Female leads in video games are not new nor is the type of female protagonist. what is new is the abundance of female leads in video games.
The first female protagonist I can recall was Samus Aran from Metroid on NES. Gamers were shocked to learn that Samus was a woman - they were used to seeing men take on the hero role. Also, Lara Croft of Tomb Raider became yet another able bodied female lead, often out finessing and outsmarting her male antagonists. With Lara it was much less of a shock because she wasn't covered by full body armor that gave her an ambiguous form. Samus however was more or less simply assumed to be male because of the mind set that gamers had towards that particular character type until the shocking moment of truth:
The image leaves no question as to the gender of Samus Aran, and has become somewhat of a sex object despite her 6'3" and almost 200lb frame.
Other older games such as Gauntlet, Golden Axe, Resident Evil, Fear Effect, Rival Schools, Soul Edge and Street Fighter feature women in relative positions of equal strength and power to their male counterparts. On the other hand Metroid and Tomb Raider were games that didn't put the female characters in a position to rely on help from a male at any point to succeed. Street Fighter, Rival Schools, and Soul Edge had a story line that indicated the female characters at least needed some kind of moral support from the male characters, but it was done to construct a love story or deep friendship facet to the character interaction - the characters themselves during game play weren't portrayed as outwardly 'weaker' but the end sequences or Game Over screens told a story all their own. Street Fighter even displayed imaged of a woman beaten and bruised:
It's Game Over for Chun-Li. Notice the display of emotional weakness evidenced by the raised curled hand as she cries. No other SF character displays the act of crying.Perhaps this was Capcom's way of showing the feminine side of the characters 'warrior' class.
RPG games have been in on the female actions for a while too. Final Fantasy VI features Terra Branford, the confused and vulnerable half Human half Esper character - which could be argued to be one of the first bi-racial (bi-ethnicity still goes to Samus given that her back story indicates she was born human and raised by Chozo, thus having a multi cultural background) characters in a video game. Terra however is displayed as being emotionally weak but much of that has to do with the situations she's been written into. Later installments of Final Fantasy portray female characters in a wide spectrum of ways such as Aeris as the introverted but compassionate women that Cloud is emotionally compelled to protect, Rikku as the energetic and sporadic youth that often forgets her surroundings, and Fran the generally quiet but skillful foreign warrior. Other instances in RPG games are found in the players ability to create a character that is a female, such as in Diablo, Never Winter Nights, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls. The change with in the RPG genre is long standing but may be due to the fact that RPGs are more or less playable stories and require male and female characters to set in motion a love story.
As time has passed, more and more games are beginning to feature women in an equal role as protagonist or at least give them an equal share of strength and intelligence. Uncharted features Elena as an able bodied, sometimes more practical thinker than her male counterpart, Nathan Drake. Likewise, Resident Evil 5 features not only an equally abled but almost ethnically opposite female lead Sheva Alomar. Still these female equality changes have been gaining prominence in action adventure or in games that males would typically be relied upon. And, females have even been placed in situations where their peril is the purpose of the game (Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda).
Games like Mirror's Edge, Final Fantasy XIII, and WET continue the trend of placing women on par with male protagonists in video game titles while even a few games place the males in situations that with out help from the female characters, they fail (Prince of Persia as an example) and it not only propagates awareness of gender equality, but beings men and women closer together in the gaming experience. In the future, it may not be unrealistic to expect franchises beyond Metroid and Tomb Raider featuring both female leads and majority female cast.
Other games that feature female leads include:
- Perfect Dark
- Parasite Eve
- Silent Hill 4
- Eternal Darkness
- Legend of Dragoon
- Sword of Mana
- Valkyrie Profile
- Shadow of the Colossus
- Fatal Frame
- Jade Empire
- Heavenly Sword
Other games that feature able bodied female playable characters include:
- Eternal Sonata
- Front Mission
- Odin Sphere
- Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure (and the subsequent universe spin-offs like Phantom Brave, Disgaea, La Pucelle and Makai Kingdom)
- Chrono Trigger
- Half-Life 2
- KOTOR II
- Fire Emblem
- Wild Arms
- Devil May Cry
There are definitely many more titles out there to be listed, but the fact is that women have had a growing number of roles in popular video games. The question now becomes whether or not the advancement of females in video games has softened the social gender bias and in the games where female leads are sexualized, does that perpetuate stereotypes?
Games that utilize female characters often portray them as either frail and petite or tight and toned, but in both cases they have a certain amount of femininity that sexually charges them. Femininity isn't a negative aspect to being a woman, as it is something many women try and preserve while climbing to an equal status of men. On the other hand, many male leads feature men anywhere from rugged to debonair, but in all instances have a level of visual appeal (some RPGs don't play up physical appearances of men, but will of women). Male villains are usually 'uglier' than male heroes shown to be either scarred, fat, or frail, while female heroines are usually just as attractive of villainesses and interaction is reduced to more or less a 'cat fight'.
With that, there's still some equality issues to be had, but progress is being made and in some way it is possible that the increase in female protagonists in an equal abled role as a traditional male has lead to an increase in female gamers. On the other hand, I also feel that female gamers are not new, but males paying attention to it may be.