Sexuality and sex appeal is a tricky thing to balance. In the male-dominated video game industry, many female videogame protagonists and NPC characters are typically hyper-sexualised and unrealistic women created blatantly for the male gaze rather than balanced to be believable and attractive in other ways.
While there are still many outdated and cringe-worthy representations of women in video games, times and attitudes are rapidly changing. There are developers out there who challenge the stereotypes and create compelling, realistic, and attractive female characters without the overt use of skin, nudity or one-dimensional roles.
Look, I like Lara Croft's booty shorts or Mileena's two... deadly sais as much as every other guy, but why not have more than virtual polygons to ogle at? It has been proven that well-written, attractive and realistic female protagonists do exist in video games and have become more prominent as the industry advances.
Last week I covered some of the most sexist video games that have come to light this generation. Now, here are the top 5 hottest video game heroines who have saved the day from shallow stereotypes and hegemonic sexism, but still kick-ass and get male gamers all flustered without resorting to having their breasts pop out.
Jill Valentine | Resident Evil (1996), Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999), Resident Evil REmake (2002)
As one of two protagonists of the original survival-horror classic Resident Evil and a hot zombie-killing machine, Jill was destined to be every male fanboy's dream. Except she accomplished her attractiveness and appeal in a very different way to typical female protagonists at the time.
Jill was portrayed realistically and appropriately for what she is; a skilled and level-headed S.T.A.R. operative on par with her male companions, dressed like an actual police officer, and her pretty face didn't hurt either. The choice of playing as her isn't mired in stereotypes, and she has several logical advantages and disadvantages to Chris, none of which were based on her gender. Even when Barry came to the rescue, Jill held her own in the zombie-infested mansion with a focused mind and effective use of her police training. It's no wonder she survived the incident when the others of Delta and Bravo teams did not.
There’s nothing more erotic and attractive than watching a woman mow down zombies. Or maybe that's just me. But unfortunately for Jill, her next appearance in Nemesis had her creators resorting to dressing her in a miniskirt and a tight top to appease the male-fanbase. She must have been freezing in Raccoon City. She still kicked major undead ass though, and that's why she's on this list.
Faith Connors | Mirror's Edge (2008)
Faith is a major departure from her previous female predecessors in adventure-platforming games; a protagonist with an athletic build that realistically fits to the gameplay and storyline written for her and her role as a "Runner". The team at DICE actively chose to have a female lead who stayed away from the industry norm of inappropriately dressed and curvy female in a physically gruelling lifestyle. Considering her parkour-like activities, Faith’s build actually makes sense, unlike Lara's perfect hour-glass build, as nice as it is.
Faith's characterisation and development is memorable because she's believable. She's not out to save the world or dress in skimpy costumes while showing off her moves; she just wants to save her sister.
As the game also encourages players to avoid lethal force, it adds a rare element to her character as pacifist, a refreshing change from the stone-cold, overly voluptuous killers gamers have become accustomed to in certain other games.
Joanna Dark | Perfect Dark (2000), Perfect Dark GBC (2000), Perfect Dark Zero (2005)
When Joanna Dark first arrived on the video gaming scene in 2000, it was understandable for her to be interpreted as Nintendo’s answer to the rising appeal of Sony’s Lara Croft. But Dark deserves a mention, as she went above and beyond what Lara Croft ever achieved or truly embodied.
Dark is a compelling and great example of a strong and successful female lead. She is an independent, determined individual whose vigorous training resulted in unparalleled skills in infiltration and deadly force, none of which are diluted or can be traced back to her gender; she's simply that good. Neither her physical appearance or gender is used, referenced or exploited in a stereotypical manner, and it’s notable that Dark’s original in-game appearance isn’t exactly as striking or attractive as many other ideal female protagonists have managed to balance. Joanna dodged the bullet Lara Croft couldn’t though, as Lara, while being strong-willed and independent, succumbed to facilitating typical male fantasies with unrealistic proportions that didn't suit the grueling adventuring she tasked herself with.
Dark’s character history focused on her skills and intelligence as an effective, professional agent, and her achievements and rank were gained through those personal attributes rather than the usual stereotype of a femme fatale or sexy naughty vixen who successfully uses her looks to her advantage in mission assignments. Dark is ultimately a refreshingly independent and strong female protagonist, especially considering she was leading a first-person shooter set in an spec-ops agent-like role, and could have easily been marketed as a sexy female agent.
Even in the 2005 mess that was Perfect Dark Zero, Joanna remained positively represented, even if Rare were so obsessed with showing off the then-next generation Xbox 360 graphical capabilities by emphasising Dark’s french nails. But that game sucked anyway, so moving on.
Samus Aran | Metroid (1986), Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991), Super Metroid (1994), Metroid Fusion (2002), Metroid Prime (2002), Metroid: Zero Mission (2004) Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (2004), Metroid Prime Hunters (2006), Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007), Metroid: Other M (2010)
The original Metroid debuted in 1986 in Japan, a time where women in video games were forced into the roles of either the stereotypical damsel or queen in distress, or a lusty one-dimensional 8-bit sprite. To play an entire game as a badass space bounty hunter in awesome mechanised armour capping and blasting aliens, only to find out in its conclusion, if you got the right ending, that the protagonist was a woman was definitely not something commonly experienced in a video game at the time. She was the first dominant, independent female protagonist who didn’t need any assistance from stereotypical male saviours and kicked alien ass as good as Ripley. Now, to me, that’s how you do a sexy, independent female lead.
The ambiguity and eventual revelation of Samus’s gender is both innovative and influential. The full-body suit helped negate any stereotypical female characteristics and attitudes that most developers would have produced to appease the majority male gamer market at that time, and her gender was not emphasised over her viability as a protagonist. The suit was also realistically proportioned and designed, with a bulky and heavy-looking aesthetic which would actually protect its wearer, and did without hypersexualised fantasy incorporated into it like so many other games have resorted to.
Samus was one of the first female protagonists in video games, and effectively paved the path for female lead characters to embody depth and strong characterisation. Her success no doubt helped Chun-Li or Lara Croft gain traction in the video game market, though the latter two both resorted to using a little bit more skin to get there.
Samus Aran is the ultimate positive example of women protagonists in video games, and the ideal template for developers to continue to move forward with, and only because of the original skin-tight reveal and the Zero-Suit is she bumped to number two.
Jade | Beyond Good & Evil (2003), Beyond Good & Evil 2 (TBA)
Beyond Good and Evil’s Jade is widely recognised as a prominent example of a strong and confident female character lacking any overt sexualisation. Why she is at the top of the list is because she is defined by her greatest strengths; her intelligence, compassion, and determination to simply do the right thing, rather than her sexuality or any other aspect of her gender, yet she still retains her beauty and her femininity. That makes her an attractive hero.
Michel Ancel managed to balance the right amount of femininity and strength in Jade, internally and externally. She carries an inherent strength and kindness in everything she does, such as caring for her adopted orphans and uncle, though this compassion is also a weakness, shown in the emotional toil she faces. Her physical proportions and appearance in baggy jeans and a tight tank top with just the right amount of midriff isn’t exactly prudish or unattractive, and her soft facial features are easy on the eyes.
Jade is also charming and witty, and her relationship with her foster Uncle Pey’J is emotionally genuine and endearing but threatened by secrets. She is likable but not invulnerable, and she carries the weight of responsibility on her shoulders without needing a male romantic interest to further her development, and she approaches her goal with clear determination for the greater good, without unrealistic revelations or irritating characterisation.
Jade is one of my favorite protagonists in any video game, and it’s not just because she smashes the common female stereotype in the face. It’s because she is so well and realistically characterised and developed, and you genuinely care about her selfless journey and development, from beginning to end. She is the epitome of a strong female character in any video game, and takes the number one spot easily.
Other honorable mentions
Alexandra Rovias | Eternal Darkness (2002), Eternal Darkness 2 (TBA)
Claire Redfield | Resident Evil 2 (1998), Resident Evil: Code Veronica (2000)
April Ryan | The Longest Journey (1999), Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006)
What do you think about some of these heroines listed? Any missing? Agree or disagree? Tell us below.
Nathan Misa is the senior games writer, reviewer and contributor for MMGN.com and GamesFix, an avid RPG gamer and general nutcase when it comes to anything Japanese. You can hear his ramblings and thoughts here on MMGN, Google+ and Twitter.