If you're a fan of video games and a feminist, it's been a rough few weeks. With a deluge of abusive threats and harassment directed at high-profile women in the gaming community, the rise of #GamerGate, and the reflexive refusal by some gamers to cede that, yeah, maybe sexism in games is an issue, it's easy to feel like the whole gaming landscape is a wasteland for female opinions, stories, and characters. But you can take heart in this, at least — there are a handful of awesome, feminist women protagonists in video games, and they deserve your attention too.
Of course, none of this dissolves any of the feminist critiques of video game tropes in the gaming community. Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on Feminist Frequency is probably the best call-out of these persistent stereotypes. All the same, even in a relative fever swamp of lazy, stereotypical female roles, there are some diamonds in the rough. Looking for examples? You're in luck! Here are four female video game heroes, women that can kick ass and save the day with their own guile, intelligence, and strength, thank you very much.
1. Samus Aran (The Metroid Series)
Probably the earliest demonstration of a truly standout female hero in mainstream video games, and still revered to this day, Samus Aran of Nintendo's Metroid series is a no-holds barred alien hunter, spaceship pilot, and all-around soldier of fortune. She's been the protagonist of all twelve games in the series (though one of them was just a pinball game), and is probably the Nintendo character least prone to being sexualized or distinctly written to reflect gender stereotypes. The exact opposite of the Mario series' Princess Peach, Samus doesn't get captured and wait for rescue, she fights the missions herself.
In fact, Samus' stories sometimes don't involve men in any significant way, instead pitting her in a one-on-one struggle against the nefarious Mother Brain. Notably, Mother Brain is also one of the least equalized female villains you'll find — in early incarnations, she was literally just a brain in a huge jar, though subsequent games have given her a more human form.
Most importantly, of course, the games are awesome and incredibly fun. I can't speak for some of the more recent titles, but Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo, arguably the series' most iconic and beloved entry, is an absolute blast to play.
2. Chell (The Portal Series)
Have you played Portal? If not, you're really missing out. Both it and its sequel are a couple of the most delightful, mind-bending puzzle games to come out in recent years, and they both star the same woman, the unstoppable Chell. Waking up as a prisoner in some sort of research laboratory, with an increasingly sinister, computerized woman's voice directing her through a series of potentially lethal puzzles, Chell is forced to outsmart and disable her captor to make her escape.
Portal forces you to think spatially — you have an intricate, high-tech gun strapped to one arm that fires portals of different colors, one orange and one blue. When both portals are active, they link to each other, letting you walk through one and come out the other. The dozens of room puzzles force you to master the different ways the portals can be used to get from place to place, or to reach otherwise impossible areas.
While many games with female leads try to lure predominantly male players in with a bulging bustling or a sultry smile, Portal is shown in first-person. You're not looking at Chell, you are Chell. In fact, you almost never get to see her, except when you arrange the portals in such a way that you're looking through at yourself.
Like Metroid, the Portal series also matched you up against a female villain, the twisted testing AI GLADoS. Her character is maybe one of the most delightfully cruel and witty antagonists in recent gaming, even singing the unforgettably catchy ending credits song, "Still Alive."
3. Jade (Beyond Good and Evil)
It sometimes seems like video game developers have a hard time creating female characters who look, well, normal. This is true of the women who take starring turns as well — the early incarnations of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, for example — but sometimes, a woman who's actually dressed for function and ready for action slips through the cracks.
For a prime example, look no further than Jade, the star of Beyond Good and Evil. Jade is a photographer and martial artist who embarks on an intense adventure, first aiming to expose and shut down a human trafficking ring, and ultimately defeating a corrupted, soul-sucking high priest and saving her friends
Beyond Good and Evil was specifically cited by Anita Sarkeesian as one of her favorite games, and it isn't hard to see why. All along the way, Jade is the quintessential hero: intuitive, sharp-witted, and entirely focused on confronting the brutality and danger that lie ahead of her. In simple terms, she's a gaming badass, and well-loved. And after a long wait, fans may finally get the sequel they've been waiting for — Beyond Good and Evil 2 is currently in development by Ubisoft.
4. Commander Shepard (Mass Effect Series)
You get a degree of customization over her appearance — when I played, she ended up looking strangely and distractingly like Rachel Maddow — and her voice acting, performed by industry virtuoso Jennifer Hale, is absolutely top-notch, giving her maybe the richest and most fleshed-out character of any of these female protagonists.
You're also given the choice — and that's a big distinction — to pursue sexual relationships with some of your comrades, and you're given more progressive freedoms in doing so than many games allow, able to flirt with and ultimately seduce both men and women, some of them aliens. But rather than present Shepard as a character inherently going to end up in romantic situations by virtue of her gender, she's calling the shots for herself.