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March 16, 2015

Top 10(ish) Cool Video Game Ladies

Oh, hey, March is still Women’s History Month.  So, given what month it is, and what’s a legitimate issue in the gaming world, and what sort of site this is, and what’s in the title of the post, I think it’s about time for me to highlight some pretty cool ladies in gaming.  With some caveats, of course.

So let’s set some ground rules.  One: as I’ve said, and as you know, the treatment of fictional female characters in general tends to be pretty garbage; we should have way more of them in leading roles, in games or otherwise.  THAT SAID, I don’t want to devalue other female characters just because they don’t take top billing -- because if we start doing that, we give the cold shoulder to a lot of good ones.  As you’ll see shortly.  For your satisfaction.

All right, then.  Two: it should go without saying, but the characters that show up in this post are those based on my opinions and experiences.  I don’t mind thinking that Max from Life is Strange is a good character, but since I haven’t played her game of origin, I’d prefer to leave her off for now.  Three: there’s no ironclad set of rules as to why I pick who I do, but I’ll tell you right now that no one gets excluded just because of the way they look.  Improbably buxom or not, scantily-clad or not, I’m out to highlight the characters who stick out in my mind.  Four: I don’t measure a character’s worth by how much ass they kick, so even if that’s a quality bound to pop up, it’s not the sole determinant of quality.

And now that that’s said, here’s Five: I’m not going to name any of the more popular/common choices, because those are givens...and cliché, arguably.  So the following characters are BANNED from this list: Jade, Faith, Samus Aran, Elizabeth Comstock, Ellie, Clementine, Bayonetta, Chun-Li, and Lara Croft.  Six: as an additional challenge to myself, I’ll avoid naming a number of my go-to heroines. 

So the following characters are also BANNED: Juliet Starling, Peach, Zelda, Rosalina, Palutena, ALL of the ladies from the Shin Megami Tensei games (you don’t know how much I wanted to add Makoto Sako to this list), ALL of the ladies from Fire Emblem, and ALL of the ladies from the Tales series.  Seven: don’t be afraid to comment on some of your favorite ladies, because this is FAR from a conclusive list.  Eight: GET READY FOR SOME SPOILERS.

Now, let’s up the ante with the picante sauce…or some such declaration of a start.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: I barely remember anything from Gears of War.  Well, I remember the deaths of all the major characters -- such as they are -- but that seems like the equivalent of the canon clapping its hands in front of your face every few hours to make sure you’re still awake. 

So I guess the question that follows is “All right, what would make me want to play through the trilogy all over again?”  Pretty much the only answer that comes to mind is Anya.  It’s not just because she’s an island in a sea of meat and guttural growls; it’s because -- besides Dom, who got killed off just ‘cause -- she’s the source of humanity, warmth, and level-headedness in essentially the whole franchise.  Granted I don’t remember her as well as I could, but I feel like I could at least count on her to express herself in more than just rage, grief, machismo, or sarcasm -- and if playing the game meant confirming that, then so be it.

It’s true that in Gears 3, Anya takes to the battlefield and opens fire alongside Marcus.  That’s appreciable, no question, but I’m not about to say that it’s the sort of thing that “proves her worth”.  Remember, she’s been by Delta Squad’s side since pretty much the start of the franchise, offering support and intel from afar without complaint.  As valuable as a soldier is, even the beefiest gunman wouldn’t stand a chance without someone like her -- so allow me to offer up the respect she deserves.

Sometimes I wonder if Kingdom Hearts 1 is the only good one.  I admit I haven’t played every game in the franchise, but the shenanigans in the PS2 sequel alone left me salty by way of how they mishandled Kairi -- a character who somehow got cheated even worse than when she got her soul stolen and went comatose.  But Birth by Sleep adds in new heroine Aqua, and I swear on my right foot that she’s the only saving grace of that game.

As you’d expect from a game built on friendship, she’s a kind and caring person who wants those closest to her to be happy -- but as a Keyblade Master, she’s got a sense of duty that drives her to take proper action, not just placate her friends.  But part of the reason that I like her so much is that Aqua is practically the only competent character in that game; whereas lunkhead Terra trusts all of the obvious villains and not-Roxas-clone Ven goes into sadsack mode at the drop of a hat, it’s not just Aqua who resolves the worlds’ problems and corrals the boys (as best they can before they effectively ruin the canon), but she’s the one who beats the final boss.  And her reward (based purely on BBS) is to get banished to the darkness while Terra and Ven live on in some capacity via metaphysical shenanigans.

Great.  Terrific.  Wonderful.

Hey, I never said that it would only be heroines on this list.  Implied, maybe.

Cia’s taken a lot of heat for her eyebrow-raising design, and even anyone who looks past that could shrug her off for her “story” being pretty much “I’m in love with Link”.  But that strikes me as a disservice -- paring down to basics just ‘cause.  Really, I think that there’s an incredibly good story and game in there, just by giving her some added focus.  She’s not just in love with Link; she’s absolutely obsessed with him.  The dark passion she held clashed with her role as an observer at best, and as such led to her downfall.  Like Link and Zelda, she’s a plaything of fate whose life gets distorted on a whim by the gods -- and because of that, there’s something enjoyably tragic about the character.

But the main draw, in a sense, is just how evil she makes herself out to be.  Sure, she’s corrupted by Ganondorf and gets some semblance of redemption in her final moments, but that doesn’t stop her from showing -- in spades -- her hubris, her sass, her jealousy, her rage, and even her desperation.  She’s not just a villain, but an entertaining one; in all honesty, I wouldn’t have minded if the Ganon-Factor was completely removed for that game so we could see her laughing it up from start to finish.  Or, alternatively, I wouldn’t mind seeing a character like her in the mainline Zelda games.  What happens when an outsider comes face-to-face with the almighty power of the plot?  I’m eager to find out.

I know, I know, there’s got to be at least a dozen cool ladies in the Mass Effect universe.  But you know what?  I want to sing the praises of Dr. Chakwas -- someone who doesn’t even need to aim a gun (on-camera, at least) to command respect.

I mean, really.  Dr. Chakwas exudes almost irresponsible levels of coolness.  And class, while we’re at it -- ostensibly a rarity in the world of video games.  How often is it that you get to have drinks in a brief moment of peace, especially with a platonic lady friend by your side who’s more than willing to have a toast in your honor?  On top of that, she’s a woman of action (relatively speaking) who establishes herself as a notable presence on warships and spacecraft -- and treats it like less of a surprise and more of “business as usual”. 

Shepard and his/her fellow party members may get stuff done on the ground, but there’s absolutely no reason to devalue a good doctor.  Besides, Dr. Chakwas pretty much volunteered to go along with Shepard on Mass Effect 2’s infamous suicide mission; that says plenty in its own right.  But I could be reaching here.  Maybe.  Just a little bit.

I just love how everybody says there are no women in video games, and proceed to ignore every woman in fighting games that isn’t Chun-Li.  Or Cammy.  Or Ivy Valentine, because apparently she’s the sole representation of the fairer sex.  Those who think that: Orie, Tsubaki, Millia, King, and Aoi would like to have a word with you.

So.  Julia’s friggin’ cool, and here’s why: she’s not only an accomplished fighter (she was a strong character at one point in Street Fighter X Tekken), but an even more accomplished researcher.  What did she research?  Oh, nothing much -- just how to save the entire planet.  It started with her just out to save her home from desertification, but her forest rejuvenation efforts bloomed into genuinely usable, genuinely beneficial processes.  Granted her data was stolen in Tekken 4, but she got it back and pressed onward.  In other words, her story -- one that goes beyond “fight dudes, get strong” -- ends up making sure the canon even has a chance of continuing.  That ain’t bad.

She’s a genuinely good person, and one of the most pleasant fighting game characters in the whole Tekken franchise -- if not the genre.  And that’s all irrespective of her actual fighting ability, which includes more than its fair share of wrestling moves.  Which, as you know, is the key to awesomeness.

I know I've (over)explained this, but I’ll go ahead and say it flat-out: I didn’t like The Last of Us.  I’m not saying it’s a terrible game, but the story struck me as average (at best) and the gameplay was so bland that the first time I saw someone play it in front of me, I fell asleep.

Don’t fly into a rage just yet.  I will gladly admit that if Left Behind was the base game, I’d be a lot fonder of it.  And the reason for that strikes me as an obvious one: whereas Ellie (the best character of the base game) was joined at the hip to the less-than-ideal Joel Grumpybuns back then, joining her at the hip to Riley did wonders for BOTH of their characters.  Riley expressed herself, in multiple levels and with multiple tones; she allowed herself to be happy, sad, angry, and goofy, and invited Ellie to do the same.  It made for a truer apocalyptic experience, in my eyes; instead of being down and dour so often, it may be those dark times that push people to laugh their hardest.

Either way, it’s thanks to Riley that I not only found a source of entertainment -- from her highs, as well as her lows -- but got a better understanding of the should’ve-been-the-lead Ellie.  If not for the former, the latter might have broken down by minute one of scene one.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to give props to a character that holds onto hope…even if she did get banished to the DLC realm.  Smart.

I’ll say this upfront: no matter the rank, there is no character cooler than Vanessa on this list. 

Why isn’t she number one?  Well, in terms of story beats and exposure, she’s pretty easily surpassed; I’m guessing that this is the first time some of you reading this have even heard of this character, which should tell you just how much impact her tale has on the gaming canon.  But even so, this character is just so cool.  She’s a homemaker/mother who takes on jobs as a mercenary agent (predating C. Viper by almost a decade), and isn’t afraid to enjoy both.  Simple stuff, but much-appreciated.

But what seriously sells this character is that design-wise and ESPECIALLY gameplay-wise, she’s hard to beat.  No fancy clothes, no lack of clothes -- just a simply-dressed woman who (in sprite form, especially) looks like she’s actually built to fight.  And what a fighter she is; she’s a pure boxer who punches the hell out of everyone, on top of high-speed dashes that let her put on the pressure and tack on big damage.  It’s not often you get ladies who can uppercut other fighters into the sky, but in a medium that can express itself with gameplay as well as story, I’ll gladly recommend her.  Body, body, body, UPPER!

That’s a thing she says, by the way.  

Would it be a controversial opinion if I said that Cortana almost single-handedly saved the Halo franchise for me?  By which I mean I swore it off the second Halo 4 made her bite it so we could keep hanging out with human refrigerator Master Chief?

Well, whatever.  I can’t stress enough how much more I care about Cortana than everything else in the Halo universe put together.  And Halo 4, of all things, clinched it for me; she’s an expressive character with no shortage of fears and worries, but does her duty regardless.  She’s Master Chief minus the gun, only with the added -- if totally, utterly minor -- bonus of actually having a personality.  For all the games striving to be big and epic, too few of them understand that it’ll all be worthless if they don’t establish a bond on a personal level.  Cortana’s humanity, in spite of her being just a program, is a dutiful reminder of that.

Frankly, I wish she’d get her own game, so that she wouldn’t have to be grafted to the back of Chief’s neck.  Imagine what it’d be like if we got to do cool cyberspace stuff with her, travelling through computers and codes with gameplay straight outta Rez HD -- with the added bonus of her meeting up with other AI whatsits.  How much do you think she and the others would badmouth their owners if given the chance?  Well, maybe not that much.  ‘Cause Cortana’s a swell lady. 

Well, I was trying not to go for the most obvious picks, but I’d say that you can’t have a list like this unless The Boss is on it.  So here we are celebrating one of the greatest video game villainesses we’ve seen yet.  Well, I could be exaggerating, but you get the idea. 

The Boss is so good at what she does that it almost veers into the realm of implausibility -- if not parody.  She makes Snake (or a version of him, at least) look like a chump in their first clash.  She rides through Russian wilds on a horse and continues to troll Snake.  She’s got a whole unit of loyal freaks at her command.  She gave birth on the battlefield and continued fighting.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Hideo Kojima and crew wanted to preempt the Chuck Norris Facts meme.

Remember how I said that there’s a good story in Cia and Hyrule Warriors?  Well, it’s realized in full with The Boss and Snake Eater.  Up to her final moments, she’s teaching the man destined to become Big Boss on the life and philosophy of a soldier.  Things probably would’ve gone better in the canon if the plot and a smorgasbord of betrayals hadn’t happened, but for what it’s worth?  Her intellectualism and ideals don’t just leave Snake wondering what’s right and what he should do; she does the same thing for the player.  That’s how it should be.

So with that in mind, who could possibly steal the number one spot?

I know what you’re thinking about “her”.  Research elsewhere and statements from Capcom officials lets me say this: her gender is up for interpretation, so I’ll do so based on her preference.  In other words?  She used to be a man (or she’s on the way to become a woman), but thinks of herself as a woman.

My theory may not be right -- or politically correct, so pardon my insensitivity if I’ve made a mistake -- but what matters most is that Poison is Poison.  She embodies what every character should strive to be, male or female: freedom.  It’s the point where the hand of the creator and the demands of the plot turn invisible, and let the character put up the illusion of autonomous thought and action.  So when Poison does her sultry poses in Ultra Street Fighter 4 -- where she occupies a shockingly-high spot on a theoretical tier list -- I don’t see it as the devs going “Now dance, my sexy puppet!  DANCE!”  I see it as Poison expressing herself, whether it’s a chance to flaunt her curves -- and a surprising amount of muscle! -- or simply overcompensate to the point of parody.  (So in a way, she’s a proto-Bayonetta.)

She’s not exactly the nicest world warrior, but she doesn’t strike me as a full-on villain; she’s just a thug that wants to make it big however she can.  The thing that really sells her as a character is that she’s a bad girl with no qualms about breaking the rules, but she does so in a way that paints her as less of a threat and more of a clown -- not unlike Adventure Time’s Ice King.  Things may not go her way all the time (or any time, considering her SFxT trailer), but she’s more than bold enough to become the star of her own personal show every time she walks down the street.  Her role in the SF/Final Fight canon is as much “enemy” as it is “entrepreneur”.  And lest you think she’s heartless, let’s not forget her relationship with Hugo.

Poison can be anything and do anything -- and give us anything in return.  Does that sound like a bad character to you?

Let’s be real here.  For a second I thought about saying “there’s no wrong way to write a character”, but that’s been proven blatantly wrong time and time again.  What matters more is high execution; whatever you do, you have to do it well.  The ideal scenario in the video game industry is that more devs would actually bother to even try -- because even if all of them don’t hit the mark, maybe one or two of them could stumble onto something.  Maybe they’ll go “Oh, I never thought of that” and realize that they can take advantage of a medium with nigh-infinite potential.

We’ll get there someday.  But for now, it’s important for us to act on a personal, individual level.  We may not get nearly as many top-notch ladies as we could, but that shouldn’t stop us from analyzing and appreciating them wherever they may appear.  They are out there, and the best of them have that quintessential freedom built into them -- proof that their creators explored possibilities, and that the characters themselves can put them proudly on display.  I don’t know about you guys, but for me?  That’s what it’s all about.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hate the Devil Survivor 2 anime some more for failing to portray Makoto as the demon-suplexing soldier that she was in-game.

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