There’s no denying that women in video games have been overlooked at best, and poorly written fan service at worst, but things are changing. Developers and publishers are realizing that women to play games, women are worth writing about, and games with female protagonists do sell.
Female protagonists are part of a growing trend in video games to branch away from the burly macho man space marines and regular marines of the previous generation, and the indie scene is, as always, doing a fantastic job of providing us with layered and flawed characters of both sexes. So, let’s take a look at ten great games with equally great female protagonists (and yes, Beyond Good and Evil is noticeably missing because this writer hasn’t played it. Sorry).
10 Tales Of Berseria
The first game in the Tales series, and the first real big-budget JRPG, to feature a female protagonist is also the best Tales game in years. Tales of Berseria tells the story of Velvet Crowe, who grows up in a quiet village that is soon ravaged by daemons brought on by an event known as Daemonblight. This event causes Velvet to be possessed and mutated into a sort of daemon-eating daemon who hunts daemons (it’s all very JRPG). But what allows Velvet to stand out is the fact that she’s your unconventional female JRPG character, taking on the archetypically male role of aggressive, bloodthirty, revenge-driven monster slayer.
9 Tomb Raider
While the original Tomb Raider games did feature a tough female protagonist, she was also skimpily-clad and busty. The newest incarnation of Lara Croft is a well-proportioned, slightly more suitably-dressed young woman who goes beyond simply being the ‘strong female protagonist’ and moves into the realm of being a fully realised character who is flawed, makes mistakes, takes risks, makes judgement calls, learns, grows, changes, and becomes a better version of herself. She is incredibly human. The game certainly struggles with a lot of narrative dissonance as Lara gets teary-eyed over killing a dear in a cutscene only to then silently mow down several human beings with an automatic rifle thirty minutes later, but that’s a mechanical oversight rather than bad writing. Lara is still excellent.
The game that, as it seems, must feature in every one of my articles (because it’s perfect), Celeste is a game about anxiety, overcoming personal fears, and moving through an existential crisis. It’s a beautifully written game with outstanding platforming mechanics and, best of all, a complex and believable female protagonist (named Madeline, not Celeste – Celeste is the mountain).
Madeline’s journey up the mountain is a physical manifestation of the hero’s journey, as they grow and learn and fall and fail and change along their way. She is a young girl trying to achieve something great for nobody’s sake but her own. She wants something to be proud of, and this is what she’s chosen. It’s your job to help her get there.
7 Metroid Series
The big reveal at the end of the original Metroid – that Samus Aran is in fact a woman – is decades old now, but it’s always worth remembering that this badass space bounty hunter who fights pirates and traverses hostile terrain is also a woman. While Samus may not be an outstanding character in terms of her writing, character development, dialogue, and interactions, she is an excellent character when judged on her actions. From game to game, Samus and the player visit myriad planets, each with their own dangers to survive and mysteries to uncover. Using her wits and her physical strength, Samus must survive and succeed in her mission, and ensure that you, the player, has fun while she’s doing it. Her suit and ship designs also remain some of the coolest in gaming history, untainted by time and nostalgia.
6 Uncharted: Lost Legacy
The Uncharted series is all about Nathan Drake and his bromance with Victor ‘goddamn’ Sullivan. In each of the four mainline games, white man Drake teams up with older white man Sully to fight off hordes of their fellow men. While Drake is not overly masculine, he can still become tired as a character, and so the release of Lost Legacy as a game which allows players to finally embody fan-favorite supporting character Chloe was a welcome one.
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Paired up with the sort-of villain of Uncharted 4, the South African mercenary leader Nadine, Chloe embarks on her own Uncharted journey, allowing the player the opportunity to enjoy all the witty banter and teamwork that we’ve come to enjoy from Uncharted games, but with two tough ladies instead. A real refreshing experience.
While she might be all skimpy clothes, suggestive comments, and the occasional streak, Bayonetta is undeniably a tough woman. Unafraid of everything she comes up against – that includes God – Bayonetta doesn’t cower in the face of danger. In fact, she laughs in it, kicks it, and grinds it into the dirt with high heels which are also guns and sometimes swords. Bayonetta has fun in every moment of combat, and you the player are having fun right along with her.
Her posh English accent and her sexy librarian glasses wonderfully oppose her frantically murderous actions. Her obsession with style melds perfectly with the obsession of the game itself with substance, making for a perfectly balanced action game.
4 Alien: Isolation
Ah, Ellen Ripley. One of cinema’s most beloved badass women, and one of the coolest sci-fi and horror movie heroes of the twentieth century. In the incredible homage to the original Alien film, Alien: Isolation, players inhabit the body of Ripley’s daughter Amanda. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Amanda finds herself in a similar, though arguably far more dangerous, situation as her mother as she traverses the mostly-abandoned Sevastopol space station. Amanda is tasked with using her wits to outsmart her pursuers, one of which is the deadly hunter xenomorph, as she hides, crafts, weapons, and learns her environment in order to survive. She is every bit the woman her mother was.
3 Child of Light
More than just a game starring a female protagonist, this one’s hero is a young girl lost in a fantasy world. Aurora has found herself in a fairy tale book after grieving the death of her mother. A subtle allegory for the struggles of working through depression, this game treats players to a beautifully designed and animated world of fairy tale creatures and settings; a world that imbues Aurora with the gift of flight and the power to fight back against the darkness of her mind. Once again we have here a female protagonist who is more than just strong, but is actively trying to survive her own depression. The game is also a joy to play, and one of those rare game’s that’s truly suitable for, and recommended to, all ages.
2 Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Similar in many ways to Child of Light, although infinitely more frightening and intimidating, Hellblade’s titular protagonist Senua is absolutely one of the greatest female protagonists we’ve seen in an age. Senua is a young woman wading through the murk of her own mental health. As voices in her mind play tricks on her and lie to her, demons manifest out of thin air and attempt to halt her progress, and the world around her shifts and changes, denying her the use of her senses and her logic, Senua must battle her way into Helheim.
She is a woman who is worthy of as much sympathy as she is worthy of praise. Her journey is the fight against her own demons, and the game never makes it clear if they truly are demons or are just ones of her own making. Either way, her ability to survive them makes Senua a female protagonist to be studied and learned from for years to come.
1 Horizon: Zero Dawn
There has not been a female protagonist more celebrated, better crafted, better voiced, and better executed in years than Aloy of Horizon: Zero Dawn. This young, clever, strong, charming, resourceful, beautiful, and tenacious woman is the epitome of modern female gaming protagonists, and the game she stars in is near flawless to boot. Aloy has been born into a gorgeous post-apocalyptic world inhabited by really cool machine dinosaurs, and she must conquer this land, discover who she really is, see her journey to its end, aid in the trials and tribulations of those she meets, from farmers to kings. Aloy is very much your typical stalwart savior of the world fantasy hero archetype, but she is also a powerful woman who is not fetishized, lazily designed, or patronized even for a moment for her sex. She is the perfect video game protagonist, and she is also a woman. Aloy is the heckin’ best.