Female characters that challenged gamers’ perceptions

Aloysius Low
·8 min read

In its early days, gaming used to be seen as something that appealed to boys, but that's slowly been changing over the past decade. Our perceptions of gaming have become more inclusive, with more female players being embraced positively by the community and on the competitive stage. This has also been seen in the development of female characters, who have grown from being "the princess is in another castle" to heroic figures of inspiration for everyone.

International Women's Day 2021 is about challenging the status quo, and these female gaming characters have definitely lived up to that, challenging our thinking and allowing us to see beyond gender.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy

Aloy from the Horizon Forbidden West trailer. (Image: Sony via YouTube)
Aloy from the Horizon Forbidden West trailer. (Image: Sony via YouTube)

Hero, machine hunter, seeker, Aloy from the Horizon series is a world saviour in a post-apocalyptic world where machines have replaced most animals.

Starting out on her hero's journey in Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy quickly gets thrust into this strange new world and has to adapt quickly to challenges.

Throughout the game, players get to learn more about Aloy and her backstory. She's extremely physical, curious, and filled with determination.

Aloy challenges the perception that just because you're physically strong doesn't mean you can't be wicked smart as well, and she's sure to display more of this as her journey continues in Horizon Forbidden West.

Mass Effect series - Female Shepard

(Image: Bioware)
(Image: Bioware)

While Mass Effect players were given a choice between a male or female Shepard (FemShep), the female version was touted by many to be the much more memorable version.

Voiced by veteran actress Jennifer Hale, Commander Shepard challenges and proves that there's really no difference between both genders, since the characters are exactly the same, with all the voice lines and the same level of sass when you hit the Renegade prompt and toss that really annoying fella out the window.

But therein lies why FemShep is better, because it proves that we're all biased towards gender roles, and there really isn't any difference if you think about it.

If you're giving the Mass Effect Legendary Edition a go, and played the original with the male version of Shepard, try it with FemShep this time to give yourself a subtly different experience.

While customisation options are aplenty, the "default" look for FemShep was only seen in Mass Effect 3. A lot of the original promotional materials had the default male version of Shepard (modelled after Dutch model Mark Vanderloo), but FemShep is front and centre of the new Legendary Edition trailer, a move that brought her voice actress Hale to tears.

Tomb Raider - Lara Croft

(Image: Square Enix)
(Image: Square Enix)

From creation to her current incarnation, Tomb Raider's Lara Croft has evolved into a complex character that challenges how we perceive change, a far cry from her origins where the focus was on just her sex appeal.

While Lara was iconic as a lead in a franchise, she drew a mixed reaction from the public. On the one hand, she was an English archaeologist in a field popularised in media by the Indiana Jones films (which, shall we say, were movies made for a different time), on the other, her design and marketing were often criticised as being unnecessarily sexualised.

Her 2013 Tomb Raider reboot changed how we perceived her, showcasing her internal struggles and fuelling her growth as a feminist icon.

Apart from a new design, there are moments in the game where you're more than able to feel her challenges and the strength of will she displays in order to survive, and these moments speak to all genders.

Mirror's Edge - Faith Connors

(Image: EA)
(Image: EA)

Zipping from rooftop to rooftop in dizzying style, Mirror's Edge Faith drew attention for her visual design, bucking trends such as sex appeal and race.

With her athleticism defining her, she showed that female characters need not be sexual to be interesting.

She also challenged the concept that a female Asian character could headline a game and succeed. Just as a reminder, Mirror's Edge was released in 2008, and we're still celebrating in 2021 when Asian actors and actresses get cast in leading roles in Hollywood films.

Half-Life series - Alyx Vance

(Image: Valve)
(Image: Valve)

Known for her intelligence, Alyx Vance is the witty counterpart to the Half-Life series' silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman.

She's strong, independent and has a personality that helps bring life to the otherwise stoic Freeman.

She challenges the stereotype that female characters in a game need to be love interests, and we know she's got too much awesomeness to just be relegated to that role.

Alyx also gets additional time in the spotlight in the VR game of the series, Half-Life: Alyx.

Final Fantasy VII - Tifa Lockheart

(Image: Square Enix)
(Image: Square Enix)

Final Fantasy VII's Tifa Lockheart isn't your typical female JPRG character.

She's empowered, strong, and at the same time, emotionally vulnerable. While she seems to appear as a damsel in distress, players will know just how much of butt kicker she is.

She also feels very real — someone that you can relate to in real life.

Tifa showed that women characters in games can have their own stories to tell, which aren't all about the male lead.

The Legend of Zelda - Zelda

(Image: Nintendo)
(Image: Nintendo)

From damsel in distress to actual goddess, Princess Zelda is often forgotten by players until she appears to lend Link aid. But there's a reason the game series is called the Legend of Zelda and not the Legend of Link. Zelda provides the impetus for Link, she's the reason that Link struggles to improve.

Fans have also seen how her role in the series has grown.

These days, she's a playable character in some games, with her own abilities. Her relationship with Link is what defines the series, and while you don't get to see much of her, it's the glimpses of her, say in Breath of the Wild, that help you understand the relationship between the pair.

She's not perfect, she has flaws, and she grows to accept who she is. She challenges the idea that female characters have to be perfect for you to love, but that's not true. Players love her for who she is.

Metroid series - Samus Aran

(Image: Nintendo)
(Image: Nintendo)

This intergalactic bounty hunter's identity was only revealed at the end of the original Metroid, so her gender was unknown to players at the start. She's often shown wearing a technological exoskeleton suit, and not much was known of her character. That was intentional, as Nintendo wanted players to put themselves into her shoes, so the final reveal would be a shocker.

And yet, despite her lack of a presence, Samus has been considered a breakthrough as one of the earliest female protagonists, earning her accolades including a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.

The reveal of her gender, after a player spends much of the time as a character in power armour, challenges the gender assumptions and bias we may have.

Samus has gone on into pop culture legend, appearing in crossovers and inspiring a whole generation of female gamers and female characters.

Uncharted series - Elena Fisher

(Image: Sony)
(Image: Sony)

Reporter, adventurer and a great shot, Uncharted's Elena Fisher is in every way equal to Nathan Drake, whom she eventually marries and makes a family with.

She's smart, speaks multiple languages, and a great adventurer of her own.

Elena challenges the age-old idea that women can't be equal to men, proving that she can be even better than Drake in his own field of adventuring.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey - Kassandra

(Image: Ubisoft)
(Image: Ubisoft)

You can play as either sibling in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, however, Kassandra is the canon character.

While the game tries to be gender-neutral, Kassandra's portrayal fared better amongst players and critics alike. Her self-assuredness and confidence won over critics, with some finding her funnier than her male counterpart, Alexios.

As a Spartan, Kassandra challenges the concept that it's perfectly fine to smash stereotypes and as the legendary Eagle Bearer, she did more than her fair share.

This is so even in ancient Greece, where Spartan women were known to have more rights and education compared to the rest of the country.

While players of the franchise have had the chance to play as female Assassins, it was usually for portions of the game. And while Ubisoft has had controversy over female leads in the series, one can hope that the reception to Kassandra paves the way for other games in the franchise.

Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com

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