Do We Need More Strong Female Characters in Games?

Pause Resume’s Alexandra Collinson takes a look at the history of strong female characters in games – and also some that weren’t – in order to look at how females should be depicted moving forward.

Female characters have often taken a back seat when compared to their male counterparts, becoming nothing more than side-characters or over sexualised for no reason at all. Recently though we’ve seen more and more female characters in video games that can become genuine role models, but unfortunately, there just doesn’t seem to be enough of them.

I remember growing up in the 90s where the only mainstream female character out there was Lara Croft. Core Design’s heroine became the first real female video game star, although that was in part due to her tight top and short shorts. Over the years this image was built-on by Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider films, which turned the already sexualised Croft into a more appealing figure for males in particular.

Crystal Dynamics take on the character has, thankfully, been more forgiving. With a stronger heroine, the short shorts and tight tops have now gone; replaced by clothes that an actual female might wear. Crystal Dynamics have thankfully managed to keep Lara’s strong personality and turned her into a genuine role-model for young-females, presenting a character who is able to be compared to strong male compatriots without anyone batting an eyelid because she’s a woman.

Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored are other franchises who have embraced female leads in recent years and created strong female characters in games.

In the beginning, both of these franchises had strong male leads. However, both franchises have now moved away from this with the last Assassin’s Creed featuring a brother and sister team, Jacob and Evie Frye, giving the option to play as either character.

Dishonored 2 sees you now able to play as Emily Kaldwin. In the first of the series she is an unplayable character whom the main character, Corvo Attano, has sworn to protect. Now we can only speculate as to whether or not she will be a triumph for female characters when the game releases in November, but this change from a feeble character whom needs protecting to a woman who will take her throne back one way or another, definitely seems to be a move in the right direction.

One female character that nearly got her own game was Krystal from Rare’s Dinosaur Planet. An adventure game that saw Krystal as a strong female fighting her own battles. An interesting decision at a time when male’s dominated the lead role in video games.

However, after a visit by Shigeru Minamoto to Rare’s office in England, it was decided that Dinosaur Planet would be reworked into a Star Fox game. Krystal was removed from the role and replaced by Fox McCloud.

Under the new name of Star Fox Adventures, Krystal remained in the game, but instead of the lead heroine, she became the token damsel in distress. Trapped in a giant crystal and scarcely dressed she was portrayed as helpless at the beginning of the game, needing Fox McCloud to come and rescue her.

When Fox first see’s her trapped in the crystal, sultry jazz music is played in the background, making it very clear that Fox thinks she’s ‘hot’. This drastic change of a strong female character to a helpless damsel has continued in further Nintendo releases and unfortunately it doesn’t seem likely that we will see a female hero from Nintendo in the near future.

The best examples of Nintendo’s damsel in distress are, of course, Princess Zelda and Princess Peach, both forever needing to be rescued by Link and Mario.

For balance though, in two of The Legend of Zelda games we do see Zelda take up a stronger role, she pops up as the ninja-like Sheik in Ocarina of Time and then the pirate Tetra in The Wind Waker.

Peach however, is always destined to be rescued. The first game to feature Peach was Donkey Kong, a game that had its roots based on the film King Kong. Princess Peachs’ role was pre-determined well before the games release. To compound matters further, her name in the original Donkey Kong game was ‘The Lady’ hardly flattering for a female character.

Unfortunately, it is only in other franchises under Nintendo that we finally got the opportunity to play as Peach. It would be great with the NX to see a move away from the damsel in distress look that Nintendo have given to the majority of their females over the years. A Zelda game featuring Zelda as the main character or a female version of Link? Allowing Princess Peach to star in her own game? It’s a move that we would have expected Nintendo to make by now, but we’re still waiting.

One genre that hasn’t embraced strong female characters are fighting games, with both Mortal Kombat X and Street Fighter V depicting female characters as scarcely dressed and over sexualised as a result. Although both games have always had female characters available to play, neither have really made the move to empower women in their games, with only Karin fully dressed in Street Fighter V.

During the beta of Street Fighter V, Capcom came under-fire for portraying female characters in a derogatory fashion. Capcom ended up having to make some changes to some of the animations, namely the character Cammy’s introduction and a scene of R. Mika slapping her own bottom. Unfortunately, these changes are not really enough. In both Mortal Kombat X and Street Fighter V we see one image of females, skinny with a large bust and scarcely dressed. It would be nice to see some new characters come to the franchises that portray women with more realistic body images.

However, Street Fighter is not the only game recently to come under attack for female character depictions. Blizzard also fell into this trap with Overwatch’s development, having to make changes to one of the finishing poses for Tracer. Although Blizzard have actively been looking to avoid over sexualisation of characters (this was further enhanced by Chris Metzen at BlizzCon), they were criticised for portraying too many females with the same body type, all wearing cat suits. As a result of this, Blizzard set about creating Zarya. Once making these changes I think most people would now agree that Overwatch has managed to portray a good set of females with different characteristics and different body images, something that is ever more important in a world where body image is often highlighted in news and magazines.

“Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we’ve been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. We want girls to feel kick-butt. Equally represented.” Chris Metzen, ex-Blizzard

There are a number of bad examples of female depictions in video games, but thankfully they’re not all like that. Life Is Strange is one of few stand-out examples of a strong female character in games.

It sees Maxine Caulfield gain the power to rewind time in order to save her best friend and town from tragedy. Maxine is a strong female who uses her powers to save her friends and defeat bullies with kindness. She is a character that is relatable to many girls in school or college and does not need someone else to swoop in and save her.

The other main character, Chloe Price, is equally as strong. Although not quite the ‘good girl’ character Max is, she is equally as strong and independent. Both characters dress normally and live out relateable lives, until Max gains her powers that is.

Maxine and Chloe are the kind of characters that we need more of in video games, strong and independent they do not need to use their sexuality to gain an advantage. Even when the game got to the development stages of the game, the developers were faced with publishers looking to change the protagonist to a man in order to increase sales, this saw Dontnod Entertainment go through quite a few publishers until finally settling on Square Enix, who thankfully had no issues with having a strong female protagonist.

We’ll no doubt have more games that feature lead female characters in the future and I am sure that we will see more developers following Dontnod Entertainment’s lead in creating a strong female character. The industry is seeing more and more females, both in developing teams and the media. Hopefully this change in the industry as a whole will create plenty of positive role models for generations to come.