The world of video games is often considered to be the domain of men, in spite of the actual statistics (45% of video game players are female, according to a 2013 study by ESA). The realization of equal and fair representation is a constant uphill struggle. Too often are the female characters in video games either a walking male fantasy, or only valuable to the story in terms of their effect on the male characters. That is why we wanted to highlight some of the most interesting and well-rounded female video game characters, our favorites anyway.
This list is neither ranked nor comprehensive. It is just a few examples of the kinds of female characters we would like to see more of. Each of these ladies is complex and has relevance to the plot beyond her relationships to the male characters in the game. Each brings something to the table other than her body. Take heed, video game industry.
**This article contains SPOILERS** for Borderlands 2, The Walking Dead game, Assassin’s Creed II-Revelations, Bioshock Infinite, the Mass Effect Series, Tomb Raider, and the Halo series.
Gaige - Borderlands 2
On the rough-and-tumble world of Pandora, you might think a 16-year-old girl would be out of place. You would be wrong. Gaige is more than bloodthirsty enough to fit in with the likes of Zer0 and Maya, but she has one clear advantage on all of them: she’s a girl genius.
Gaige built her companion, Deathtrap, as a high school science fair project. Mostly. She also wanted to show her bully a thing or two. When her plan backfired, Gaige was forced to flee her home world for Pandora, where she became a Vault Hunter. It is worth mentioning that she cut off her own arm and replaced it with a robotic replica to make Deathtrap work better. Crazy? Yes. Awesome? Absolutely.
Gaige’s backstory is one big reason to like her, but another is her role on the team. With the exception of her Best Friends Forever skill tree (unfortunately dubbed “Girlfriend Mode” by one of the lead designers), Gaige has some pretty great builds. I was very happy to see a female character without a support focus, for one thing. For another, she is extremely versatile. Gaige can make nearly any fighting style work for her with the help of Deathtrap. She may just be right when she says “[she] is the greatest engineer alive!”
Clementine - the walking dead
Lee may be the protagonist of Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, but Clementine steals the show. The entire game forces you to make choices, many without a desirable outcome, and Clementine is there the whole way. She’s always watching and reacting, growing by the choices you make. She starts out a vulnerable young girl, but by the end she… well, she’s still a vulnerable young girl, but she’s much wiser and more grown up from her experiences. In the beginning she is constantly being protected and saved by Lee, but towards the end Clem begins to stop being a liability and comes into her own as a valuable member of the survivor team. She even has to save Lee a few times, even if she’s forced to do things no one should have to, much like Lee in the beginning.
In the end, your actions may shape her, but it’s really her that shapes your actions. You really start to care for Clem, and you shape what you do and say around her presence. It would be extremely difficult for a game to make you really care about someone that deeply if they didn’t feel like a real person, and Clementine achieves this in a way few games have. She manages to feel like a real person in an unimaginable situation. So here’s to you, Clem: keep that hair short.
Claudia Auditore da firenze - Assassin's Creed
In the face of such talented, charming characters as Ezio Auditore himself, Claudia might not seem like much at first. However, underestimating Ezio’s sister would be playing right into her hand. You meet Claudia when she is a spoiled young noblewoman whose problems are limited to a cheating paramour. After the deaths of her father and two of her brothers, and her transplantation to Monteriggioni, Claudia takes on the responsibilities of bookkeeper for her uncle and brother, and helps Ezio restore the villa to prosperity. Then, when her entire life is destroyed in the Borgia attack at the beginning of Brotherhood, Claudia defies her brother’s wishes and follows him to Rome to help him fight against the Borgias. There, she becomes one of the Madame of Rome’s courtesans, also against her brother’s wishes. She holds her ground and proves herself to be an asset to Ezio and the Assassin Order. After single-handedly fighting off several Borgia guards who were attacking the Rosa in Fiore, she is accepted into the Order as an Assassin herself. As if that weren’t enough, she takes over leadership of the Italian Assassins when Ezio goes to Masyaf.
We get to watch Claudia turn from a self-centered young woman into a powerful and competent leader. She earns her place in the Assassin Order through her dedication to freeing the people of Italy of Templar and Borgia influence, not because of any nepotism on Ezio’s part. She is a badass, and very worthy of our respect.
Elizabeth - Bioshock Infinite
Elizabeth is a young girl who yearns to be free and to see the world she has read about in her books. She has a special gift, and is locked away in a tower because of it, guarded by the giant and menacing Songbird. Elizabeth is essentially the video game version of a Disney princess, but she goes much deeper than that. Throughout Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth has to deal with the unsettling role of messiah to the people of Columbia, while at the same time coming to terms with the idea that the world outside her tower is not as idyllic as her books make it seem.
Over the course of the game Elizabeth changes from a naïve, idealistic young girl to a woman hardened by the horrors she has witnessed (and performed) in order to escape from the city that held her hostage. She starts out knowing many things through her books, yet knowing so little about the real world. And by the end of the story arc, she has gained control of her powers and knows literally everything. Everything from her look to her demeanor, even the way she speaks, changes by the end of the journey she shares with Booker, and every step of the way she learns something new about herself and the world, both of which frighten her.
Tali'Zorah - Mass Effect
Tali’Zorah is one of Mass Effect’s most beloved characters, yet she is rarely recognized as the influential, loyal, brilliant character she is. From young quarian just embarking on her pilgrimage to admiral in the Migrant Fleet, Tali grows an incredible amount over the course of the three Mass Effect games, and becomes a force to be reckoned with in her own right. It is no wonder why she is one of only two characters to be available as a squadmate in all three games.
When you first meet her, Tali is headstrong and somewhat naïve. Though she never loses her stubbornness, she grows wise to the galaxy very quickly. By the beginning of the second game, she has become a fully-fledged member of the Migrant Fleet, and is already leading rescue and research missions. In fact, Mass Effect 2 contains several character-defining moments for Tali: her courage when faced with the realization of her father’s fallibility, her loyalty to both Shepard and her people during her trial, and her growth from curious engineer to capable leader.
In Mass Effect 3, Tali has the opportunity to become one of the most important people in quarian history when she plays a key role in reclaiming their homeworld. Whether she shares it with the geth or not, she has changed the course of history for the quarians, and fulfilled a 300 year dream for her people. Even if Shepard chooses the geth over the quarians, Tali remains an extremely compelling character with a great deal of depth. We just wish she’d never been unmasked.
Lara Croft - Tomb Raider
Lara is just a young scientist looking for a lost island off the coast of Japan. When the research ship sinks in the mysterious storm surrounding said island, however, Lara finds herself in a life-or-death situation, where the weather and wolves are the least of her worries. Lara faces trauma, both mental and physical, that would cause any one of us to give up, but Lara does not. She has to save her crew and solve the mystery of the island.
In a world of games and other media where women maintain perfect hair and makeup in conditions that would be impossible to do so, Lara becomes covered in dirt, grime, mud, blood, rain, and seawater. She is impaled, shot at, cut, scraped, gassed, and bitten, along with many more injuries that appear on her character and cause her to react.
However, it isn’t because of the situation she is in, or that she gets banged up throughout; it’s how she reacts and grows from the horrors she has to face, learning from each about just how much she can take. In the beginning she’s terrified, screaming at the men shooting at her to just leave her alone. But as she completes each impossible challenge, Lara’s confidence grows, and she even begins to taunt the enemies back. All along the way she keeps herself positive, encouraging herself by saying “you can do this, Lara” and “just take it one step at a time.” We could all learn a lot from young Ms. Croft.
Cortana - Halo
If you’ve been playing video games in the last decade, you’ve probably heard the name Cortana. Though she often gets top billing in lists of the sexiest video game characters, there is a lot more going on with Cortana than her looks. She is Master Chief’s partner throughout most of the Halo games, even appearing in Reach though Master Chief does not. Cortana is an AI created from a copy of Dr. Catherine Halsey’s brain, which makes her ridiculously intelligent. Even more impressive than her origin is how she is able to develop and learn, becoming more proficient in Covenant technology than any of her creators. She is also noted for determination and bravery rivaling Master Chief himself.
Cortana is paired with Master Chief from the start, and though their relationship is considered by many to be one of the best romantic relationships in video games, she is not defined solely by her relationship to him. She is vital to the mission in her own right, and without her unique abilities, it is unlikely whether Master Chief would have prevailed against the Covenant.
She also has arguably the most heart-wrenching death in the entire series. The deaths of the Reach team members were hard, and losing Miranda Keyes was certainly upsetting, but the slow build and ultimate conclusion of Halo 4 provided one of the most tragic moments of my entire video game-playing career.
We hope you enjoyed our look at some of our favorite pixelated ladies, and make sure to look out for more articles like this in the future. Have any questions, comments, or just want to share some love for your favorite video game heroine? Let us know in the comments!