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Fascinating females: interesting women in video games

Originally published on 1001Up:

A while ago I came across a two-part piece on The Guardian website entitled ‘Beyond Lara Croft’. It’s well-written and authors Kate Gray, Holly Neilsen and Jordan Erica Webber make an interesting point: “Over the years, there has been no shortage of articles about ‘the best female characters in video games’. The problem is, what they’ve usually meant is ‘the sexiest female characters in video games’, which has made for some very repetitive and occasionally rather creepy reading.”

We’ve all seen our fair share of such posts. For example, there are several bloggers who regularly appear under the ‘gaming’ tag in my WordPress reader with series such as ‘Sexy Games’ and ‘Hot Cosplayer of the Week’ that I decline to read. If that’s what you choose to write, then that’s entirely up to you – but surely there’s more to female characters than oversized legs (as well as other body parts) covered in shiny, streamlined (read: skimpy completely useless) armour?

That got me thinking: which entries in The Guardian’s list resonate with me? Which characters have been missed which are worthy of inclusion? Here’s my compilation of interesting women in video games, along with some notable mentions from the article.

Warning: some spoilers are included below so if you haven’t played a title, you may wish to skip forward to the next entry.

Included: Vella Tartine from Broken Age

One of the newer characters included within The Guardian’s list, Velouria Beastender Tartine – or ‘Vella’ for short – is described as having ‘incredible patience and resilience in the quest to escape her determined role’. The ritual of feeding young maidens to the monstrous floating bear Mog Chothra every fourteen years keeps him at bay, or so the Sugar Bunting village elders say; but our heroine can’t accept this and questions why they can’t just kill the damn thing (much to her grandfather’s delight).

Broken Age’s plot and characters are extremely well-written and it’s refreshing to see Vella and her counterpart Shay Volta not falling into the usual tropes or ‘save the universe’ storyline. It’s the girl taking on the monster while the boy is trapped in the gilded palace. The game explores themes of individualism and highlights the potential dangers in mindlessly conforming to a group without question – and Miss Tartine, portrayed by Masasa Moyo, is one woman who certainly takes fate into her own hands.

Missing: Erica Reed from Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

A game that employs the talents of the amazing Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight series, as a story consultant is sure to have a great plot and well-written characters – and that’s certainly the case for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. It tells the plot of Boston FBI Agent Erica as she searches for the evil Cain Killer, the murderer of her brother Scott. It gradually becomes clear that a group of seemingly-unrelated killings all have clues that only our heroine can read: using her ‘psion’ powers to see the past, she can find connections between objects and access other people’s memories.

With potent abilities like these it would have been all too easy for the developer to resort to them into order to push the plot along. But instead, Erica’s powers aren’t the automatic solution for every problem: they don’t always work as intended and instead cause her a great deal of mental trauma. Raleigh Holmes does an amazing job of portraying Erica as a real person who’s struggling with a stressful job, tragic past and powerful secret. It’s due to her acting and some wonderful writing that Agent Reed is one of my favourite video game characters.

Included: Samantha Greenbriar from Gone Home

Players step into the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar in this critically-acclaimed title, but it’s younger sister Samantha (Sam) who takes the centre stage. After returning home from Europe, you find a note from the teenager stuck to the front door asking you to not go ‘digging around’ trying to find out where she is. An emotional message from a tearful female on the answering machine immediately makes you concerned for Sam’s wellbeing: what happened in the past twelve months while you were away?

You might not encounter any other characters in the flesh while playing Gone Home but the writing and voice-acting are absolutely top-notch – full marks to Sarah Grayson for her portrayal of Sam. The teenager comes across as smart and snarky yet insecure and relatable, and you can’t help feel for her. Unravelling her coming-of-age story and relationship with Lonnie, she reveals herself with a lot of honesty through her journal entries; and by the time you’ve spent the three hours needed to complete the title both she and her story will have left a lasting mark on you.

Missing: Zoë Castillo from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

The plot of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey concentrates on the story of Zoë Castillo, a girl who starts the title in the same way that April Ryan did in the first instalment of the series ten years before: in her underwear (but it’s not what you think!). After becoming disillusioned with the path her life is taking, she decides to drop out of university and give her journalist ex-boyfriend a hand with a story he’s working on by completing a favour. Little does she know that this will set in motion an epic series of events that will see her caught in an adventure of dream technology and travelling across the globe…

At first I was a little disappointed not to be playing as April as I loved her when playing The Longest Journey, but after a short while Zoë really started to grow on me. She’s a likeable, realistic character with a big heart, who questions what happens to her and doesn’t just accept the unbelievable events she’s involved in. Her story continues in Dreamfall Chapters by Red Thread Games.

Included: Hannah Smith from Her Story

This is a fascinating one: Hannah Smith may not be the most likeable character within this list but she’s definitely one of the most interesting. During the summer of 1994, she reports her husband Simon as missing to Portsmouth Police Station and it’s now a number of years after the event. It’s up to you to use video clips held within an archive database on an obsolete computer to assemble this woman’s story and answer the burning question: did she murder Simon?

Hannah manages to hide the existence of her estranged identical twin Eve through both their child- and adulthood until her sister’s pregnancy ruins things. Excellently portrayed by Viva Seifert, the omissions in her character’s answers are highlighted through small slips of the tongue, repeated phrases and awkward body movements, and each revelation will leave you switching between sympathising for the woman and hating her. When Hannah finally reveals the truth about her husband, the speech is delivered with such an unnerving calm that it will cause the story to stay with you long after you’ve finished the game.

Missing: Theresa from Fable

Theresa is probably the most mysterious female on my list. Being over six-hundred years of age, she’s one of the oldest known living beings in the Fable series’ world of Albion – as well as one of the deepest and most important characters with powerful but unclear motives. Frequently referred to as ‘The Blind Seeress’, she has had prophetic powers since a young child and possesses extrasensory perception due to her exceptional Will (magic) abilities, despite being unable to physically see.

It’s difficult to reveal much about Theresa’s history here as her backstory is so detailed. But the most intriguing thing about this character is the fact that you’re never quite sure whether she’s on the side of good or evil: is she telling you all she knows, or has she seen the future and is now trying to guide you down a certain path? Zoe Wanamaker does such a great job at portraying the Seeress, with a perfect balance of mysticism and threat in her voice; now whenever I see a television advert voiced by this actress it feels as if Theresa is trying to sell me something.

Included: River Wyles from To The Moon

Despite its lack of gameplay, To The Moon is one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking video games I’ve ever played. Sigmund Corp employees Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts have been hired by a widower named Johnny Wyles because he wants to go to the moon; however, he isn’t sure why and from this one riddle many others arise. Their patient has already slipped into a deep coma so they must quickly sift through his memories, figure out what’s motivating this wish and, using their ‘artificial memory creation’ technology, make it happen.

As stated in a The Guardian’s article: “…a love story gone slightly wrong… If it breaks your heart (which it might) that’s mostly down to River, the wife of the lead character, who is caring, loving, creative and dedicated.” What makes her so special is that she’s one of the few video game characters explicitly diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. But this fact is never exploited in this extremely poignant tale of love, loss and regret, you’ll be shedding a tear by the end of it.

Missing: Elaine Marley from The Secret of Monkey Island

The games in The Secret of Monkey Island series focus on Guybrush Threepwood but it’s Elaine Marley who steals the show. In the original title, the wannabe-buccaneer arrives on Mêlée Island to begin his quest to become a pirate; and despite learning that other swashbucklers in the area are afraid to sail because of the evil ghost pirate LeChuck, he completes the Three Trials and learns the arts of thievery, sword-mastery and treasure-huntery (argh me hearties!). When the evil villain kidnaps beautiful governor Elain Marley it’s up to Guybrush, in true adventure hero style, to find a way to the legendary Monkey Island to rescue his amour.

That’s not to say she’s your typical damsel in distress however – far from it in fact. She’s more than capable of taking care of herself and on the occasions when she’s kidnapped, she’s usually able to escape from LeChuck at her own volition whilst throwing out comebacks such as “You are an evil, foul-smelling, vile, co-dependent villain and that’s just not what I’m looking for in a romantic relationship right now.” It’s no wonder she’s the dominant half in her partnership with Guybrush, but she still has faith in his abilities despite his hapless nature.

The one thing all of the women above have in common is excellent writing and, except in those cases where there is none, superb voice-acting. It goes to show that developers don’t have to resort to big boobs and scant armour in order to make a memorable and interesting female character.

Have you read the The Guardian’s ‘Beyond Lara Croft’ article? What did you think of their list, and who are your most interesting women in video games? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Fascinating females: interesting women in video games

  1. Nice list! I haven’t had first hand experience with a number of these, but he completely forgotten about Zoe from Dreamfall (I’ve been tempted by ‘chapters’, but isn’t quite gotten around to it yet). … Oh and ‘to the moon’ is just made of amazing…

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  2. I must admit… I started playing Chapters, then got distracted… and haven’t yet gone back to it. I think I’ll need to do a Dreamfall marathon soon and play all 3 games back-to-back.

    And Finding Paradise is due out this year – can’t wait! 🙂

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  3. I haven’t played any of these games yet so I don’t know the characters, but they all sound great. I’m planning to get gone home soon so I can finally play that!

    I can think of a whole lot of great female characters in games. I wanna talk specifically about Jill Valentine from Resident Evil, though. I’m sure she’s a popular one (esp when her outfit, um, declines in the later games…) but I love her story arc and her resilience/adaptability in the face of mystery, danger and betrayal and I think, especially in the original, she resists damaging tropes quite well most of the time. However, Capcom recently gave her jiggle physics in the HD remaster on the ps4/xbox, which upsets me and, while not detracting from her character as such, sends a clear reminder to us that female protagonists are but at the mercy of their male developers. You would think an icon like Jill would have earned some respect after all these years. Apparently not.

    I enjoyed reading your list. You’ve made me interested in playing some of these games!

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