Saturday, February 25, 2012

Guest Post: Video Game Heroines Who Don't Suck

Today we have guest writer Dan Ingram of Fear the Cacti popping in to give some thoughts on women in video games who don't suck, and who make us actually want to play videogames.  Take it away, Dan!
Video Game Heroines

A lot can be said about female video game characters; then again, a lot can be oogled when it comes to female video game characters. A large majority of female characters are anatomically on par with most female comic book characters. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Power Girl is not the only person with a boob window.
But this article isn’t about the exorbitant amount of cleavage, side-boob and under-boob some characters are forced to reveal (sometimes all at once). Instead this is about women characters that have actually progressed the video game image of females. A lot of female characters become a weight that the player is forced to carry around or protect while their counterpart stands by and observes your utter annihilation. If you haven’t witnessed this first hand, take some time to play Prince of Persia for Xbox 360 or Ico. So let’s take a look at the women that don’t idly stand by and let their male companions/eventual love interests do all the heavy lifting.

1. Samus Aran – For years, the Metroid franchise has profited on one of the strongest female protagonists in the history of video games. Having arguably paved the way for female lead characters (you’re welcome Lara Croft) Samus was kicking alien ass before most of us could speak. I myself was fresh out of my womb apartment when Samus busted onto the scene. In fact, I didn’t even know Samus was a girl for a good portion of my early gaming years because I missed out on the glorious unveiling at the end of the original Metroid. 

The Chuck Norris of the video game world.
Samus spends her time as a bounty hunter, flying around in her ship to try and take down the generically named “Space Pirates” all the while avoiding the energy draining parasites that give the franchise its name. Here’s something to wrap your brain around, Samus was hired to kill the Metroids, simple enough right? Well, Metroids are an engineered species, thought up by the Chozo race to eradicate another parasite that they couldn’t kill with conventional weapons. Think about that for a second . . . Samus was hired to kill probably THE MOST DANGEROUS organisms in the galaxy. The Metroids are created to kill the most dangerous thing imaginable, effectively making the Metroids the most dangerous thing imaginable, and they are captured or killed by Samus. And she’s been doing it for 26 years.

Not to get too carried away on the major badassery of Samus, the series has fallen victim to the very idea first described in the article, and that has come about with the addition of the “Zero Suit”, which is essentially the bio suit she wears under her armor. While more effective and practical than most female characters attire, it still leaves little to the imagination, and I’m sure was invented on the basis that giving a teenager something to FAP to just by hitting the pause button was better than him walking away from the game to Google poorly drawn fan art. However, I’m taking a different stance on this. I find the lack of the armor MORE empowering in the sense that Samus is still able to be a formidable bounty hunter even when stripped to her most essential and necessary equipment. That means she’s a more competent bounty hunter than Master Chief from Halo and Bear Grylls combined.

Also this because shut-your-mouth-it’s-adorable.
2. Princess Zelda – I’m going to stop you before you even start and I’m going to throw your argument right back in your face; “She gets kidnapped every game dummy!” Your astute observation will not go overlooked. The flip side of this coin is that unlike some princesses, Zelda doesn’t make your sorry ass search through eight effing castles to find her, systematically having one of her fungus-headed servants tell you that jumping over pits of lava and smashing wildlife doesn’t impress anyone.

And blue shell Koopa’s are now an endangered species because of your plumber antics!”
First things first on Zelda: the franchise is named after her. If it were supposed to be about Link, they would have called it that. And the reason you’re searching after her isn’t just because “she’s so pretty” (which I’m pretty sure is an actual quote from several Mario games), it’s because you NEED her. That is a two-fold scenario; Link obviously needs her because anything without a romance in the B plot is a waste of money. Along with Link’s desire to find the girl he’s crushing on, Zelda wields a third of the Triforce. Bestowed upon her by the gods, Zelda was selected to bear the piece of wisdom because she was foreseen as a great leader. She does need Link’s help to come rescue her, but lest we forget:
Beam me up Sheik!
Zelda wasn’t just lying around waiting for Link to show up. She borrowed her (presumably dead) bodyguards’ armor and went out and did something about the shitty attitude that had fallen over Hyrule. Without Zelda, Link wouldn’t have learned the integral magic spells to play on his ocarina after arriving in the future. I distinctly remember learning the Bordello of Fire from Sheik not too long after going up Goron Mountain. Now that I’ve just nerded all over the joint, let me clean up and wrap this.

While Link deals the final blow to the main villain in 90% of the games, he does it with direct assistance from Zelda more often than he does it on his own. Windwaker is certainly a testament to this fact; without Zelda’s arrows, Link CANNOT attack, he’s physically incapable of it. And she doesn’t yell annoyingly obvious information at random intervals like Link’s AI counterparts. Give me Sheik over Navi any day of the week.

3. Cortana – I don’t want to go on too much of a streak of “non-playable females” but come on, it’s Cortana. Plus, she was created based on the neural mapping of a real person, so that has to count for something. Having originated from Dr. Catherine Halsey, Cortana comes from the woman that developed the Spartan program. So to start, she’s sort of Master Chief’s digital aunt that lets him do whatever he wants.

She even lets him borrow the car as long as he fills the tank.
There’s a lot of canon material out there concerning Cortana and the Chief and it implies that there’s some sort of romantic relationship between the two, however weird that may be. My personal stance is that this is simply a translation of whatever maternal feelings John (Master Chief) had for Cortana’s creator. Besides the logistical problem of being in a romantic relationship with Cortana, John first met Halsey as a child, shortly before he was taken from his home and forcibly enlisted in the Spartan training program. The dude was turned into a 7-foot, cybernetically-enhanced-alien-killing-machine and the only mother he ever knew has now (literally) become the voice in his head.

On top of assisting with the destruction of the parasitic Flood, Cortana also manages to play their centuries old hive mind like he’s some chump. The Gravemind overbid on the car on the Price is Right and Cortana wisely said “one dollar”. She turned herself over to the Flood leader and managed to outsmart one of the oldest and most intellectually comprehensive organisms in the galaxy. And she did it without a gun. See how far you make it in Halo just by slap fighting the Covenant; let me know how that turns out.

This theme of the empowered female artificial intelligence constructs is actually prevalent throughout the Halo universe. In Halo Wars the main ships A.I. acts similarly to Cortana. To some degree, the A.I. women in the Halo universe are the intergalactic Sacajawea’s that the United Nations Space Corps follow in their fight against the Covenant.

A digital construct that goes toe to toe with two invading alien races and helps defeat both of them? Yeah, that’s pretty badass.

4. Lara Croft – Another situation where more of the argument leans toward the over-sexualized character, but hear me out on this one. Besides being the spokeswoman for porn star cosplay crossovers, Lara Croft also laid the groundwork for a lot of female protagonists to come in the years after her. There’s a good chance that characters like Faith from Mirrors Edge may not have ever existed if Lara Croft hadn’t been created before them. A couple of Ms. Croft’s features overshadowed any semblance of intelligence or empowerment she had when the series debuted (and floundered for a long time) but at her core, Lara Croft is a strong and smart woman, in a lot of ways the female equivalent of Indiana Jones. And the argument could be made that she’s a realistic match for Samus Aran. See what I did there? Bringing it back around.

Something else to consider is that the incarnation of Lara that most people are familiar with is not how she was originally envisioned. In fact, the first designs of Ms. Croft more closely resembled Tank Girl. So instead of an overly-busty Cindy Crawford and James Bond mash-up, it would have been something closer to Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. Somewhere along the line, and I have no idea who this could have been, the ball was dropped on being you know . . . coy about boobs, and we got this:

No joke about her appearance is more ridiculous than this bra stuffing.
The two movies somehow managed to turn a profit and represent the franchise at it’s most gratuitous. Hot, sweaty Angelina globe trotting with a terrible accent looking for artifacts so ancient and mysterious they were called things like “the Triangle of Light” . . . Okay, not the best example. I’ve never seen the movies, but that was my half assed attempt at summarizing them. The games are at least making an attempt to retcon the series by rebooting it in 2012 with “Tomb Raider”, bet you didn’t see that title coming did you? They sure did trick us there.

The new game promises a complete revamping of the series, rather than being a straight up action adventure 3rd person shooter, the upcoming release will be a survival action game more in the vein of Resident Evil, which will surely allow the character to be showcased in a much more positive light.

And by positive I mean “she has on pants”.
I have to admit the game looks pretty awesome, and the anatomical reimagining of Lara Croft is something to be applauded. Who’s to say that this is the desire of Core (the games original developer), or of SquareEnix, which inexplicably acquired the property recently. Apparently the 7,000th installation of the Final Fantasy series wasn’t enough work for Square? If Lara somehow ends up on a Chocobo however, I will recant every bad word I ever said about the Final Fantasy games.

5. Claudia Auditore da Firenze – There are quite a few options I could take for this last one, but honestly, every time I try to research the topic, I keep seeing names of characters that I have no basis for talking about. Obviously there are many other contenders for the list, but I wanted to be able to speak confidently about the characters I put on here. So to round this out, I present sister of Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II thru Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

In a lot of ways the Princess Leia of hairstyles in AC.
I think this characters “inciting incident” of sorts is when Claudia hears that her fiancé may be cheating on her. In her sadness, Ezio (eventually her only surviving brother) goes and beats the shit out of the dude, proving that violence is a true answer to any problem.

From there, Claudia witnesses her mother get attacked (and presumably raped) by Pazzi guards, then learns that her eldest and youngest brother along with her father had been hanged. She went with Ezio into hiding at her uncle’s plaza.

Not the most heroic move ever, but because of her accounting abilities, Claudia helped restore the plaza to its former glory . . . until it was completely blown to shit when the Borgia came knocking on the door. When they made the move to Rome, Ezio and Claudia systematically took back the city and reestablished the local Assassin’s order. Claudia herself took control of the Rosa in Fiore: the bordello.

Brace yourselves, because shit just got crazier from there. After proving herself to Ezio as a capable fighter, she became the first inductee into the new Assassin order, the first female Assassin that is seen in the series.

Searing flesh is symbolic of being a fucking hoss.
Not to waste too much on the abridged history of Claudia, she did go on to control the Assassin’s Order in Rome while Ezio was gone looking for the Masyaf library.

In the face of her family’s murder, her brother killing the fuck out of everyone he went up against, she proved herself to be a brilliant financial mind and eventual tactician that was worthy of keeping order over the entire Assassin group her brother had built over the years. If this game would have been made 10 years prior, Claudia would have been the shop keeper you go to for the occasional refill on arrows and a place to sleep before setting out across the Italian countryside, but thanks to the progression in gameplay and the ability to tell a compelling female story, she became much more.

Okay, if any cops ask, I was with you not being an Assassin’s sister.”
The Point - The good news for future female video game characters is pretty bright. Female protagonists are more and more prevalent every year, even female super villains are becoming more popular to a certain degree (see Metal Gear series' Boss). Letting players choose whether or not they want to play as female characters is also a growing option with games like Halo: Reach and Mass Effect. I personally think that the gaming industry is finally opening their eyes to the growing female market and making it more accessible to them. There's even a couple of all women Major League Gaming teams. Once the ratio of male to female gamers equals out, the only thing that women will have to worry about is the amount of Mountain Dew Code Pink will be relentlessly marketed toward them, but that's a different article altogether.


Dan Ingram works in television and has his Master's in Screenwriting from New York Film Academy.  His blog, Fear the Cacti is hilarious and you should read it. He likes video games just a bit.


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