Wonder Woman is splashing theaters with her special blend of self-supportive toughness. With mesmeric ballets of lassos and hamstrings and hair. Feminine strength has been less apparent in superheroes, being perhaps less documented, but video games have been ahead of that curve. I’m not sure if these “Best of” lists have been, though. Be sure: this is not a list of gaming’s sexiest girls. I’m looking for the characters that made their games terrific examples of games, and who just happen to have chromosomes that match.
But first, a few exceptions. Samus Aran (Metroid) and Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) are too easy. In fact, silent protagonists won’t feature on this list (this includes Zelda, Chell from Portal 2, the wolf god Amaterasu from Okami). I’m also not including female options for the player’s avatar (Commander Shepherd) or fighting game characters. And unfortunately, I’ve never played The Forbidden Journey or Dragon Age Inquisition so I can’t rightly include April Ryan or Vivienne.
Right, so in no particular order:
Bayonetta (Bayonetta, 2010)
I’m starting with PlatinumGame’s pseudo-pornographic Bayonetta. With finishing moves that amount to near full nudity, with an introduction that has the wicken hottie disguised as a nun pounding heaven’s angels to mincemeat with her stilettos, Bayonetta may not seem like the most encouraging female icon. But it shows a fearlessness of design that Platinum was willing to make the female equivalent of Dante (Devil May Cry) or Duke Nukem. Men are not always presented fairly, and often include outrageous stereotypes and sexual deviance, masturbatory arrogance and abs you could grate lettuce on. Here slurring around her cherry lollie is the fem version of the macho meathead, a portrayal so startling that it’s most certainly sexist, but of the equally represented kind that in men has always appeared shirtless, sneering, and chomping a cigar. This is so outrageous that it must be progress.
Hana Tsu-Vachel (Fear Effect, 1999)
Hana is the anti-Bayonetta. Where Platinum’s icon is so brashly sexy that she’s almost too insulting to be parodic, Hana is a classy flirter, empowered by her figure like a female James Bond. As a former prostitute, sex is in her skillset – she wields it as a weapon. In the game’s Blade Runner-esque neo noir dystopia, Tsu-Vachel provided a startling feminine lens on high tech futures and over-industrial sci-fi scenarios. In her veiled relationship with female partner Rain Qin, and overt displays of sensuality, Hana is a shocker in a deep-hued and convention-defying way. The first game alone has four discs, but they’re all worth it.
Aya Brea (Parasite Eve, 1998)
Parasite Eve was not an ordinary outing for Square. The action-RPG gameplay (which is positively the VATS system from Fallout 3 in embryo) and Wagnerian storyline strike an oddly cinematic chord for a PS1 shooter. NYPD officer Aya Brea starts out as strikingly competent as Jill Valentine from Resident Evil (though much better acted). But the game deepens her appeal when she becomes entangled in the antagonist: a mitochondrial deviant called Eve, who is preparing for the birth of a new human race. Aya’s inverted exploration of motherhood has all the birthmarks of the horror novel on which the game is based. She makes the list not just for being strong, but for being challenged in the specifically feminine dimension rather than play-acting masculinity in a shooting gallery.
Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge, 2008)
Mirror’s Edge and its sequel don’t have a lot of game going for them. They’re flashy and experimental, bloomed beyond recognition, and more like a five-hour trial-and-error obstacle course than an adventure. But Faith herself is a striking example of the unseen protagonist, and an unusually tasteful portrayal of empathy and caregiving. Despite being an action star, her powers are directed carefully towards the pursuit of keeping her family together. She is not much possessed with the ubiquitous video game powers of death and destruction. Her ability to run away without seeming weak, to care without condescension, makes Faith an endearing addition to the small pool of first person females.
Elena Fisher (Uncharted series, 2007-2016)
Uncharted wants to be oh so charming. Of the many ways that it succeeds, Elena Fisher is more than half of them. Much more interesting than Drake, Elena enters and exits each Uncharted game like the player really is in a relationship with her. Her latent optimism opens a positivist window on all this adventure-mongering. Though the games have what I consider a striking dissonance between the reality of the cut-scenes and the brash violence of the game sequences, Elena manages to be the highlight of the former. Voiced by Emily Rose.
Tetra (The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, 2002)
There are a few females I could have picked from The Legend of Zelda (Impa and Midna came to mind). But Tetra from The Wind Waker stands above them as a perfect example, not only of glibly independent side characters, but of how easily they can be toppled by misrepresentation. The grand mischief of the pirate captain and her sparky unpredictability in intruding on the player’s adventure made her a terrific example of just how subtly a stereotype could be managed into an intriguing co-adventurer and oblique lover. Then they ruin her by putting her in a dress-shaped cage, slapping makeup on her, and telling her that now she’s powerful. Powerful is always less interesting than interesting.
GLaDOS (Portal, 2007)
Whoever said that the female had to be good? Or human? The anti-parental motherly machine in Portal and its sequel not only brings tremendous black comedic life to the series through the mouthpiece of Ellen McLain, but also embroiders a puzzle-shooter with one of gaming’s best females. Her presence as a guide character is so felt that many of us really did jump into that fire because she asked. Yet her critique of them is so complete that killing her, amid her creative pleas, is cathartic in the way it would be if she was every unwanted guide, from Navi to Roll to plain old disembodied text prompts. Never was kindness so haunting.
Brigid Tenenbaum/ Sofia Lamb (Bioshock, Bioshock 2, 2007-2010)
I’m including them as a pair because they are so oppositely intriguing in the games’ storylines, but so relatedly opposite. Sofia Lamb is the villain of Bioshock 2 and the religious contrary to Andrew Ryan’s industrial independence. Her sweet warnings and rambles on history and psychology make for a great backdrop to an underrated sequel. She is what in motherhood means to be bad, if Tenenbaum is what ends up that way accidentally. Her luxurious guilt over her own work engineering the Little Sisters puts Dr. Tenenbaum’s tale into the tragic territory of a Homeric hymn. Motherhood is a curse she hopes the player can make a disguised blessing. The monsters of her intellectual womb are the series’ most memorable aspect, and her response to them is the most heart-wrenching aspect of a series already known for its pangs.
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil, 2003)
Where this standard action-adventure title shines is in its protagonist, a unique blend of toughness and empathy that makes her seem lifelike, even dressed in those outdated polygons. Jade’s weapon against the media regime taking over her planet is a camera with which she documents wildlife, uncovers evidence, and records biographies in a game that’s almost a shooter. Emotional but never condescending, her spunky look and terrifically deep set of values place her easily among gaming’s best protagonists period, chromosomes notwithstanding. The recently announced Beyond Good & Evil 2 is the most recent best reason to experience this fantastic romp again, or for the first time.