by Kristin Bezio:
As 2013 draws to a close, as TLF’s resident gaming critic, it seems appropriate to spend a post talking about women in games over the last year. By “women in games,” I mean “female characters, preferably protagonists, featured in games,” not women in the industry or in journalism or criticism. In short, this is not another review of Anita Sarkeesian or the Ada Initiative (both worthy causes). This is a review of women in the games. Or the lack thereof, as the case may be.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on games released for PC and consoles, rather than including, say, My Forced Wedding, released for iPhone and iPod in 2013, which is horrifying on so many levels that I don’t really want to go there. And while I know that casual mobile games are an increasingly large part of the gaming market these days – with such hot titles as Angry Birds, which does have a female White Bird – I’m more interested in the traditional industry rather than the mobile gaming industry.
The year kicked off its list of female-protag games with the March release of Tomb Raider (which I reviewed at length on TLF), followed up almost immediately by Bioshock Infinite (which I also reviewed on TLF). Ms. Splosion Man appeared in March and April (depending on the platform). Remember Me and The Last of Us (PS3 only) appeared in June. The much-acclaimed PC-only Gone Home indie game was released in August, which I mention in part because it garnered so much praise. Beyond: Two Souls was a PS3-only release from October. November saw the release of both Contrast (also reviewed that one on TLF) and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (in Japan – to be released in the US in February). December has The Walking Dead: Season Two.
Games like August-released Saints Row IV and November-released Call of Duty: Ghosts both allow the player to choose a female character, if they wish, which makes them worthy of accolades, but not really relevant to this particular list. I always approve of games that give the player the option to customize gender, but their depiction of gendered protagonists is less my concern than games which contain deliberately female protagonists (at least here).
Some of the above games have women as “secondary” protagonists: Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth (secondary to Booker Dewitt, the actual “hero”) and The Last of Us’s Ellie (second to Joel). The Last of Us is well worth playing – Ellie is not a wilting damsel, and the game received Game of the Year (2013) from Gamesradar, so I’d highly recommend it (and I’m very pleased that a game with a notable secondary female protagonist – and one whose developer fought to get Ellie on the cover – made Game of the Year!)
Interestingly, The Walking Dead: Season Two adopts Clementine, the secondary protagonist from WD: Season One, as its primary protagonist. (As a note, I’m writing this before WD: Season Two’s actual release on December 17, so I have no idea how good of a game it is and have to keep it off the top five because it doesn’t yet exist… although if it’s anything like Season One, it should get good reviews.)
The other games – Tomb Raider (Lara Croft), Ms. Splosion Man (Ms. Splosion Man), Remember Me (Nilin), Gone Home (Kaitlin Greenbriar), Beyond: Two Souls (Jodie Holmes), Contrast (Dawn), and Lightning Returns (Lightning) – all feature a female main protagonist, and some (Contrast, Gone Home, and Tomb Raider) also include significant secondary female characters, as well.
If I’m going to make a “top” list, it’s going to have to be five, since there aren’t ten on the list to begin with (so I guess they’re all “top ten”?). I’m going to begin by dismissing Ms. Splosion Man on the grounds that it – like Ms. Pac Man – isn’t designed to be a game with a female protagonist so much as it puts a bow on a pre-existing game, and is a re-release of a 2011 game (and a sequel to Splosion Man, from 2009).
I’m also going to push out Gone Home, not because it isn’t important or significant as a work that foregrounds female protagonists (not only Kaitlin, as the player-character, but Samantha and Lonnie as the focus of the story), but because it’s an interactive narrative rather than a “game” in the conventional sense. Gone Home is about exploration of a space in order to build a story – it isn’t about solving puzzles, defeating enemies, or even making narrative decisions from a conversation tree. It’s an interesting interactive narrative, but it doesn’t really feel like a “game” in the conventional sense. If you’re a gamer who enjoys exploration and narrative, however, you would probably really enjoy it.
And that leaves us with five: Tomb Raider, Remember Me, Beyond: Two Souls, Contrast, and Lightning Returns.
My number five, Lightning Returns, is a sequel, featuring a protagonist who has been a central figure before. Her story is an extension of Final Fantasy XIII-2, set 500 years later with Lightning as the god-chosen Savior. As such, she’s legitimized by divinity, given what amount to magic powers, and granted a kind of supernatural status that makes her more than human. It’s a traditional mythic hero-plot, and the gameplay and setting are not original because the game is the continuation of a series. Its popular reception wasn’t that strong in comparison to the other FFXIII games, although critically it received 37/40 in Famitsu magazine.
Contrast comes in at number four, for several reasons – it’s creative, it has prominent women as its player-character (Dawn), main protagonist (Didi), and secondary victim (Kat), with the primary victim (Joe) actually being male. From a feminist standpoint, Contrast makes a lot of powerful strides in terms of emphasizing women in positions of agency, despite the scanty clothing worn by both Kat and Dawn (which makes sense in context, unlike a lot of armor in fantasy games). Contrast also has really unique gameplay in Dawn’s ability to jump between the 2D shadow world and the 3D “real” world, but it has plot holes, a rushed narrative, and is very short (see my TLF review for a full run-down).
Number three goes to Beyond: Two Souls, featuring protagonist Jodie Holmes as an agent for the Department of Paranormal Activity who has a spiritual connection to a creature (“entity”) named Aiden. The game’s story features nonlinear narrative, which led to some critics referring to its gameplay and story as “muddled” and “confusing,” although it shows a certain level of narrative ambition. The player can control both Jodie and Aiden, but Jodie relies heavily throughout the game on male characters: Nathan, Cole, and Ryan. That said, the player has the ability to make a variety of narrative and gameplay choices (such as entering into a romance with Ryan – or not), including the final outcome of the game. Beyond’s Metacritic score was 70/100, with both positive and negative reviews.
Number two – which also received 70/100 from Metacritic – is Remember Me, which tells the story of Nilin, a woman capable of stealing and altering memories. The narrative concept of memory manipulation is really interesting, although it doesn’t do much in terms of innovative gameplay (which features exploration and melee combat). The setting and story concept are what received the best reviews, with the gameplay being condemned as boring and repetitive. The concept alone is what elevated Remember Me above Beyond in my estimation; so many industry titles fall back on conventional and tired story concepts, and it’s worth praising Remember Me for going somewhere interesting and innovative, even if its gameplay seemed to suffer for it.
Finally – and this should come as no surprise to anyone who read my TLF review – my number one game of 2013 featuring a female protagonist: Tomb Raider. I think that, in some ways, Tomb Raider suffered from poor timing, being released only a few weeks before the much-anticipated Bioshock Infinite, which, I would guess, meant that some gamers made the choice to buy the latter as their game-of-the-month. However, Tomb Raider, I would argue, was the better game on multiple levels. While Infinite (as I note in my TLF review) is the bigger spectacle, Tomb Raider is the better game in terms of story, characterization, combat, and exploration. In other words, it’s less shiny but has much more substance.
Tomb Raider’s biggest draw, for me, is Lara Croft herself. She’s based, of course, on the original Lara from the old series, with a notably downsized bosom and upgraded intellect. Secondary gameplay is designed to reinforce the idea that Lara is interested in the academics of archaeology, something absent from earlier versions of her character. She’s also tough – but not invincible – and works through injuries that are visible on her avatar throughout the game. She rescues her companions – both male and female – and is capable of defending herself in creative ways. The gameplay use of weapons and tools feels natural to the player – climbing, shooting both firearms and bow, and making use of fire as light, weapon, and tool. The sense of urgency and survivalism in Tomb Raider doesn’t seem unduly forced, even if the decision to keep crawling into dark spaces is somewhat questionable. As I’ve said before, the game is a fantastic example not only of a feminist protagonist, but of gaming in general.
So that’s my top five games with female protagonists, with a couple nods to other games that are well worth investigating. The real issue I ran into was the dearth of such games from which to choose; given that there are dozens of major industry games released every year, it seems sad that I can’t come up with a top ten list because there aren’t ten games that fit the basic criteria. But at least none of the top five – even the top seven – feature cooking, sewing, or having babies… because female gamers enjoy shooting things, too.