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From one-note heroines to fully fleshed-out, complex leads, female representation in video games has come a long way over the years. That's not to say we're at a point where women are adequately depicted, seen, and heard across the industry - far from it. Even so, it's important to acknowledge where we've been and how far we've come so that we can consider where we're going - where we need to go - next.
So on this International Women's Day, why not join me for a brief stroll down memory lane? From Lara Croft and Samus Aran to Ellie and Senua, gaming has seen some incredible women embark on some fantastic adventures. We're on the right track, for sure... we just need more.
In a time when the gaming industry assumed that having a woman as the lead character in a video game would be bad business, Lara Croft came along to prove them all wrong. So wrong. The original Tomb Raider, released for PlayStation back in 1996, quickly established Croft as a worldwide phenomenon, and one of gaming's most successful franchises was born.
While there's no getting around the fact that some elements of her earlier incarnation haven't aged brilliantly - particularly the way the games were marketed - the original raider of tombs definitively showed a generation of women that video games weren't just for boys (a shame that ever needed proving, frankly).
Whether you prefer the original version or the rebooted Croft (an undeniably more interesting character from a story perspective), her impact on the world of video games is incalculable. Without Lara Croft and her tomb raiding exploits, I can't imagine we'd have the likes of Nathan Drake, Aloy, or (weirdly enough) a ring road in Derby which was named after the hero.
Strong, silent, and oh-so deadly - Samus Aran is perhaps one of the coolest heroes in gaming. A relentless, resourceful killing machine, Samus is so badass that most of the planets she visits on her adventures tend to blow up once she's finished with 'em. To be fair to her, most of those planets are inhabited solely by unspeakable ancient evil and biological weapons of immense power, so... it's all good?
While a few games in the Metroid franchise have bungled her character a bit (Other M), her best adventures depict her as a brave, stoic hero that doesn't take crap from anyone and basically does whatever the damn hell she wants. A solid role model for any young gamers out there, I think.
Horror as a genre hasn't always done particularly well by women, but nobody ever bothered to tell that to Jill Valentine. Smart, capable, and an expert at taking down undead threats and mutant nasties, Jill was one of the stars of the original Resident Evil, and a far more interesting character than Chris "Just Another Generic Action Hero" Redfield.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis put Jill front and center, further establishing her credentials as a hero not to be trifled with. After all, surviving in the ruins of a zombie-infested city while dealing with a biological weapon specifically engineered to kill you can't be easy. With the Resident Evil 3 remake out in just a few short weeks, I look forward to seeing how much more Capcom has evolved one of gaming's original female icons.
Appearing in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, Aveline is the first playable female lead in Ubisoft's juggernaut franchise, and she doesn't disappoint. Using a number of cunning disguises and deadly skill she manages to exploit the people of 18th century New Orleans and their expectations of her race and gender to wipe out her targets and fight oppression with ease.
Plus, she has some killer outfits. And really, what's the point of tackling corruption and discrimination in the 18th century if you can't look awesome doing it?
While the likes of Lara Croft and Samus Aran changed the game in their own way, and their legacies can't be ignored. Even so, there's obviously criticism to be leveled at the way these characters were essentially hyper-sexualised action stars with zero flaws, at least in their earlier appearances.
In Clementine, we were given a female lead who was allowed to be flawed and emotional, even occasionally defenseless and reliant on others. And yet, she was also undeniably strong, capable, and actually probably better leader material than most of her fellow survivors. That she was all this at the tender age of eight is hugely impressive, and speaks volumes about just how far female representation in games has come since the 90s. Which brings me on to our next hero...
Ellie could quickly have become nothing more than a damsel in distress for Joel to save in The Last Of Us, but Naughty Dog knew better than that. Ellie is more than a plot device, or a love interest - she's a fascinating and fully-fleshed out character in her own right.
With Ellie, Naughty Dog crafted a fascinating, layered survivor whose relative ignorance of the wider world and the time before everything went to crap provides a crucial foil to Joel's jaded, hyper-macho character. Ellie is still a hardened fighter who'll do whatever it takes to survive, yes, but she's also capable of an endearing childlike sense of wonder - a trait that works to her credit and detriment in equal parts.
With The Last Of Us Part II inching closer every day, I can't wait to see how Ellie has grown over the years, and how her outlook on the world has changed since he last journeyed across post-apocalyptic America with Joel.
Ciri (or Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon to use her full name) is exactly the kind of fantasy hero we need to see more of in RPGs. She doesn't wear skimpy armour that offers no realistic protection, she's not just another romance option for a character to bed, and she's not just another princess that needs saving.
Okay, so she is a princess technically, and she does need saving at one point... but it's a little more complicated than that. As it should be. While The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt prominently features Geralt desperately searching the world in search of Ciri, CD Projekt RED wisely lets us play as her in a few segments to show us that, actually, she's more than capable of taking care of herself.
She gets into scrapes, and she makes mistakes, but she's also noble, brave, and kind. She is, frankly, everything Geralt is and so much more. If CD Projekt RED ever does make The Witcher 4, it's clear that Ciri should be the star of the show.
Senua, of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a crucial character to have emerged in the last few years, in terms of female representation, yes, but also in regards to providing a very real and unflinching look at mental health.
What starts off as the story of a Celtic warrior on a quest to retrieve her love from the underworld quickly reveals itself to be much deeper: Senua is actually constantly battling her own mind. As we delve deeper into the underworld, she's haunted by hallucinations and delusions - but continues to fight, and perseveres even as she begins to doubt the world around her.
With a sequel to Senua's Sacrifice confirmed last year, it's great to see that this particular female hero wasn't just a one-off. Clearly, there are more stories to tell with Senua, and I look forward to experiencing them.
Much like Senua, Madeline is a hero who spends the majority of her game dealing with her own anxieties and fears. In Celeste, these struggles are expertly shown through a series of incredibly tough platforming challenges as Madeline battles her way to the top of a seemingly impossible-to-climb mountain.
Proving how far we've come since the original Tomb Raider, Madeline is riddled with doubt, displays absolutely no confidence, and dresses like someone scaling a mountain would actually dress (ie, no short shorts or super-tight shirts). Over the course of the game, Madeline doesn't "fix" herself or find an easy way to deal with her demons - rather, she starts to accept that her insecurities are part of her, and that they can actually help push her forward if she learns to live with them.
Madeline is more than an incredible female character, she's one of the best video game heroes of the last few years - someone who has an important message for all of us. She isn't defined by her gender, but by her ability to step up in spite of her anxiety and achieve the impossible.
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