Although women make up nearly half of video game players, they are significantly underrepresented as characters in mainstream video games.
In the past, female characters have been typically cast as supporting characters or in “damsel in distress” roles. We all know how important female representation is in the media and seeing strong women as main protagonists in video games shows young gamers that, hey, girls can play too.
In honor of Women’s Month this March, let’s take a look at some of the most badass and iconic video game heroines who have shown us that gaming isn’t just for the boys.
Samus Aran, Metroid (1986)
Samus Aran, an intergalactic bounty hunter and the protagonist of the Metroid series, is a ground-breaking character in the gaming world.
In the first game originally released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (a.k.a. the Family Computer in Asia), the character’s identity is obscured by a Power Suit worn throughout, and the game manual in Japan used pronouns like “it” mainly because the Japanese language uses gender-neutral pronouns, so everyone automatically assumed the character was a guy.
Players only found out Samus was a woman in the secret ending after beating the game within a time limit. It’s become a tradition in subsequent games to have similar surprise reveals if players can complete the proper in-game requirements.
Chun Li, Street Fighter (1991)
Chun Li from Capcom’s Street Fighter video game series was the first ever playable female fighter of any fighting game franchise to gain mainstream recognition. She made her first appearance in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior in 1991 and quickly became a fan favorite for her backstory, athleticism, playabilty, and general badassery.
In the series, Chun Li is an expert martial artist and Interpol officer who seeks revenge for her father’s death at the hands of the evil M. Bison, leader of the Shadaloo crime syndicate. Chun Li is considered a trailblazer for female characters in fighting titles and video gaming in general.
Sonya Blade, Mortal Kombat (1992)
Sonya Blade was notably the only female fighter of the seven original playable characters in the first Mortal Kombat game released in 1992, the first in the long-running graphically violent fighting game from Midway Games.
Sonya was actually just a late addition following a decision that they needed a female character. Within the series, her character is a commanding officer of the United States Special Forces and later, of a specialized US government agency, whose signature moves include leg grabs, bicycle kicks, and the “kiss of death.”
Sonya is said to be inspired by the martial artist Cyntha Rothrock and has featured in almost all of the games since her inception. Her worthy addition to the roster of male characters paved the way for more ass-kicking female fighters in the arena like Kitana, Mileena, and daughter Cassie Cage leading a new generation in more recent installments of the franchise.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (1996)
No video game list of strong female video game characters is complete without including Lara Croft. The archaelogist-adventurer, who debuted in the 1996 action-adventure video game Tomb Raider for PlayStation, is a cultural icon, rising to prominence as one of gaming's most recognizable characters and a symbol of girl power.
Tomb Raider is one of the rare games of its time that featured a strong female lead. While her initial design was overly busty in the first few games to cater to the predominantly male demographic, the femme fatale has evolved as a more realistic looking character in the reboot while still maintaining the independent and adventurous spirit that gamers fell in love with. The fact that the franchise is still going strong and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, with multiple video games sequels, a reboot, and films tells a lot about the legacy or Lara for women in video games.
Jill Valentine, Resident Evil (1996)
Jill Valentine is one of two playable main characters (along with Chris Redfield) who debuted in the survival horror game Resident Evil in 1996 and went on to star in other RE games, films, and media. The game's original plot follows the two members of the elite task force known as S.T.A.R.S., as they investigate the outskirts of Raccoon City and get trapped in a mansion infested with zombies and other monsters.
Jill is an example of a character who can be as competent and skilled as her male counterparts, without having to constantly shove your face in the fact that she happens to be a woman. Jill was initially portrayed significantly less sexualized than other female game characters, though she is known to rock a highly impractical tube top/miniskirt outfit while battling the bad guys in several installments of the game. But it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing, because she’s still cool either way.
Tifa Lockhart, Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Tifa Lockhart is a playable character first introduced in 1997’s Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020). As the childhood friend of Cloud Strife and member of the resistance group Avalanche, Tifa also plays a supporting role in other media like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005), Dirge of Cerberus (2006) and Crisis Core (2007).
At a time when female characters in RPGs were usually designated as the group’s healer or mage, Tifa’s intense combat style with her fists, made her someone you wanted to put in action in your party. Despite her slim frame, Tifa manages to use martial arts skills to fight opponents up close, and equips knuckles as her weapons. Tifa’s role as an agile close combat fighter making use of powerful techniques in battle, makes her immediately stand out from the other female characters of the series.
Jade, Beyond Good and Evil (2003)
Jade from the 2004 action adventure game Beyond Good and Evil is one of the more underrated female characters who deserves the spotlight. The game’s story revolved around the investigative reporter and martial artist who works with a resistance movement to reveal a planet-wide alien conspiracy. The player controls Jade and allies, solving puzzles, fighting enemies, and obtaining photographic evidence.
Despite the game not being a commercial success, Jade was a well-written and conceived character and a rare female protagonist worthy of her cult-classic status. She resembled a real person with a “girl next door” feel that people can identify with rather than a "sexy action woman” providing eye candy that pandered to the male audience. Attractive, but tasteful, Jade was an inquisitive, smart, brave, and “fully clothed” character capable of getting the job done.
Bayonetta, Bayonetta (2009)
On the other side of the spectrum is Bayonetta, the title character and protagonist of the Bayonetta video game series published by Sega and Nintendo. The gun-toting modern witch made her first appearance in the gaming world in the first game released in 2009, Bayonetta 2 (2014) and as a special guest character in other titles like Anarchy Reigns, The Wonderful 101, and the Super Smash Bros. series.
Despite the sexual overtones of the character, her reception has been positive overall, with praise being given to her “unapologetically feminine, sexual and confident” portrayal, which goes against set conventions among female characters in video games.
Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII (2010)
Lightning, born Claire Farron, is the main protagonist of Final Fantasy XIII (2010) and only the second primary female protagonist in a mainstream numbered Final Fantasy game, with Terra Branford from FFVI considered the first. Lightning also appeared as a playable character in Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2011) and concluded her journey in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2013).
Lightning was designed as a different type of female character with an athlete's body and less feminine nature compared to the typically bubbly, shy or dominatrix type female characters usually seen in the series. While initially, she comes off as cold and aloof, she’s also determined, focused, independent, strong and beautiful, reminiscent of Cloud from FFVII. Like most male leads, Lightning is a capable and versatile combatant, and is adept in swordplay and marksmanship with her gunblade, skilled in hand-to-hand combat and later gains the ability to cast magic as a l'Cie.
Ellie, The Last of Us (2013)
Ellie is one of the two main characters in the hit 2013 action-adventure survival horror game The Last of Us. She’s first introduced as a young girl who players—taking control of hardened survivor Joel—have to escort across a post-apocalyptic environment riddled with hostile humans and cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus.
While players play as Joel most of the first game, you do get very attached to Ellie. Seen as strong, witty, and "a little rough around the edges," players get to control her throughout the game's winter segment.
Ellie later becomes the playable protagonist in the DLC The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014), and the main character in the award-winning The Last of Us Part II (2020) where she’s aged into a nineteen-year-old survivor "mature beyond her years" as a result of the circumstances of her environment.
While the sequel has been divisive among gamers, Ellie is generally a likable character who displays great resilience, emotional strength, and fearlessness. Her strength and the complexity of her character, and how she veers away from the damsel in distress stereotype, have been praised.
Ellie is a lesbian, and pursues female romantic interests in both Left Behind and Part II, a decision which has been commended as a leap for LGBT representation in video games.
Aloy, Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Aloy, the protagonist in the 2017 video game Horizon Zero Dawn and its upcoming sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, is by far one of gaming's greatest female leads and one of my personal favorites. Aloy is a rare amazing character who manages to be strong and independent yet vulnerable and human at the same time.
Raised by an outcast in a lush post-apocalyptic world, Aloy trains to be a skilled warrior to win the Proving, a ritual competition held by the Nora tribe, and discover her mother's identity. In the game, she embarks on a journey to stop a cult that worships an artificial intelligence bent on the world's destruction, while also hunting machines that have grown hostile to humans.
Game director Mathijs de Jonge has cited Sarah Connor from Terminator, Ellen Ripley from Alien and Ygritte from Game of Thrones as influences for Aloy’s strong and independent persona.
These iconic gaming legends lead the pack of other badass characters worth mentioning like Aya Brea from Parasite Eve; Chell from Portal, Elena Fisher, Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross from the Uncharted series; Evie Frye from Assasin's Creed; Jesse Fadden from Control; Faith Connors from Mirror's Edge, Alyx Vance from Half-Life: Alyx, and more who continue to prove that women can certainly hold their own in the video game world.
(Banner image via Sony Interactive Entertainment/Guerilla Games)