One of the major points of contention in video games today is the portrayal of female characters. Namely, the concern is that female characters tend to be oversexualized and objectified to appeal to a predominantly young male base. Whether this is borne out of premeditated sexism or mere laziness is a topic in and of itself, but I’d rather talk about two female characters that I really like that break this trend. Neither of these characters are particularly sexualized or objectified (one not at all), and while there is certainly a lot of room for growth for female characters in games, I think these two provide some interesting points to consider.
First is Lightning from the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. I realize that this trilogy has not gotten the most praise, and it certainly has its flaws, but what struck me most about this series is how it uses its female characters, particularly its protagonist, Lightning. JRPGs have always had a variety of female characters, but Lightning serves a unique role.
In a sense, she’s not really a female character at all–no part of her character really tends toward masculine or feminine. At best, she’s a big sister to several important characters, but her actions are not uniquely female or male in any particular way. At worst, she’s a tomboy, but the games take a lot of steps to eliminate any significant gender leanings.
Canonically, she’s clearly meant to be a woman, but her actions and development don’t really differentiate her from a male or androgynous character. Her clothes are feminine, wearing a skirt in the first game and having breast indentations in her armor, but that’s about as far as it goes. She acts like a soldier and leads her companions, but there are no sexual or motherly overtones that many female characters are bogged down with. Her reactions to typical feminine actions, particularly in Lightning Returns, are met with grief and frustration. If you replaced her with a man, almost nothing about her would change. And I find that fascinating.
In a sense, she’s either a male character with a female skin (though that brings up questions on what we consider masculine), or, as I prefer to see it, she’s an androgynous character entirely. This is a welcome change in that there is nothing about her character that has to be particularly gendered, and in an industry where female characters are hampered down by their gender, it’s a surprisingly bold yet astonishingly easy approach.
My favorite female character, however, goes to Brooke Augustine, the villain of Infamous: Second Son. I love this character on so many levels. First, she’s a villain, and female villains (at least main female villains) are not common. Second, she also avoids the typical female character trappings and is written more as an androgynous solider. But what I really like about her, something that I think is unique among video games, is this: she looks like she’s in her 40s.
Hear me out on this. Most women in video games are either in their late teens/early 20s with perky breasts and slim legs and generally attractive. Look for female characters that are not attractive and you’ll be looking for a long time. The one exception is the other kind of women in most video games: old ladies. Wrinkly, haggard, white-haired old women. If you’re a woman in a video game, you’re either a young, hot babe or an old, wise maid.
This is why Brooke Augustine fascinates me so much. She’s clearly older than most female characters, probably in her late 30s or early 40s. She’s the head of a small army and directs the lives of several thousands of citizens in the world of Infamous, particularly when she basically takes marital law control of Seattle. She’s not dressed particularly differently from her other soldiers, and while her motivations are arguably motherly, her actions throughout the game indicate a ruthless, ambitious, controlling visionary whose word is law.
There’s so much to unpack with Augustine, and I wish that the game gave her a little more characterization, but what little they give us (and what they leave out) provides one of the best female characters in video games. I really hope that other games can learn from Infamous: Second Son and give us more nuanced and varied characters in general, regardless of gender. But given the ongoing concern about female characters in games in general, Augustine is a great example of how to use a female character in a traditionally male role and make it work seamlessly.
If there’s one undercurrent between these two characters, it’s that they’re both somewhat androgynous or tomboyish. Both are soldiers, both act on their own strong sense of moral code, and both eschew sexuality in favor of their duty. While I personally interpret these traits as androgynous, there is certainly an argument to be made that these are typically masculine traits. As such, I worry that game designers will simply take the approach of writing a masculine character and then sticking a female skin on it to make a “progressive female character.” Personally, this is how I interpret Mass Effect‘s approach to Shepard, and I think it’s kind of a copout. It works for Mass Effect because it’s harder to write two sets of dialogue for one character, but it wouldn’t work for Augustine. I personally have faith that good writers will make good female characters, but I would not be surprised if the AAA industry, in an effort to create more female characters, simply takes their male archetypes and textures a woman instead. This is more of an academic exercise; keep an eye out over the next few years of how female characters are implemented and whether they are uniquely well crafted female characters or sloppy rewrites of male characters. I’m excited to see how where it goes from here.