From damsel in distress to heroine - the rise of female characters in gaming
From Ms. Pac-Man all the way to Aloy, how far have we come?
05 Mar 2021
Back in the day, gaming was seen as kind of a man’s world. And it was obvious from your typical ‘masculine’ video game hero. It was hard to find strong female characters, let alone ones that you could play as.
But thankfully that isn’t the case anymore. Now there are a whole bunch of games with complex, intelligent, tough women as their stars. So we’ve decided to celebrate those formidable female characters. We’re looking at just how far we’ve come- all the way from Ms Pacman to Lara Croft and beyond!
Ms. Pac-Man from Ms. Pac-Man (1982)
Did you know Ms Pac-Man actually started life as Crazy Otto? The game was originally created by another game developer, GCC, as a modification of Pac-Man. It was only later when Pac-Man’s developers got involved that it developed into the cute character we know today.
Finally noticing the huge numbers of ‘lady arcaders’ that were playing Pac-Man, the company made a game to appeal to them. Although as a character Ms. Pac-Man doesn’t exactly have a lot of depth, Ms Pac-Man is still considered one of the greatest games ever created!
Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. (1985)
You can’t really mention Super Mario without talking about Princess Peach. One of the biggest video game characters ever, she has her own spin-offs and is one of the most popular Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros characters to play.
But Princess Peach didn’t always have that much fight in her. Her first few appearances in the 80s were as an NPC. Your stereotypical damsel in distress really. Luckily things have come a long way since then for Princess Peach!
Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda (1986)
Right from the beginning, Zelda’ was portrayed as a wise protector for the people of Hyrule… but did seem a bit helpless at times. Even though she’s the title character, her main role in the first few games was to either be saved by Link or occasionally help him out.
But with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 1998, things started to change. Zelda proved herself to be just as capable as Link in battle- not just someone to be rescued.
Chun-Li from Street Fighter II (1991)
While she may not technically be the first ever playable female character in a fighting game, Chun-Li was definitely the first to get mainstream fame.
Seeing a woman going toe-to-toe with all male fighters was a big move for Capcom, Street Fighter’s creators. But the martial arts expert has been a fan favourite ever since her first appearance. With speed, strength and a cool backstory, Chun-Li paved the way for women in fighting games.
Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (1996)
Tomb Raider was a game changer. Literally. When creating Lara Croft, the lead graphic artist Toby Gard made it clear he didn’t want Lara to be the stereotypical female character at the time – either “damsels in distress, or just terrible fantasy dominatrix-y type of characters.” Lara is strong, independent and seriously smart. And despite her original cartoonish figure, she’s human too- with depth and personality.
There were times when Lara lost her way. As marketers traded on her figure rather than her strength, Gard felt he’d lost the spirit Lara was first developed in. But recent reboots have reclaimed her original feminist core, a believable heroine and empowered female role model.
Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark (2000)
Move over 007, Joanna Dark’s here. The daughter of a bounty hunter and a weapons and espionage expert, the title character of Perfect Dark is an incredible female lead. Her name is even taken from the French pronunciation of Joan of Ark (Jeanne d’Arc)… basically the poster child for strong women.
Ellie from Last of Us (2013)
We fell in love with Ellie back in 2013, when she appeared alongside Joel in Last of Us. Even though Joel was the playable character for most of the game, the relationship between the two of them made the game what it is. She may have been much younger, way less burly, with a ton less experience, but Ellie was as much Joel’s protector as he was hers.
So we were pretty much beside ourselves when in 2020 Ellie got a whole game to herself: Last of Us Part II. The game’s picked up more awards than you can shake a stick at- from BAFTAs to Game Awards. Fearless and kind, even in the face of extreme trauma, Ellie isn’t just one of the greatest ever female characters. She’s one of the greatest ever video game characters, full stop.
Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)
Aloy has been another huge step in the right direction when it comes to female characters. Yes, she can fight and has real, human emotions. But one of the most refreshing things is that in the game they don’t even make a big deal out of the fact she’s a woman.
Her outfit isn’t designed to show off her figure, in a way that shouts ‘look it’s a real lady!’ In fact, in Horizon: Zero Dawn being female isn’t an obstacle to overcome at all, as her tribe is matriarchal. She is surrounded by other equally awesome women. Aloy is a well-rounded interesting character with vulnerability and strength… and her gender doesn’t really come into it.
Also, we know this list doesn’t even begin to cover all the incredible female video game characters out there! Honourable mentions definitely have to go to Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3, Jill Valentine from Resident Evil and Faith Connors from Mirrors Edge for paving the way. Showing that women are strong, capable and inspiring. And that we deserve to see that on our screens.
If we’ve inspired you and you’re on the look out for some more recent games to play, try these. We’ve already mentioned Last Of Us Part II but Ellie is just the tip of the iceberg- check out Abby and Yara. 505 Games’ Control is also one of the best female-led games in the last 5 years, with sharp writing bringing main character Jesse Faden to life. Then there’s Kassandra and Eivor from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross from Uncharted: Lost Legacy. We could go on and on. But we won’t. We’ll let you get on with discovering these unbelievable games instead…
-Written by Sophie Mullen, resident gaming expert