In an industry dominated by men, both on screen and off, it’s easy to dismiss the power of the female narrative. Here are 10 women from video games who are powerful, brave and inventive—far more interesting than all of the Nathan Drakes, Adam Jensens, and Soldier 76’s littering the gaming landscape. Playing as these women and interacting with their stories not only provided memorable experiences but shaped the narrative of their own lives for the better.
Kathy Rain – Kathy Rain
Kathy Rain is the first female protagonist I thought I could be friends with. She’s not a macho-action-hero-plus-boobs, a magical girl, or a chosen one: she’s sarcastic as hell and never stops asking questions.
When Kathy goes home for her grandfather’s funeral, she dives headlong into an investigation of his death. While she was away from home, he was looking into things around town, things that could have gotten him, quite literally, silenced. This not only takes her through a laundry list of unsavory locales, but also into her own past and soul. She may have a razor tongue, but she digs into dangerous and painful topics because she genuinely cares about the people involved.
Eileen, Kathy’s obviously (and probably overly) Christian roommate is a great example of someone Kathy cares deeply about. While the two start the game civil, it’s clear they both think the other should probably be doing something else with their lives. But as Kathy relies on Eileen during her investigation, we see that she doesn’t let their difference of beliefs keep her from valuing Eileen as a person, and eventually, a friend.
When I think about the most meaningful women in my life, they share a lot in common with Kathy: they’re opinionated, compassionate, and tenacious. I love getting to see a woman like that in a game and I’m looking forward to seeing more in the possible sequel. -Madeline Turnipseed
Elena Fisher – Uncharted Series
“Sic parvis magna—Greatness, from small beginnings.” This motto is most often associated with Uncharted’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, but should be for Elena Fisher as well.
Some female video game characters stand out because of their outlandish costumes, eccentric personalities, or tragic backstories. They are mystical warrior princesses, angsty superpowered teenagers, and deadly space marines. But Elena is different—you could pass her on the street without realizing the greatness hidden behind her casual demeanor. She displays incredible courage against insurmountable odds, and in a world of pirates, fortune-seekers, and mercenaries, she not only holds her own, but is more often the one doing the rescuing. She is cunning and resourceful, outsmarting opponents and allies alike.
Rather than sacrificing herself for trinkets long forgotten in ancient tombs, she risks life and limb to protect what’s important to her—something that took five separate adventures for her friends to realize. Seemingly ordinary at first glance, Elena is extraordinary in every way. Her actions and character are the stuff of legend. -Lasse Lund
Aloy – Horizon Zero Dawn
An “alloy” is a combination of two metals, the result better than either original. Horizon Zero Dawn’s cunning and adventurous protagonist, Aloy, embodies that same duality.
Raised to follow primitive Nora traditions, her upbringing is augmented by Old World heritage that gives her unique insight and understanding. She is a fierce warrior and a skilled huntress, but her strength is tempered by deep compassion and a willingness to help others. Never backing down from a challenge, she takes in the world with wide-eyed wonder that belies her maturity and abilities.
Aloy is the perfect blend of strength and empathy, physical prowess and intelligence, innocence and wisdom—a hero to the people in her story and an example to those of us who experience it with her. -Lasse Lund
Akane “June” Kurashiki – Zero Escape Trilogy
Fate gave June a bad hand; June reinvented fate.
It is hard to nail down a central figure in Kotaro Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape Trilogy. If there is one, however, it is the woman of many faces and many ages: Akane Kurashiki, A.K.A. “June.”
When I first met June, I got the distinct feeling that I was interacting with the stereotypical “good girl.” By the time I’d completed the first game (999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors), I learned this was only a clever ruse: not just by the game’s creator, but by June herself. Her deceptions were not cruel or devious but a fight for her survival and the survival of her world (her time/world-line). Across the trilogy, we see the lasting impact of a woman driven to do what it takes to surmount evil powers and bring about a better world. -Patrick Gann
Naoto Shirogane – Persona 4
Amongst the strong females throughout gaming history proudly showing their femininity while simultaneously brandishing firearms (Lara Croft, Bayonetta, Jill Valentine), Naoto Shirogane stands out because she personifies the issues women face in the real world.
Earning her nickname, “The Detective Prince,” by holding a male facade, Naoto slips into and works with the police force, a traditionally male-dominated field. And at the expense of deepening her voice, keeping her hair short, and sporting a boys’ uniform from school, she succeeds. She shows us the hardships of being a young woman, but also how we do not have to let those hardships affect us. Her character development will always be my favorite in gaming. By choosing to accept herself as she is, and ignoring the social and cultural norms of men ruling certain careers, Naoto overcomes her self consciousness. With the encouragement of her friends, she shows us that we don’t have to let insecurities keep us from doing what we love. -Tieranie Albright
Ana Amari – Overwatch
Maternal feelings are usually ascribed to mothers, but we’ve all experienced the instinctual pull to place the safety and needs of the young before our own. Video games illustrate the impact of maternal bonds through character and gameplay with rare examples like Super Metroid (Samus and the baby Metroid) and Resident Evil 2 (Claire Redfield and Sherry Birkin). It’s truly an honorable, powerful role, and despite the genre, Overwatch manages to extract these virtues with one of the games’ best snipers, Ana Amari.
It is unheard of for a player character to be an elderly Egyptian woman, but, the Overwatch community embraced Ana with open arms. I fell in love with her doting dialogue and indomitable will. She reminded me of my own mom—encouraging her “children” to stand on their own, yet there to pick them back up when they fall. Her dual play-style as a healing sniper reflects this personality. She can protect others and herself. She’s graceful and fierce. Loving and tough.
Ana’s responsibilities give me fleeting glimpses of what motherhood can be like. Like most mothers, who can be some of the most powerful and influential I know, she deals with thankless, unruly “kids” and gives it her all regardless. -Joey Thurmond
Commander “FemShep” Shepherd – Mass Effect Series
“Enlightening” is not a descriptive word we use often. Usually reserved for higher art forms like classic literature, portraits, or biographies, it is the only word that properly describes the effect the female Commander Shepherd had on me during my third playthrough of the Mass Effect series.
We all have prejudices, whether we are aware of them or not. Based on factors such as gender, we often think of people a certain way before they have a chance to prove us otherwise. I will admit I had a prejudice against female military officers or women occupying high political office. I also admit I only tried a playthrough of Mass Effect as “FemShep” because I heard great things about the voice acting. I never bargained that she would expose my ignorant fears about women in positions of power. Shepherd’s trouble in commanding or negotiating was because she was human and not because she was a woman. Soldiers follow leaders worth following, and Shepherd exhibits all the qualities of the great military leaders of the past. It was informing to my teenage mind that great leaders could come in a feminine form. It was an experience that colors my thoughts and political debates even today. All because of three games spent with the female messiah of Mass Effect. -Andrew Crawford
Lightning – Final Fantasy XIII 1-3
Growing up, Final Fantasy games—with their refined spiky hair and quiet protagonists—were everything to me. I bought Final Fantasy XIII on the day of its release, and it was there that I met Claire Farron, also known as Lightning: the main protagonist who was calm, collected, and to many, emotionless. “She’s powerful but boring.” “She doesn’t have an interesting history.” “She is just another soldier.” I’ve seen the complaints, but such complaints seem rooted in a negative reaction of a woman “acting like a man” rather than her personal story. The Final Fantasy series (and many other RPGs) overflow with silent protagonists who bring little color or emotional spectrum with little to no outcry. Cloud, from Final Fantasy VII, is one of the most famous.
Throughout her story, Lightning focuses on her role as a leader, a sister, and “The Messenger”— all at the cost of her own wants and feelings. She stifles her emotions to save her sister, and then the world. This doesn’t mean that she’s emotionless, but like many women in this world, remains strong against the forces rallying against her to save others.
In the end, Lightning smiles because she can finally lay down the mantle of soldier and be herself. She can embrace herself as Claire Farron, the sister, and let go of Lightning, the “emotionless” soldier. -Ryan Guerra
Samus – Metroid
The inclusion of Samus on this list may seem controversial. Few would contest the influence of Metroid on expectations of feminine characterization in video games, but whether that influence has been a net positive is far from certain. Metroid was, after all, the game which not only revealed that its protagonist was a woman upon a successful run, but also revealed more of that woman’s body depending on how quickly the player could complete their run. It doesn’t seem a reach to interpret that each gradation of non-dress was a reward corresponding to the performance of the player (likely presumed to be male). And this is understandably troubling—not necessarily because Samus’s femininity was sexualized, but because her sexuality was commodified according to a structure meant to reward the male gaze.
So why honor Samus?
My own reasons are personal. Growing up in the nineties amidst marketing campaigns for children’s products aimed at either girls or boys, it seemed more correct to favor franchises aimed at my demographic—franchises like Power Rangers the cast of which consisted of a 4-to-2 male majority. I could identify with Billy, Zach, Jason, and Tommy, but Kimberly and Trini, well… they were there, too.
The impact of Samus on this early chapter of my life is difficult to overstate. In Samus I found a nuanced set of qualities that I could aspire to. She was hyper-competent, but maintained a measured temperament, with a hammer of justice (that is, an arm cannon) in one hand, and the other extended to those in need, even when those in need wore the skin of the enemy. Ironically, it is likely because I was exposed to Metroid that I am now able to see those aspects of Metroid that are less than helpful. Samus gave me a reason to look up to a female character in fiction, and in doing so, contributed to my interest in feminism. -Kerry Shawgo
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider Series
It’s strange to tell people that a gun-toting, British aristocrat changed your life, but for this rural West Virginian girl, I have no other way to describe what happened to my fourteen-year-old self as I played Tomb Raider II for the third time that summer. As sequels released, I became more active, more confident, and developed a hunger for history that I had never had before. Playing the fearless, independent Lara Croft transformed my perception of myself and the world around me. I would never be Lara Croft, but when I looked in the mirror those subsequent years, I saw a girl who didn’t need a man swooping in to save her, but someone who was on her way to rescuing herself.
Lara Croft stands as a character that shows girls the importance of adventure, defending yourself, and creating your own future. Lara took her personal tragedy—the loss of her parents—and became the person she needed to be. She became her own investigator and her own historian, seeking out her own answers and charting her own personal voyage. In a culture of men choosing women’s paths without their consent, the Tomb Raider series gave us someone who charted her own path and was proud of her accomplishments and learned from her mistakes. It showed this hillbilly girl that a fulfilling future wasn’t always about marriage and partnership, but about following your passions. It showed me that there was a world of adventure and wonder beyond the tree-lined, West Virginian road where I was raised. And for that—for making me the confident, independent and adventurous adult I am today—I am eternally grateful. -Stephanie Skiles