Men are the biggest demographic in the video gaming world. In a culture often generated by men for men, what role can women play inside the art form we know as a video game?
In 1986, Nintendo released a game called Metroid, starring the space pirate killing gunman named Samus Aran. This guy was in an orange space suit, kicking space monster ass and saving the galaxy. As the finishing end-game flourish, Samus comes onto the screen and takes his suit off. It turns out that Samus is… a woman. And this is in the 80’s, mind you, before the rise of tough all-powerful chicks like Lara Croft. The developers even referred to Samus as a male in the instruction manual to make sure the big surprise wasn’t given away until the end. It was a huge surprise that claimed it’s own special spot in video gaming history.
Samus is refreshing because there are endless female characters in popular video games clinging to a lead male protagonist. Princess Zelda from the Legends of Zelda series gets sword-wielding Link to fight all of her battles in many games as she runs about with her little white gloves. Tifa in Final Fantasy VII clings to giant-sword wielding Cloud. Yorda from Ico is a modern Rapunzel, and Ico (has a magic sword) rescues her from the tower. Marta whines and moans over her crush on the male lead (also sword-wielding, what is with this pattern?) in Tales of Symphonia II. The list goes on, and on, and on.
What is perhaps the best example of a strong female protagonist in all of video gaming history comes from the developer Funcom in 1999. The Longest Journey, a PC point-and-click adventure game features the main protagonist April Ryan, a young female artist who gets wound up in all sorts of multi-dimensional trouble. She travels between two worlds, Stark and Arcadia, to save them both from malicious political powers. Oftentimes in danger with few resources, she uses intelligence, empathy and clever problem solving techniques to get by even the most difficult of challenges. And through the whole escapade, she is a hero in every sense of the word.
The difference between April Ryan and someone like Chun-Li from Street Fighter is vast. Although Chun-Li is also strong and confident woman, symbolically she only stands as a beat’em up sex object. When people think of Chun-Li, they think of her tiny outfit and perfect, thick thighs. When people think of April Ryan, they think of her smarts, the situations she’s been in, and her character.
I would love to see some more self-sufficient women taking lead roles. Lady Yuna in Final Fantasy X is a more contemporary example. She is portrayed as a strong character with literally a world of burden on her shoulders which makes her religious pilgrimage all the more tragic.
Worse things have happened to ladies in mainstream video games. Apparently there is a line of PC games all about bikini-clad ladies on beaches (I think it’s called Sexy Beach… I haven’t played it, I swear.) Regardless, using pretty virtual ladies to get male gamers to pay up probably won’t stop happening. We can always hope to see more females filling the male dominated lead roles in the future. The result probably won’t be anywhere near the same as The Longest Journey, but we can always hope for something even more innovative now that it’s the 21st century.
EDIT: Article revised for content and clarity by author. Originally published 10/21/09.