Like many of us in the gamersphere, I recently read Penny Arcade Report’s piece on the upcoming Phillip K. Dick-esque thriller Remember Me and was angry (though not at all surprised) to hear that the game struggled to find a publisher simply because the main character is female. Somehow, this is still seen as gamer-money repellent by the Powers That Be, even though there are a) reportedly more women playing video games than ever before and b) several examples of successful titles with ladies in the lead.
You’d think that publishers of first person shooters would be less leery to embrace this, seeing as how you typically spend most or even all of that kind of game not even seeing the face behind the weapon. Are we seriously approaching a world where women can finally serve in combat roles in the military but can’t hold guns out in front of them in order to mow down aliens, zombies, robots or some combination of the three? Come on! This is supposed to be the future we’re living in!
So, I did a little research, and I collected some examples of games (or game series) in which women point and shoot. There aren’t as many as you might think, and I’m guessing you don’t even think there are that many, but it’s kind of compensated for by the fact that some are very famous and important to the history of the medium. Be advised that as a ground rule, I’m only counting games in which the central avatar is – or can be – definitively female, and a specific character, so those with customizable protagonists that can go either gender do not qualify. Also, I’m just considering games that feature this as part of the main campaign or “story mode,” so don’t complain about Goldeneye not being on here because you totally schooled all your friends as Natalya.
And while I’m happy to be informed of titles I missed, let’s keep our eyes on the bigger picture: I don’t want to bring out the battle trolls so much as get everyone thinking about these particular games and what their use of a player character without a shaved head and a five o’clock shadow says about them, our great virtual pastime and ourselves.
11) Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2
We’ll start with a couple of “ensemble shooters” in which a female character is one of a list of possible options. I tried really hard to find a suitable YouTube clip for this one without getting buried in the mountain of pervy fan slashvids and machinima…trust me, it was nearly a fool’s errand. Both of the Left 4 Dead games contain a token woman (Zoey in the first, Rochelle in the second) probably inserted for diversity points more than anything else, or because these games ape cinematic conventions and that’s what Hollywood would do anyway.
While there aren’t extensive opportunities for their personalities to develop, these two do have unique backstories: Zoey is a horror movie buff and Ro a former TV news producer who apparently has a thing for Depeche Mode (we have yet to hear her opinion on Delta Machine, though my hunch is she’s more of an old-school Violator fan). Both seem to fill a function as being the sole female on their “team”, but beyond that are relative blank slates. In the second games’ DLC “The Passing,” the two do get to finally meet but don’t seem to have much interaction other than to be relieved that there’s another woman left on earth. I guess that means L4D2 passes the Bechdel Test, if only just barely.
10) Timesplitters/Timesplitters 2
The third (and so far, latest) game in the zany Timesplitters series focused mainly on Sgt. Cortez, sort of a goofy version of Vin Diesel from the future, and turned a tongue-in-cheek franchise into an outright spoof. But you might not remember that the first two installments gave players a chance to try on a matching pair of sex chromosomes on numerous occasions. The original Timesplitters actually had a different pair of male and female characters for each level, giving us a whole host of instances in which femmes got to get fatal wielding weapons and blasting monsters throughout the course of history.
This was a neat way of opening up the game’s crazy, monkey-filled universe and allowing for more of a feeling of involvement with these different areas. The second (and my personal favorite) entry changed things up a bit by dropping you into one protagonist per time period, Quantum Leap style. While this meant fewer women in the main cast, some did make an appearance, notably Viola in the spooky Notre Dame level. Of course, Timesplitters 2 really shines in the breadth of its multiplayer modes, featuring almost three times as many characters as Chrono Cross, many of whom are female and some of whom must have been conceived via some kind of chemical inspiration. For a series in which bizarre characters like “The Shoal” are available, I suppose it isn’t as big of a deal to shift the spotlight away from a dude every once and a while.
9) Borderlands/Borderlands 2
Girlfriend Mode-gate aside, the eye-popping Borderlands series has so far been fairly inclusive when it comes to female player characters, in that there are multiple on offer. True, like L4D, the ratio appears to be 1:3 against, but the girls-only Siren class comes with its own Phase-related abilities unique to each character. In addition to the first game’s Lilith, the sequel has so far given us both Maya and the “mechromancer” Gaige. With them, we’ve seen the game’s universe expand and been exposed to different classes and abilities on the dilapidated planet Pandora (I like to imagine it’s the same planet from Avatar, hundreds of thousands years after the Great Plotdevicium Shortage of 8086).
While you could lump Maya and Lilith into that kind of generic “sexy mysterious girl with powers and a gun” category, Gaige at least represents an attempt at a different type of well-known trope with the whole punk/gear girl thing. And although this argument is overused, the environs and characters of the game are hyper-stylized across the board, so at least there’s some consistency…I suppose? On the other hand, this is also the series with the DLC titled “Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty,” so take from that what you will. At least there’s the self-aware use of devices like Innuendobot to comment on the game’s deliberately suggestive content. Regardless, Borderlands proves that at least giving the player the option of being a woman does not automatically make for a HARD sell. Flirtatious eyebrow raise.
8+7) Time Crisis 3/House of the Dead 3+4
No, I don’t mean to imply that just because these “light rail shooters” seem to resemble the kind of games the kids of 2015 Hill Valley would term “baby’s toys,” they are all the same, but they’re similar enough for me to lump them together into one entry because shut up. Apparently when it comes to this subgenre of gun-centric roller-coaster rides, it takes a few games to build up to the notion that one of the players might actually be…gasp!…female. But both Time Crisis and House of the Dead have shown a sense of equality at least once by allowing ladies to take up arms against a sea of henchman and/or zombies, and by opposing, shoot a shit ton of them. You can thank Alicia Winston, Lisa Rogan and Kate Green for representin’, as they joined the ranks of odd-looking agents wielding comical guns against pop-up targets towards the tail ends of their respective franchises.
Crisis went back on this standard for the fourth game, which just offered two men, but House at least kept this heterogeneous standard for the second half of the main series. I don’t understand why these games couldn’t have given you the choice of one male and one female character at the beginning a la Timesplitters, but far be it from me to question companies like Namco. And while the glass ceiling seems to have been in effect for the beloved Typing of the Dead, too, that was probably a wise career decision on Lisa and Kate’s parts. While we’re on the subject, I wonder if folksinger James Taylor knows he’s been killing evil undead creatures for years, and even moreso why the makers of these games didn’t press for a soundtrack.
6) Jurassic Park: Trespasser
Unleashed in the late 90’s to capitalize on a certain dinosaur action movie sequel you may have heard of, Trespasser appears to be remembered these days (if at all) for being woefully ambitious and something of a perfect storm of badness. A Perfect Storm video game would probably be more fun than what resulted, actually. Nevertheless, it retains something of a cult following, maybe because of these notably lackluster qualities. Basically, the plot has you guiding Minnie Driver (yes, really) as her character Anne, who appears to be some sort of double-jointed, one-armed dwarf, through Isla Sorna, “the other island” from The Lost World, while the disembodied voice of Richard Attenborough counts the minutes until it can get the hell out of this disaster and cash its paycheck.
Among the many well-intentioned but horribly executed features is the lack of onscreen status markers, with Anne simply narrating the amount of ammo in every gun she uses. This may technically mean she has the most dialogue of any shooter protagonist of either gender in history, a dubious distinction in this context. Trespasser was supposedly an attempt to achieve some sort of higher level of realism for our beloved medium: in hindsight, it makes Minecraft look like a novel by Zola in comparison. This thing really needs to be seen to be believed. I’m ashamed to say I only even know it exists at all because its heroine placed on a list of “Best Boobs in Video Games” (there go all my feminism points…). What does it say about a game when it forces you to check out your protagonist’s rack in order to see how much health you have left? And what does it say about me that I know this?
5) The Metroid Prime series
Wikipedia and Nintendo appear to prefer “first person adventure” as a label for this series, but that’s two-thirds of what we’re looking for anyway, and there’s an awful lot of shooting so we’re going to count it (whatever you say, it’s a lot closer in design to Doom than Myst). Prime came along at an important time and managed to win fans over despite deviating a little from the previously established Metroid format and, shocker of shockers, featuring a woman as a protagonist. Of course, in this case the woman in question is Famous Samus (pronounced “Fammus Sammus”) herself, one of the most prolific women ever to take center stage in a video game series, yet this was the first real time we got to pull behind her visor.
You could argue that the embrace of this new vantage point made the series a little less special, but I think most would agree that Prime’s innovations brought Metroid forward in a way that kept true to its spirit. And they didn’t nix the Morph Ball mode, for which we can be grateful. Once again, the idea that a female character is enough to sink a game financially seems ludicrous, as the Prime series has proven quite successful in the long haul. But perhaps it was the established strength of the brand, that carried the transition over, as Samus was a familiar and iconic enough figure to warrant a new stylistic approach. Either way, it worked for that particular situation, allowing for a neat incorporation of the different interfaces in a way that clicked. And continuing with my tactic of not stirring up flame wars, I’m going to avoid mentioning Other M at all…except for that…whoops…
4) Mirror’s Edge
Meant to be a huge, trendsetting hit, Mirror’s Edge ended up initially falling quite short of commercial expectations despite its emphasis on crazy physics and Wachowski-style acrobatics. This might have been because it’s only peripherally a shooter: though there are weapons available, the focus is more on running around and doing the sort of things that usually get played in slow-mo during Zack Snyder movies. However, fans seemed to have warmed to it over time. Faith, a “runner” in a totalitarian near-future drawn into a Sinister Plot involving her sister, must have the metabolism of a twelve-year old, or else she’s eating nothing but yogurt and raw eggs, because how else is she able to maintain a near-sprint for most of the game? I know I would have difficulty climbing over the fence in the training level, never mind holding on to the bottom of a helicopter or some of the other crazy stunts that pop up later.
Like most of the protagonists mentioned in this list, Faith’s gender doesn’t dictate her behavior or limit what she has to do: she’s a lead first and female second. Despite the lower sales numbers, Mirror’s Edge actually scored some pretty decent reviews during its release, though not enough to save it from the general feeling of failure. It’s all good, though, as a sequel is still supposedly in the works, meaning we’ll get the chance to scream at ourselves as we repeatedly fall to the ground below all over again.
3) The Operative: No One Lives Forever/No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way
Probably one of the most noteworthy examples of a strong FPS female heroine from the turn of the Millennium is Cate Archer, the sassy Emma Peel-esque agent from the 60’s world of the short-lived No One Lives Forever franchise. Though it’s not extensively discussed nowadays, this series had color, humor, and a real sense of fun about its design that’s disappointingly rare (not even Goldeneye gave us a chase scene where you got to shoot at mimes while riding a tricycle). Yeah, the wackiness might have been a bit overpowering at times, but it’s always nice to see a shooter that’s upbeat, rather than the dour slog through the mud’n’th’blood that so many modern examples seem to be, at least from the outside.
Despite the Austin Powers-esque tone of her games, Agent Archer kicked serious ass without wearing face-obscuring armor, balancing competence and lethality with a sensible-ish wardrobe. Her memorable last line in the first game can be seen as a kind of ironic, meta-taunt to the industry, although I’m not sure it was intended that way. Even though she was cut out for the final installment in the franchise, the lukewarmly received Contract J.A.C.K., Archer is the real star of the series and the symbol of what it represents. Unfortunately, as of this writing it appears that despite an enduring fanbase, the NOLF games will not be sniping their way to our modern consoles in the foreseeable future, possibly due to a shadowy Secret Cabal of Bros that has bought the rights just to make sure it never gets re-released (but maybe just because of ordinary licensing issues).
2) The Perfect Dark series
With a title like that, you might accuse Rare of being a bit grandiose (I guess Totally Acceptable Dark doesn’t have the same ring to it, somehow). Lara Croft gets all the press, but Joanna Dark is an equally adventurous heroine who helped diversify the sausage fest of N64-era shooters while being sexualized slightly (slightly!) less than many of her contemporaries. In a near future a lot cooler than what we’ll probably end up with, she battles evil weird aliens, amped-up Asiatic supervillains and corrupt corporations, all in a style that was close to what we knew, while providing something fresh and different.
I suppose that as a character Jo is a bit bland, but so are a lot of heroes, really, and that doesn’t mean her games can’t be fun. And there’s an interesting balance struck between different genres and tones, with the more absurd aspects of the plot still working. After the canceled Perfect Dark Core, we have yet to see if another game is in the cards, but even though the series didn’t see the same kind of astronomical sales as some, surely there’s cause to bring it back somehow through another sequel.
1) Portal/Portal 2
Is this cheating? I know Portal might not qualify as a “shooter” in the traditional sense, but it’s hard to ignore lead character Chell as a standard when it comes to the equivocal use of gender in narrative games of any genre. No exploitation, no pre-conceived notions: much like the original reveal of Samus, there was nothing in the gameplay to tip you off that your character was a woman instead of the bland, husky white dude preferred by some titles. True, this lack of information extends to Chell’s general demeanor, as we know very little about her at all and have yet to hear her speak, but it does prove that FPS heroes don’t need to be male “just because” and don’t damage market possibilities as a matter of fact. If I were to be optimistic, I might say that Chell will go down as a historic figure in gaming – but that, of course, depends on history.