When video games first gained popularity, the vast majority of playable characters were guys – Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man, and Link, for example. Female characters were limited to being love interests, family members, or minor side characters. As time progressed and the number of female gamers began to rise, there was also a rise in the number of female playable characters. The introduction of these characters created plenty of controversy, especially regarding the sexual objectification of some of them. Fighting games, in particular, were notorious for depicting women in skimpy costumes, with the Dead or Alive franchise going so far as to create a breast-jiggling mechanic for their game engine.
Despite the sexualization of female characters, they began to grow in popularity and some even got their own franchises. These characters are not one-dimensional sex objects or simplified side-characters, but are fully developed characters in their own right, as fleshed out as any of their male counterparts. Young female gamers can now find a character to relate to and attach to, representing their gender and kicking butt while doing it. The female characters can also attract women to video games, intrigued by the idea of being able to identify more strongly with a protagonist.
The ladies on this list come from a variety of games. Some are physically strong while others are strong in ways that are harder to identify, but all of them are tough with admirable qualities that players of any gender can appreciate.
Fetch – InFAMOUS: First Light
Abigail Walker, aka Fetch, is the protagonist of InFAMOUS: First Light. Fetch appeared as a side protagonist in InFAMOUS: Second Son, but First Light focused solely on her story prior to the events of Second Son. Fetch’s tale is a unique and tragic one, but in many cases, she is a very relatable character. Her dialogue is mature and believable – thanks in part to the delivery by voice actress Laura Bailey – and her powers give her an egotistic can-do attitude, a welcome departure from the blank slates most player characters are depicted as. As a Conduit, she embodies her role perfectly.
Fetch makes a lot of questionable decisions throughout First Light‘s story, and the game’s ending definitely shifts the moral compass, but you can’t help but root for her through it all. She’s been through hell, and society took her there. The game makes a strong point about some of society’s flaws, including mass hysteria and the prevalence of drugs, and Fetch becomes a victim of every one of them. Her parents called the police on her because of her powers, she became addicted to drugs just to be able to feel happiness, and all of it comes crashing down on her. Her strength is tested over and over, and she tries to pull through as best she can.
Sucker Punch are experts at telling deep, engaging, and believable stories, and Fetch’s is no different. From beginning to end, you can understand and relate to her, and you can’t wait to see if she comes out victorious over all her troubles. [Alban Zekthi]
Princess Ida – Monument Valley
Most of the women you see on this list are total badasses. They could go toe-to-toe with any Duke Nukem or Master Chief you threw at them. But, strength isn’t always measured in physical prowess. Strength also comes from intelligence, self-awareness, a sense of responsibility, and the drive to right the wrongs you have perpetrated on others.
Princess Ida from Monument Valley is a shining example of these qualities. Her quest is one of forgiveness, attempting to restore the broken world of Monument Valley. In order to do this, Ida must traverse the world and use her brain in order to solve the numerous puzzles that impede her journey.
[Spoilers follow] It’s revealed that Ida had stolen a sacred artifact that doomed her tribe to wander through Monument Valley until she repented and returned the artifact. It’s poignant and unflinching, and putting Ida through this trial exemplifies how strong female characters don’t have to be perfect people. Ida is severely flawed from the outset, but it’s her determination and smarts that show how strong she is over the course of the game.
It’s a bit of poetic justice that Ida is named after an opera that satirized women’s education and feminism, seeing as how she is an immensely capable woman that is able to figure out every obstacle in her way. Princess Ida is a wonderfully human (or is she?) and relatable protagonist that proves your brain and heart are just as strong and important as your muscles. [Drew Dietsch]
Ellie – The Last of Us
If you’re the average, jaded gamer, you might expect that a game built on the premise of escorting a 14-year-old girl to safety through a (not)zombie-infested wasteland to be the worst possible hell. If you identify as someone who still feels that way, you haven’t met Ellie, the heroine of The Last of Us. Far from standing paralyzed with fear any time a baddie pops out, Ellie slyly takes cover, flanks bad guys and fights tooth and nail to keep herself and her guardian, Joel, safe. While she’s got the raw toughness and sharp aim of an action game hero, and the foul-mouthed bravado to boot, Ellie consistently defies the expectations for a typical video game heroine by being believable. She’s not supernaturally agile, inhumanly strong, or possessed of sorcerous magic; she’s just a regular, teenage girl stuck in an awful situation and determined to survive.
My favorite Ellie moments are in the DLC, Left Behind, where her race to keep Joel alive dovetails with a flashback narrative that shows how she reunited with, and lost, her best friend Riley. Their antics as they explore an abandoned shopping mall are glorious, and their budding romance pushes boundaries and explores the agonies of self-discovery with remarkable tact. At one point they stumble into an abandoned Halloween store, and we see their horseplay as a cover for past tensions. As they doff their werewolf and Frankenstein masks to confront the raw wounds in their friendship, we are treated to a rare moment of maturity that betrays how horrendous it must be to grow up in the apocalypse. In the present, we see Ellie’s mask of humor and her youthful exuberance completely fall away, and her self-talk as she seeks vitally needed supplies betrays her insecurities, her deep affection for Joel and her commitment to beat all comers with bow, blade, bullets and raw emotion. I won’t spoil her secret, but Ellie becomes an important figure by pure accident of poor decision-making. She may also be humanity’s last best hope, and I can think of no one better suited to the task. [Robert Mitchell]
Bayonetta – Bayonetta 1 & 2
Bayonetta presents an interesting case for characters who can be strong, powerful females while also maintaining their own sexuality. The eponymous heroine of Nintendo’s Bayonetta games, she is an Umbran Witch with incredible powers, including the ability to summon demons. She wears skin-tight clothing made from her own magical hair and wields weapons produced for her by Rodin, a demonic weaponsmith. She can take on a number of angelic enemies at once or even fight heavenly monsters many times her own size without breaking a sweat, showing off her prowess as both a witch and a fighter.
What makes Bayonetta suitable for this list, however, is her character arc and development over the course of both games. In Bayonetta, she is callous and often seems bored by the events around her. She becomes somewhat attached to the young girl in the game, Cereza, but still tries to maintain an aloof attitude. By Bayonetta 2, it becomes somewhat obvious that her tendency to act so shallow and uncaring is her own way of protecting herself from emotional harm. Her sass is her shield against hurt, as she had a fairly traumatic childhood and has family issues on par with Luke Skywalker.
In Bayonetta 2, Bayonetta allows herself to be vulnerable and descends into Hell to retrieve her clan-sister and friend, Jeanne. She also develops a friendship of sorts with the young Loki and becomes quite protective over him as well, willing to put herself in harm’s way to keep the boy safe. She develops and changes over time, revealing that she is much more than a smart-talking sex object. Her sexuality is part of who she is – she’s comfortable in her own skin (and hair). While some critics have shamed the character for her overtly sexual comments, poses, and costumes, Bayonetta doesn’t seem to really be exploited in any way. She is who she wants to be, and no one should fault her for that. [Danielle Ryan]
Terra Branford – Final Fantasy VI
Although the Final Fantasy series has never been short on women who are very powerful, believable, relatable and likable characters, very few of those characters have been leads. Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI was the first female protagonist in the series, and possibly its greatest protagonist (behind Zidane Tribal). She is in many ways the antithesis of the game’s antagonist, Kefka, the purely evil villain who undergoes Magitek experiments, becomes twisted and insane, and is unable to understand emotions. This led him to question the meaning of emotion and to succeed in destroying the world.
Terra, who is half-human and half-alien, begins the game frightened of her powers and unable to feel love, but she learns not only to understand human emotion, but how to use her powers to protect those she grows to care about. Her character development is very believable as she goes from understandably and tragically fragile to a total badass. She’s also great in combat too, as one of the few characters who can equip almost every weapon (including Ultima Weapon and Lightbringer, the most powerful weapons in the game), as well as the female-only mage equipment. What gives her the edge over Celes Chere, the only character who matches her in these fields, is Terra’s Trance ability which allows her to double damage for a limited time, and more-or-less makes her the hardest hitting character with equivalent abilities. [Joe Miller]
Samus Aran – Metroid Series
Samus Aran is one hardcore lady. The main character of the Metroid series is one of the most notable heroes in the entire Nintendo catalog. Written off by some as a knockoff of Ellen Ripley, the character has been under fire recently for being featured clothed only in her underwear at the end of multiple games. Regardless of controversy, Samus is a cool intergalactic bounty hunter and her story is epic. Metroid is a complex and vast science fiction fable. Samus has fought and defeated countless alien threats, explored massive worlds filled with deadly hazards and collected some of the most powerful and unique power-ups ever featured in gaming. There’s a reason she’s been featured in every version of Super Smash Bros.
My personal favorite Samus adventure is Metroid II for the original Game Boy. I put hours of gameplay during my younger years into exploring the Metroid home world of SR388. This specific entry in the series doesn’t have the best reputation, but for a side-scrolling classic handheld title Metroid II: Return of Samus is a fast paced punch of dark and claustrophobic science fiction. The game is intense and the atmosphere is bleak, brooding and very effective. If Samus is like Ripley, Metroid II is her Aliens. [Andrew Hawkins]
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider Series
For many, Lara Croft is the epitome of classy lady meets tough-as-nails adventurer. Lara suffered the death of her mother during a plane crash at age nine. Following the aftermath, the young Croft was forced to trek for ten days across the Himalayas. Few adults could manage what she did, and when Lara reached Kathmandu, her only response to the trauma was to find the nearest bar and politely call her father to ask when if would be convenient for him to come and collect her. With more knowledge in all things mythical and historical than anybody else, the Tomb Raider would go on to become possibly the best action hero ever. The series’ theme for a long time was based around discovering long-forgotten tombs and uncovering the powerful relics contained within, but under the writing of Rhianna Pratchett, the new universe shows a younger Lara struggling to survive the various dangers her older counterpart would endure with ease.
Far too often, women in video games end up as cliché sex-symbols or simple back-ground characters such as someone’s wife or mother. Tomb Raider breaks all of these expectations and kicks arse doing it. From struggling to survive against a cult of sun-worshippers to fighting followers of the Prophet of Constantinople, Lara Croft is one of the best heroes to ever grace our monitors. [Graham Host]