Push to Smart Show: Gaming’s Top Female Protagonists

We’re saying goodbye to Women’s History Month with a video dedicated to our favorite female protagonists in gaming. We’re painting with admittedly broad strokes with our “protagonists;” many of them of playable, but some of them are show-stealing supporting characters. Some won our hearts in a singular enriching experience, others we want to see more of.  As usual, a transcript is below the cut.


The role of women in games–and our role in playing as women in games–is a hotly contested topic. And rightfully so–representation has come a long way and still has a long way to go. Instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of what needs fixed and how we can talk about it, we’re going to celebrate the female characters we love–and, in some cases, want to play more of.

Samus Aran from Metroid

Samus is the prototypical blank slate; her gender is so inconsequential to the actions players take, it was revealed as a surprise only to the fastest players of the original Metroid. And from that indifference comes power. Although it recently fell into the trap of mistaking vulnerability for personality in Other M, the Metroid series has always portrayed its hero as capable and–above all else–cool. Samus’ incidental gender paved the way for future gaming icons like Lara Croft who could jump impossibly high, wield a heavy-hitting arsenal, and explore the unknown all on her own.

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider

Inspired by Indiana Jones, Lara Croft was created as a gun-toting, adventure-seeking archeologist, though the guns figured into her adventures far more than the archeology did. In some ways, she is the natural progression from Samus, a woman whose gender seems incidental to the actions she takes, even though the sexualized box art would have you think otherwise. While Lara was frequently sold as a sex symbol in the 90s, academics like Helen Kennedy wondered if her feminine iconography was overpowered by her masculine traits and actions. Could she really be considered a feminine icon? Was she just an extension of the male fantasy for control? Lara Croft’s growing recognition as a bonafide pop culture icon further confused her status as a sex symbol and one of gaming’s few visible women.

Tomb Raider put some of these questions to rest with its 2013 reboot. This Lara Croft has a personality–and a likable one too. She cares for her friends, and seems genuinely interested in the archeological expedition when she isn’t shooting up bad guys. Tomb Raider’s brand reinvigoration is not just the product of a next-gen reboot. A feminist audience has appropriated a character once solely measured in her value to men into an icon of female power, compassion, and adventure. And now, in the hands of female creators like Rhianna Pratchett and Gail Simone, Lara has a bright future ahead of her.

We hope that, now that she’s finished passively surviving, the new, likable Lara Croft can go on to have her own more active adventures like her predecessor.

Chloe Frazer from Uncharted

Chloe was a welcome addition to the Uncharted franchise as a counterpoint to both Nate and Elena. She stands independent of Nate in a way we don’t often see, as she weaves her way in and out of his story of her own volition, ultimately bowing out halfway through the final game in the original trilogy to care for Cutter after he is wounded. A world with as much globetrotting as Uncharted‘s is ripe for adventures, and we know that whenever Chloe leaves our side, it’s to pull off a heist just as exciting as our own–if not more competently.

Ellie from The Last of Us

The “daddening” of games is a hot issue–and one we’ve covered several times on this show. However, these representations of fathers and daughters usually amount to a shallow shift in the lust-love-object to a paternal-love-object. The rescuing of whom is the ultimate goal for the player. The daughters are often as interchangeable as their gruff heroes, but Ellie transcends the trope into a wonderfully realized character of her own. She comes to the story with her own baggage and motivations–some of which we learn more about in the stellar recent DLC, Left Behind–and, while the player and Joel grow to love her, she is not defined by her relationship to them. In fact, she is often at odds with her paternal co-protagonist, something that is used to great dramatic effect throughout the game and its unsettling final frames. It’s because of her fierce independence–and, at times, co-dependence–that we love Ellie. She is a fully realized character with her own strengths and fears; she’s awesome with a bow, but deep-down, she’s afraid of being alone more than anything else.

With the Left  Behind DLC, we got a little more backstory into Ellie’s character, and were delighted to see such matter-of-fact queer youth representation. Ellie’s relationship with Riley is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking; it informs her motivations in the game proper, and further frames the game’s ending. We feel the sting of Joel’s decision that much more because there is no ambiguity; we know all too well that she understands loss just as much–if not more– than Joel, and deserves to make the altruistic sacrifice she thinks is right.

Commander Shepard from Mass Effect

Commander Shepard shows how something as seemingly small as a switch in gender can make a standard sci-fi story more compelling. Not much besides the pronoun is changed between the male and female Shepard experiences, but Jennifer Hale’s authoritative voice makes all the difference. Suddenly Mass Effect isn’t just another story about a man leading his crew into the final frontier, it’s the story of a powerful woman occupying an equally powerful space.

Clementine from The Walking Dead

Who knew that one of the most anticipated games of the year would be an adventure game starring a young woman of color? The love felt for Clementine is not just a product of a father-daughter relationship hinging on protection of the child, but of respect brought about by her competence in life or death situations at a young age.

What could have been the longest escort mission ever turned into a surprisingly poignant adventure game with The Walking Dead. As Lee, we got to know a young girl named Clementine, and made difficult decisions based on her well being. Would we take bloody and deserved vengeance or stay our hand to teach compassion? Would we trust the group for safety and numbers, or believe ourselves to be the only one capable of protecting her? In order to make these choices compelling, Clementine herself had to feel believable. She had to react to our choices–more than just “remembering” what we did because nondiegetic text said so. And she did. In Clementine we found a little girl that was sweet, but also resourceful and determined. We came away from The Walking Dead loving that little girl and wanting her to pull through.

It’s only right, then, that Clementine has emerged in the second season as a compelling playable protagonist in her own right.

Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda

Princess Zelda is one of the the most recognizable names in gaming, and she was named for one of the most recognizable, eccentric names in literature. Named after Zelda Fitzgerald, one would think that  one of Nintendo’s key princesses would have more exciting adventures of her own, but it took a decade or two for her to finally have her chance to shine. While Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker saw her become both a pirate and a ninja in close succession, Zelda is at her most compelling when allowed to be the princess she was born to be.

In Super Smash Bros Melee, Zelda was introduced as a fighter who didn’t have to rely on her ninja disguise. Although she was much faster as the male-coded Sheik, her princess form allowed players to use powerful magic attacks that proved complicated to master. She was powerful, but also unapologetically feminine. I’m still waiting for a proper Zelda game that lets us use this incredible toolbox.

Aya Brea from Parasite Eve

Shortly after Aya Brea is introduced in Squaresoft’s Parasite Eve, the audience in Carnegie Hall begins to spontaneously combust; our hero responds by drawing her gun as an officer of the NYPD and knocking her date out of the way where he is never seen again. Because this is Aya’s story and she has a job to do–a job of the world-saving variety, of course.

Aya’s story can be broken down to the Squaresoft RPG basics–she’s a reluctant hero with  incredible abilities and responsibilities, who rises to the occasion with the support of her friends. What makes her unique is how her status as a woman in the NYPD is handled. It’s not especially nuanced, but it gets the job done (especially for 1997). She wears the New York staple of a leather jacket and jeans–no weird battle armor here; she’s ultimately respected by her colleagues–and when she’s not, she tells them to cut the crap. There’s even a dig at how police women have to work twice as hard as their male colleges to earn respect when her much-older partner  says that she’s finally found her”cop instinct”—after she fought a mutated, electrified alligator in the city sewers.

Things get a little shakier–or a LOT shakier–in the sequels when Aya follows the Ellen Ripley template to a T, arbitrarily finding her very own Newt and Hicks in the end of the second game, only to have them brutally murdered at the beginning of the third–or something. Nothing really makes any sense in her dismal third game, but one things for certain: when we finally meet her again–the real Aya Brea– in The 3rd Birthday’s closing moments, she is awesome. Decisive, deadly, and still not putting up with anyone’s crap. It begs the question of why we couldn’t just play a game as her. Alas, poor Aya! I knew her, Eve.

Aveline de Grandpre from Assassin’s Creed Liberation

Aveline de Grandpre is a character who is much bigger than her game. Aveline is both the first woman and the first black protagonist of the Assassin’s Creed series, two unavoidable facts that her game confronts with surprising nuance and ingenuity–much like the character herself.

As the daughter of a wealthy French merchant and a slave he purchased as a placee bride, Aveline enjoys all the luxuries that come with her father’s affection, while being painfully aware of the plight of people like her mother. She runs the family business and charms potential suitors at dinner parties. But Aveline ultimately has no interest suitors; as an Assassin, Aveline moves between New Orleans’ slave and merchant classes with ease, employing her unique experience straddling social and racial divides to assassinate her targets. This is something players experience through Liberations’ persona system in which they can change between different outfits for different social occasions. The large, organic crowds for which Assassin’s Creed is known react to Aveline and the player in different ways depending on how she is dressed. While walking in her beautiful gowns in the Lady persona, those inhabiting the wealthier neighborhoods will bid her “bonjour” and tip their hats, while wandering into the poorer districts will earn her dirty looks. Conversely, the crowds might not think twice of yet another slave running errands, but the soldiers guarding them certainly will. This ultimately makes Aveline one of the series’ more compelling playable characters, while her poise in face of personal drama makes her one of its most narratively satisfying. If there were ever a character that deserved another spin-off, it’s Aveline.

Terra Branford & Celes Chere from Final Fantasy VI

It was so difficult to choose just one Final Fantasy heroine for the list that we had to settle on two closely tied characters. Both crucial to their respective halves of the story, these women stand out as not only the most important characters in Final Fantasy VI, but the first female protagonists to lead the franchise. Terra Branford is the woman who involuntarily sparks a revolution and must find her place in the conflict while also coming to terms with her mixed esper-human heritage.

Celes Chere, on the other hand, is a high ranking general of the Empire who is tortured and imprisoned after speaking out against its methods. After joining the Returners she must reconcile the pride in her service of the empire with the her newfound purpose to free the world from said oppressors. Both of these characters struggle to find themselves but ultimately draw strength from overcoming their past deeds to become the leaders they were always meant to be.

Ultimately, Final Fantasy VI is unique in that the heroes fail. After hours of playtime rallying forces against the empire as Terra, we cannot stop the villain from ruining the world. Final Fantasy VI asks the question “What would you do if you failed to save the world?” In the case of Celes Chere and Terra Branford, the answer is get right back up and save it all over again. Because these women are heroes and that is what heroes do.

There you have it, the women in games we’re rooting for. We couldn’t name everyone ourselves; who are your go-to picks? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to follow and subscribe for the latest discussions.

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