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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Female Characters I Like

I wrote a post on Tuesday about gender and games that was pretty general - it's one thing to say "I think stuff is bad!" and another to say "I think these particular things are bad!" and a third to say "I think these particular things are good!" Today I want to do the last.

One of the issues when talking about women and gaming is media in general, and games particularly, have trouble portraying women in a way that's not stereotyping, short-sighted, or otherwise problematic. Some do better than others, though, and I'd like to talk about some representations of women in games that, while not perfect, do certain things well, avoiding common mistakes and generally writing women that behave kind of like, you know, people.

Terra and Celes, Final Fantasy 6

Pictured: Terra.
In general, I feel like Final Fantasy doesn't do great at characterization period; many of the characters are pretty shallow, with the male leads especially tending towards mopey existential crisis in a way I could identify with as a teenager but which I find more than a little ridiculous now. And even though a lot of the female characters tend to be kind of one-dimensional and/or oversexualized and/or fall too easily into stereotype, it still does better than other games through sheer volume of characters. Having a lot of them indicates that you're at least aware that women can fill multiple roles, even if none of them are particularly progressive.

But! Final Fantasy 6 does really well, I think, through a couple of its main characters. The player begins the game as Terra, a part-magical-being-part-human woman who spends a lot of the game trying to figure out what of her emotionlessness is due to being half-monster and what is just due to being a Final Fantasy character. She struggles especially with love, wondering why she isn't attracted to any of the super-sexy male characters.

By the end of the game, Terra's realized that she doesn't actually need a man to experience love, having found an orphanage full of children to take care of. Granted, she's trading one traditional female role for another, but the active rejection of a male relationship is something you don't frequently see in video games (or, hell, a lot of other media). Oh, and also she acts as a lynchpin for the plot by being a bridge between the modern technological world and an ancient magical one, and also she saves the world once or twice by herself - she's got a lot going on, especially given that she's one of fourteen playable characters. Besides, that character turn would bother me more if it weren't for Celes.
Celes begins the game as a military general for the evil empire (evil, because empire) but changes her mind to support the heroes and pursue a romance with the main(est) male character, Locke. In the middle of the game, when everyone gets separated after a worldwide calamity, Celes is the first person able to get it together enough to search for everybody, reuniting them so that they can take on the big baddy at the end of the game. And, yeah, she has a male love interest, and though they stay romantic partners throughout the game, you don't actually need to collect Locke to beat the game (if I recall right - feel free to correct me on that). These two characters drive the plot forward not by being objects or by being love interests, but by having goals, ambitions, and initiative, and it's something I've always enjoyed about this game over others in the franchise.

Alexandra Roivas, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

If you missed Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, you missed out. It's a survival-horror game in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft tales, where you follow about a dozen characters across four locations and two millennia to uncover an unspeakable horror's slow plot to unleash itself on mankind. So, business as usual. Tying the threads together is Alex, a modern-day woman investigating her grandfather's mansion after his untimely demise and piecing together the stories of the other characters.

This is her "Not having any of your BS" expression. It is her only expression.
Alex is an example of a very reasonable way to make a good female lead character: not making a big deal out of it. No mandatory love interest, no moments where her femininity causes her to be weak or submissive, no point where she doesn't get done what needs get done. Again: not a big deal, except that there are so many main male characters like this, and so few main female characters like this.

Tetra, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Ok, spoilers, etc., but really if you haven't played Wind Waker by now you're letting yourself down.

Pirate-form Tetra.
Tetra is a boss, chipper captain of a gang of pirates. She acts tough, but underneath it, she's . . . no, actually, she's just tough. Link has more personality in Wind Waker than in any of the other games: he's kind and courageous, but pretty dense, and to say he acts before he thinks would suggest that he does much thinking at all.

Tetra is a counterpoint to Link, taking care of some of the more practical considerations during his quest and bailing him out on more than one occasion when his courage gets in the way of proper decision making. Even in the final fight scene, Tetra and Link have to work together, with him distracting Ganondorf as she takes shots at him, and vice versa.

so happy this picture exists
The big objection to Tetra in this game is that once she is revealed to be Zelda, she immediately cedes a ton of agency and becomes a way more passive, standard princess to be saved. Until that point, however, she's a fun and fascinating character. More importantly, within the context of the Zelda series, which has very few active women, Tetra stands out as one of the more memorable characters period, and helps make Wind Waker one of the best titles in the series.

So! If we were really going to take this apart in a feminist reading, there are clearly objections you could make to any of these characters. But in general, what makes them work is pretty simple: they have agency and goals beyond fulfilling stereotypes. That's all! In practice there are complications because as people who consume media, we have ideas about what tropes and character archetypes make for a compelling story - but those archetypes can be problematic, and reexamining them can help keep characters feeling more fresh, relatable, and realistic.
Do any of you have examples of favorite female characters? Or, as an alternative: favorites characters of any kind that's often presented either unfavorably or unrealistically? 


  1. Your talk of Tetra made me think of how interesting Impa was in Skyward Sword. At the end of the game, she has been both an active character (story-wise) moving through the world with her own agenda and a passive do-nothing who stays in one room... simultaneously!

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