into obscurity, (Spoilers) she came back in Metal Gear Solid 4 and does an awesome motorcycle scene and truly cements herself as an awesome lady. (End Spoilers)

Do you ragequit? DO YOU THINK YOU KNOW WHAT RAGEQUITTING IS? NO. NO YOU FUCKING DON’T. Not until you fight Bad Girl, the #2 boss of No More Heroes. You do not even want to know how many times I had to restart this fight. Being an amazingly difficult boss was all a part of her character, combined with cheap shots and tricks, you would think this would be awful, and it was even more frustrating than the final boss, but I was obsessed with beating her. It wasn’t “the good kind of frustrating”, but it was the best feeling ever when I finally killed her.

Having a crazy stalker ex-girlfriend myself, I can truly relate to some of Issac’s problems. Mine didn’t have access to the truly mindfuck resources that Nicole from Dead Space has, but you know, I feel for the guy. And also Nicole scared the piss out of me for most of the games. She NEVER. GOES. AWAY.

Natasia from Super Paper Mario is by far one of my favorite characters in a videogame. She is fucking hilarious. You want proof you can tell sarcasm through text? Natasia is it. She’s the assistant to Count Bleck, and her wit is absolutely one of the best things about the whole game. It made her extremely likeable, and even when everything goes down, I cared more about her than anyone else in the game.

I don’t even know how to describe Yuna, really. She felt like the first “real” character that I had ever seen in a videogame. She had problems, she wasn’t very funny, there wasn’t really anything special about her, but she actually seemed special somehow. Her relationship with Tidus (look, I don’t care what you think about him okay? We’re not talking about him, we’re talking about her!) came at a time when I was just starting to figure what relationships are, and how they are supposed to work. Yuna deserves the top spot in my list. Everyone else has a gimmick or a hook, but Yuna is just a regular person, and in turn, the most relatable and appealing female character that I can remember in videogames.

Look, I love all women equally, so these are not in any particular order. Uh, I mean, before marriage I loved all women equally, something like that.

Jade of BG&E and Alyx Vance of Half-Life 2 are the same person, very obvious, and she gets a high five because she’s level-headed and likable and YAY!, doesn’t suffer from clothing-phobia like most game women. Dr. Janice Polito was your impatient and pushy guide over radio in System Shock 2; her voice defines your early experience – “Move!” – and I missed her caustic personality later in the game.

Portal‘s GLaDOS is everybody’s favourite femme fatale, one of the funniest creations in videogame history. Players fall for her only to discover she kisses with neurotoxinated lipstick. Deionarra is the ultimate victim in Planescape: Torment, her crime simply falling in love; how she makes you feel, the player behind the keyboard, is the stuff of gaming legend.

But if you want real characterisation, you have to look to the written word; I offer Alley from Adam Cadre’s landmark work of interactive fiction, Photopia, which should be approached as a story and not a game. She is the story, fleshed out through the story’s multiple protagonists rather than by Alley herself.

Joel AKA Harbor Master runs the excellent site Electron Dance, and always has thoughtful and intelligent things to say about gaming.

Alyx and Jade are at the top of the Top Five, because Armand is right, they should be in every list. But to add variety I gave them honorary #2 and #1 so I could get in some additional characters.

Nariko may dress inappropriately, but her courage and rage and personal uncertainty give her depth her clothing doesn’t. She’s been mistreated all her life, yet when the call comes to save what she knows, she answers it, saving those who don’t honestly deserve it. Mona’s contradictions and her brokenness fascinate me. There is a darkness in her that even she can’t explain, but also a humanity. Emotions are complicated, and like real people she doesn’t always understand hers. Trishka is awesome. She takes no shit and will kill you just as fast as any of the frat-boys. She has (fairly) realistic proportions, and unlike most characters she has the presence of mind to enter dangerous situations with suitable knee and elbow protection. (editor’s note: YES!)

Plus “Trishka” is a really cool name.

Viktoria’s a demon with a value system, you have to admire that. She represents the last hopes of a desperate people, but her faith doesn’t ever falter. She does what she does because it’s right for her own philosophy and worldview. Meanwhile, #1 is a character from Heavy Metal? You have to disregard the T&A. When danger threatened her community, Julie awoke something inside herself that no one, least of all her, knew she had. And she drove that danger away, but at a great personal cost. She was never the same afterward, plagued by nightmares and self-doubt. But when danger reappeared, she didn’t hesitate to do it all again. As the box slogan says, “Sacrifice the body, never the heart.” Julie puts herself through hell but doesn’t allow it to touch her. Yeah, her boobs are ridiculous, but you know? She’s got a really great personality.

Matthew AKA Steerpike runs the awesome site Tap-Repeatedly, where you can get the kind of gaming news you just won’t find with the bigger sites. Check it out!

It’s a shame that after the first year in Grim Fandango, the witty, dry and sassy Eva plays such a minor role, because her constant ripping into Manny was always a pleasure. “It’s my boss’s secretary, Eva.”, “It’s my boss’s whipping boy, Manny.” Despite it being many years since I last played Day of the Tentacle, Laverne remains such a unique character thanks to her twitchy, slightly psychotic appearance coupled with her distant, monotone drawl. She’s essentially a creepy female equivalent of Steve Purcell’s Max. Only less homicidal.

I’m a bit spoilt for choice with Planescape: Torment, but Ravel makes it onto this list because her ominous reputation made me not want to find her. Of course, I eventually did, and merely seeing her sent shivers down my spine. The meeting with the enigmatic night hag was as fascinating as it was terrifying and remains one my favourite encounters ever.

Kitted out to withstand the extremest of conditions and tackle the most dangerous flora and fauna in the galaxy, Samus Aran is what I’d consider the toughest (and most appropriately dressed) female game character out there.

Last, but not least, is SHODAN, the cold, calculated and, dare I say, sexy AI that made us all pant and sweat through her corridors. When she spoke, we listened. And cried a little in the nearest corner. SHODAN is one of gaming’s greatest and most terrifying antagonists and if you’ve not played System Shock 2 yet, then what in Her name are you waiting for?

Honourable mentions go to Linda the lungfish from Psychonauts and Miss E.X.T.R.A. from Rodland. Oh, and that Alyx whatsername and Jade lass. You know, them two.

Gregg writes for Tap-Repeatedly, and is an all around great human being. That’s all.

As stated above, these lists reflect each individual’s perspective on this subject, and are meant to encourage further discussion as well as encourage (we hope) better developed women in gaming. Let us know how you agree/disagree, or give us your Top 5. Please, as always, keep the conversation friendly and respectful.

14 Responses to “Top 5: Best Representations of Women in Gaming”
  1. OnThatPage says:

    Hey where is Kerrigan?! from Starcraft?! D: !!

    • Chad M. says:

      Probably wherever Blizzard dumped their characterization in the second game.

      • OnThatPage says:

        Yeah.. point taken.. but is still a very good char.. i hope that when HotS comes out, will be a strong candidate to be included on the list 🙂

    • Armand K. says:

      That’s a good one. It’s been so long since I played that I’d forgotten all about her! Haven’t played the new one, so I don’t even know what happens there.

  2. marcsart says:

    good picks. when i saw the article title i immediately thought of Jade from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, I was surprised only one person picked her.

    • TWO people, man! TWO people picked her!

      • Gregg B says:

        THREE, well, kinda. I put Jade in honourable mentions because between her and Alyx they’re almost compulsory inclusions, I just wanted to highlight other characters that I think are often overlooked. Sure, SHODAN is in there and Samus Aran but those two are pretty special to me.

        Great list people! Some nice surprises in there too.

  3. Cassie says:

    I’d go with Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Zoey (Left 4 Dead), GLaDos (Portal), Claire Redfield or Jill Valentine (Resident Evil Series) and Midna (Twilight Princess).

    I have a tonne odf characters in close honourable mentions, including Elanor Lamb, Brigid Tenenbaum (Bioshock 1 and 2), Sheva, Samus (only ruined by Other M), Ophelia and Lita (Brutal Legend)…etc etc.

    Great article, all very good choices.

  4. Steerpike says:

    Jade and Alyx are on all lists, as Honorary First and Second Place (you pick which is which), but I think in the interest of including more variety we kept them off.

    Kerrigan (from the first Starcraft) is a great pick. I too forgot her completely. The female characters from Uncharted also deserve mention.

    It was fun making this list. And while I agree that we’re nowhere near a parity in kickass, awesome female characters in games, it’s nice to realize that we have to struggle to narrow our lists down to five.

    • Chad M. says:

      One of my personal criteria was that the game had to rock my world…which neither HL2 or BG&E managed.

      • Steerpike says:

        Blasphemy! Blasphemer!

      • Gregg B says:

        HL2 didn’t rock my world either (though it was very, very good). Beyond Good & Evil I loved though because it was like a leaner and meaner Zelda game with a real storyline and great characters. The size of the game was just right and the pearls/orbs as well as the creature photos were challenging and fun to find without being a pain in the ass. The last boss was a bit ridiculous difficulty-wise but overall the game was great fun.

  5. Max says:

    Thank you Martin, for your inclusion of Kreia. She is hands down the best written, most complex and intelligent female character there has ever been in a video game. No other character has had even remotely close to the influence that Kreia had on me; not only in the way I play role-playing games to this day, but her writing in KotOR II made me question things in my own life!

    I’d always favoured relative neutrality when it was offered in games past, and her actions and words really cemented for me that being a hero or villain, good or evil person was not only unrealistic, it was foolish and laughable. I hold all would-be intellectual video game characters to her standard, and so far none have come at all close to matching hers. She’s also a large part of the reason KotOR II tops my favourite games list.

    Also, props to Steerpike on the inclusion of Mona Sax. A truly well written character, and another of my personal favourites.

    As well, I agree with you, Pascal, on your inclusion of newcomer Isabela. On one hand she is a talented and tough rogue who can usually handle herself just fine in any situation. And on the other– and to me this one is much more important for the advancement of women (and not just in games, either)– she plays a terrific role in the fight against slut-shaming: this really boils down moreso to how BioWare’s writers handled her. She wore proudly on her sleeve the fact that women can have just as much sex as men and not have to feel ashamed of that. I really applaud that, as can, I think, any fellow feminists who realize the very serious negative effect that slut-shaming has on our society and how it perpetuates a culture of rape.

    Good work, to all of you. This was a great read on an important subject.

  6. Jordan Rivas says:

    +1 for this article and the writer who picked Kreia from KotOR II — one of my favorite characters, ever. She was remarkably well written and hardly ever predictable; pedantic, oddly maternal, and angry, she made one of the most unique Jedi masters ever.

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