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Plugged In

Female video game characters shedding stereotypes

Plugged In

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Tomb Raider's Lara Croft and BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth (Credit: Square-Enix/2K Games)

Female characters have had a rather dubious run in the video game world. When they aren't damsels in distress, they're oversexualized stereotypes meant to titillate rather than foster a sense of empowerment in players.

There have been exceptions, of course -- Half-Life 2's Alyx or Samus from Metroid -- but progress has been slow. In the past year, though, the exceptions are starting to become … well, if not the rule, less of the exception.

Whether it's the rebirth of iconic female protagonist Lara Croft or the depth of a non-playable companion like BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth, more and more female characters are showing a strength that writers and developers have denied them previously.

In some cases, the first step in doing so was actually acknowledging their gender.

"From a narrative standpoint we didn’t completely ignore that Lara is female," Rhianna Pratchett, the writer behind this year's Tomb Raider reboot, told KillScreenDaily. "But we didn’t sort of yell it out either. It wasn’t all about that -- being female. But we did bring it in, because it’s part of who she is. She is a young woman, so we wanted her to feel like a real young woman. That was one of the problems in the past with old Lara. It became all about her gender, particularly about her boobs. There is more to gender than what you have on the front of your chest."

While some critics took issue with Lara's vulnerabilities in the early part of the game, the character is always loyal to her friends and determined to survive. The game focuses on her development into the iconic heroine of the original game, who was lost in subsequent sequels. She relies on her friends, but not in a helpless way -- and very quickly, it's apparent that they depend on her even more.

This same sort of strength of character was seen in Mass Effect, where players could choose to play as series star Commander Shepard as either a male or female – with many finding that choosing "FemShep" (as the option came to be known) made for a more entertaining experience.

"[The character] was written neither as a man or a woman but as a human being," says Jennifer Hale, the voice artist who brought the character to life. "For the most part, [developers] have just dismissed women's roles, but it's changing."

While part of that philosophical change could be enlightenment on the part of game makers, some of it is pure demogaphics. 47 percent of the people who play games these days are women -- and for the industry to grow, it has to be more than just dudebros with giant guns.

Unfortunately, not all game developers have been as quick on the uptake as others. EA Sports, responsible for the lion's share of sports video games, was recently called out by a 13-year-old girl for continually failing to include women in its smash hit FIFA soccer series. And the presence of hypersexualized female characters is hardly a thing of the past.

But the tide is turning. Even in roles where they're not the star of the game, female characters are starting to show strength and character development that has previously been absent.

Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth could easily have been an A.I. that was an afterthought, getting in the character's way in combat and being no more important than a package players are sent to retrieve.

Instead, she's an ally in battle, keeping you stocked with ammo and salts, which are critical for the powers you acquire as you play. And the written interaction between her character and your Booker DeWitt creates a rare, realistic bond, making players actually care about Elizabeth.

"There's a guy named Tim Austin in my office who was a programmer back in the day -- way back in the day -- and then he became a designer," Bioshock Infinite guru Ken Levine told Grantland. "He ended up as a designer-programmer on this project. Very early on, he was influential. He said, basically, 'Elizabeth always has to be there as an assistant and never as a burden.' … Every time we had Elizabeth doing something, it was always under that lens of: Is she a relationship or a burden?"

Elizabeth is just one of several recent companion characters who may not be playable in games, but who are critical nonetheless. Clementine, the character players protected in last year’s Game of the Year winner The Walking Dead, is, due to her age, very dependent on the player. But as the series moves forward, she learns to be self-reliant, taking on dangerous missions on her own volition and ultimately facing the hardest choice in the game.

Compared to Duck, another child who appears to be in her general age range, Clem is light years ahead in terms of intelligence and maturity. And while she's young, she's not afraid to speak her mind

Similarly, Cortana, Master Chief's AI companion in the Halo series, moved from a plot device in the early Halo games to a much more relatable character in Halo 4. While physically diminutive, she has a larger than life personality – one that's much more dominant than that of Master Chief.

The irony there, of course, is that Cortana has been essentially naked for as long as players have known her, something that normally might overshadow her strengths. But 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor says Cortana's appearance – in the game universe, at least – is actually one of her strengths.

"[AIs in the game universe] are allowed to choose their own appearance. … I think the fact that she is a beautiful, blue, naked lady is tactically designed to put people on their heels and make her a little bit more in charge than she might otherwise be," he told Game Informer. "I can't believe I'm arguing for her nudity as a feminist ideal, but … I've always felt it gave her an advantage over people in conversations because it was a little bit distracting and it put them off their guard."

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