Recently I had an interesting experience. I was browsing used video games at a local used books/music/instruments/games/everything under the sun store while my boyfriend purchased the things we had decided on buying - Martin Millar's The Good Fairies of New York and Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal plus a few DVD's of the boyfriend's choosing. I heard my boyfriend's voice telling a random guy, "You would really want to talk to her about that" before pointing me out to a boy in his early 20's. The boy in question was looking for an older console game that featured a lot of violence and story as a secondary consideration. Most of the games that I was able to point out to him were things that he had already played - which will happen when you're playing a console that is about five or more years out of date. I did point out two games to him - one in the survival horror genre and the other a sort of hack and slash game. The first game was Fatal Frame which he dismissed because it was out of his price range - and judging from his reaction to the second game I game I suggested, he probably wouldn't have been very interested in it.
The second game I suggested was Primal. You can read the description of Primal at the Amazon site. Following Parasite Eve - which is now available on the Playstation Network on the PS3 - this was one of the first really strong female characters I encountered in video gaming. I absolutely adored this game and for its generation the graphics are strong, even the slightly faulty game mechanics aren't a total turn off and still a sight better than the fact that you still can't run and use your gun simultaneously in a game in the Resident Evil franchise. When I tried to explain the fantastic story and action in the game, I watched his eyes gloss over. He regained interest when I pointed out some games that I had never played, but had heard were notorious for their over the top gore and general pointlessness. I advised him to update his console, left him to contemplate what I had told him, and had a great laugh with the boyfriend in the car about the whole thing. It never ceases to amuse us that my boyfriend can't stand video games and I get constantly told that I don't "look like a gamer"... whatever that is supposed to mean.
This entire story came back to me this morning while I was reading this blog post by the fantastic Catherynne M. Valente. Her point is primarily about games that tend to be aimed at a younger audience having a "girls are yucky" vibe and relegating women to useless babbling shrews who can't shut up about marriage. This is absolutely true in my experience. I play across all three current generation consoles and I own both a PSP and a Nintendo DS. I have stayed away from the Nintendo 3DS because I have very little interest in this whole "3D" fad - even got a little nauseous when boyfriend and I went to see Underworld: Awakening in 3D. Looking at the major players in video games, Nintendo consoles are the most kid-friendly. Briefly browsing the Nintendo DS titles will show a disturbing trend. You can spot a game marketed to girls by the loopy handwriting on the front and the use of the color pink. Most of these games tells girls that they can take care of babies and puppies, or be fashion designers or any number of other ridiculous "girls are fluffy, soft, delicate creatures" messages. And then I started to think back on the games I enjoyed when I started playing video games around the age of 7.
The first games I remember playing are things like Gradius, Joust, and Rad Racer. I was generally bored with the Super Mario Bros. franchise, though I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing them with my brother. I think, even then, the whole damsel in distress your princess is in another castle shtick bored me. Princess Peach was fun as an addition in Super Mario Kart, but I think there was a level of equality. You were racing and the sole objective was to win. When I played Super Mario RPG, it was hard to get excited about Princess Peach because she just seemed so weak. Bowser got a spiked medicine ball on the end of a chain, Mario got a hammer, Geno got a wand that shot stars, and Princess Peach got... a parasol? Her attacks were so weak as to be ineffectual and she ultimately got shoved into the "i'm a girl, so healing magic has got to be my thing" box.
I have to thank my brother for introducing me to Final Fantasy VII when I was thirteen or fourteen. For the first time, I was seeing female characters in video games that weren't just damsels in distress. Aeris still had weak attacks, dressed in pink, and was sort of a fluffy romantic flower girl - BUT she got a staff and you could equip her with some pretty powerful magic... well, until the end of disc one. If you don't know what happened at the end of disc one by now (fifteen years later), I'll try not to spoil it, but I'll say it was frustrating to no longer be able to play one of the female characters I'd been leveling up for about a third of the game. Tifa was one of the strongest female characters I had encountered up to that point in a video game. She got to punch things, kick them, and do serious damage. Replaying the game now, I see that she is still largely defined by her relationship to Cloud and has her silly romantic girl moments. They all still fall into background roles though.
For awhile it seems that Squaresoft (or Square Enix as they are now called) was the primary provider of strong female characters. We got a female villain in Final Fantasy VIII and the females in Final Fantasy X were particularly powerful. My favorite Square character was Aya Brea from the Parasite Eve series who got two games on the original Playstation console and then disappeared for a decade or so. She was a strong character with unbelievable power, didn't have to rely on male characters to save the day, and was fighting a female villain - at least in the first one. I am only part of the way through The 3rd Birthday - the third installment in the Parasite Eve franchise that doesn't even get to bear the name of the franchise (possibly because you really only saw the titular Eve in the first game) - which arrived to little fanfare and hardly any ad attention last year. It has its strong points and its weak points, but for the most part when looking for strong female characters Aya still gets to kick ass. She is even joined by a pretty incredible female sniper.
I'm going to stay away from the Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and Dragon Age franchises because they allow you the option of choosing the gender of your main character. They provide female and male characters on both end of the spectrums, and in most cases allow for homosexual relationship options... which is all pretty progressive stuff. I'm just more concerned, in this post, with the portrayal of female main characters (though Trishka gets a mention for being a NPC who gets to be just as powerful, foul-mouthed, and ass-kicking as the boys in the very poorly marketed and fairly sophomoric Bulletstorm).
I can't really speak to Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise, but from the outside she seems pretty tough and capable - though she is designed with an impossible figure. I guess I could call her a female Batman, sans cape and secret identity. Smart, physically fit in a way that takes some serious genetic gifts or surgical enhancement, and born into wealth. And instead of fighting crime, she mostly just hunts shiny treasures.
I know a lot more about characters like Ruby from WET, Faith from Mirror's Edge, and Alice from the American McGee's Alice series. I pretty much listed them in the order in which I adore them. Ruby is a whiskey-swilling assassin, but loses points for often having more balls than brains and having to be bailed out by the boys a few times in the game. She's also pretty clearly designed to entice male gamers by being classically "hot". Lots of leather and breasts that defy gravity. Whatever you have to do to get a guy to play a game with a female main character, I guess. Faith and the other runners from Mirror's Edge (that we see in game) are female. They are strong characters on the outskirts of the law with their support characters primarily being male. I suppose this could be analyzed as a form of prostitution with the females taking all the risk while the male characters get to sit back in safely insulated environments, but I'm going to choose to interpret Faith as a strong character.
Alice gets to be in a class all her own. Alice: Madness Returns focuses on a female character who has already spent an entire game dealing with an internal world that helps her cope with the trauma of her family's house burning to the ground and leaving her the sole survivor. Years later and Alice has to go back to Wonderland. This game is dark and creepy, but my favorite part of it is that the entire plot of the game revolves around Alice dealing with psychological trauma in a very badass way. By all rights, Alice could be a victim, but instead she is a survivor. She fights and takes care of herself, ultimately becoming her own savior as well as the savior of others. Pretty damned impressive for a female character in a video game. Then again, I'm always partial to characters and story lines that find internal ways of dealing with external psychological trauma. Just look at how much I love the comic and cartoon series The Maxx.
How much of this has to do with a lack of females in video game development? How much of it has to do with the idea that there isn't really a market for video games that feature female main characters? If you look way back to the beginning of this post, how much of it has to do with male gamers being uninterested or unwilling to play as a female character because they are incapable of seeing them as being just as tough as Master Chief or Marcus Fenix? I honestly don't have the answers to those questions, but I do know that I feel sorry for little girls playing video games these days. It isn't until you start getting into games rated T or M by the ESRB that you start seeing tough, capable female characters that are even sometimes allowed emotional vulnerability. Basically, it isn't until after they've been shoved away from video games with a lot of negative advertising and messages from their male peers that "video games aren't for girls" that they even have access to the sort of female characters that they can look at and identify with.