Women sometimes get a bad rep for their portrayal in computer games, not because they are inherently bad characters but because they fall into such stereotypes as ‘the princess who must be rescued’ or the ‘vile seductress’ more often than they ever seem to land a spot as a rich and involved individual. I’m not saying that this applies JUST to women of course, how many brown, power suit clad muscle-headed marines have we seen in the last few years? How many pretty-boy villains who ooze style over substance? But women seem to get a large brunt of the bad when it comes to imaginative writing. This applies to RPGs as well, although some games have made huge strides in providing us with characters we can enjoy. There is a simple test that is most often applied in conversations about films called the ‘Bechdel Test’ that really should be a yardstick for all media going forward because it features such a low bar for passing it. It simply requires that there be more than two women, they speak to each other, and that they do so about something other than a man. Sounds simple right? But you’d be surprised how many films fail. RPGs tend to pass this because NPCs can be spoken to throughout the globe and the topics vary so wildly that it passes by default, but character writing for player characters should be involved as well as simply functional. We want story arcs and motivations that are their own. This article is going to highlight a few of the best, as encouragement for those looking for outstanding role models and deep characters rather than rip down those that have stuck to antiquated writing tropes.
Be warned, there are spoilers ahead because to adequately discuss these characters their personal journeys need to be dissected. I’m also limiting this article to one character per franchise.
General Celes Chere is a character who appears some way into Final Fantasy VI and initially it looks like she’s filling two of the worst stereotypes imaginable. She is imprisoned and requires Locke to rescue her, and then they begin setting her up as his love interest almost immediately. Worse, they then begin to hint that she may be the ‘vile seductress’ who is betraying the team. This all falls apart after a turning point in the middle of the game where the world is destroyed. Celes finds herself on an island in the middle of nowhere with her estranged father figure and has to fight to keep him alive as disease begins to take his body. What follows is a split between two story paths, both of which are touching in their own ways. Should the player keep Cid alive he will make amends with her and help her leave on a raft of his own creation, reminding her that she has a family no matter what happens or how it came about. Should he die Celes attempts suicide by jumping from a cliff, something rarely seen in gaming. She’s so distressed and believes that everyone she knows and cares for is dead that she attempts to take her own life, which shows a level of character writing verging on the brave. In either scenario Celes is now the one players control and upon leaving the island it’s her job to reform the scattered party of survivors and save the world. In a game that has no fixed lead character she’s the second half’s central figure and goes from being an outsider to the core of the team. We see early vulnerability in Celes when the famous opera scene plays out, putting cracks in her otherwise tough shell and feminising her for the first time, but the game keeps her relevant at all times by making her physically strong in a fight with powerful magical potential and a class skill that may be the games’ most potent. Celes Chere is both strong of will, feminine and capable of great love whilst kicking arse through the whole game. Even her attempted suicide exists to show how she can be at her lowest point and still pull herself back together. Later Final Fantasy characters such as Lightning in FFXIII would try to echo her rough edged journey, but none have captured the spirit of adventure or the depth of emotion in such a palpable manner.
In a completely different light Feena is already a world class and seasoned adventurer when you meet her in the original Grandia game. Whilst she might had a semi-revealing costume which can be explained by the sunny environment she is recruited in, she’s never the object of outright sexualisation as many other titles would have chosen to do. Instead she is practical, emotional and takes the games lead, Justin under her wing in a form of mentor role as she guides him into becoming a hero. The story slowly then begins to shift to tell a tale about Feena and her sister which the player realises was originally the intention with seeds for this story planted well before she is ever introduced. What makes Feena relatable is that she’s an emotional character who cries, gets hurt and worries about events as they occur instead of ever being a typical bad-ass female. She holds her own in battle and eventually becomes the games’ most powerful character due to the discovery that she has an Icarian lineage, and the game carefully uses a variety of well-drawn facial portraits with dialogue to give the player the full impact of her words. One sequence uses the ancient Greek idea of the Sirens, where she saves the party because she’s a woman, which is pitched sometime after she’s rescued from an arranged marriage that could have served to weaken but instead is used as a strengthening device for her character, shedding many of her more reserved traits and embracing a spontaneous and free nature. Rarely do secondary characters feel like the equals of the protagonist in any medium, but Feena and Justin are completely even when it comes to their use throughout this title. A great example of this is that in-game dialogue before her appearance illustrates that she has rescued a young girl, saving her life off-screen, in a manner not dissimilar to the way Justin’s party is working at the time. Feena was so popular that she would later be worked into another Game Arts title called Picotto Knights as DLC.
Alys Brangwin is the poster-child for strong inspirational women in games. Appearing in Phantasy Star IV, she’s the mentor and defecto boss/partner for the games protagonist, Chaz. At no point is there any inclination that these two could be romantically involved, and she remains a strong driving force for the story right up to the point where she meets a tragic end. Even after this however she remains a narrative element, appearing silently once as a ghost and then later as a phantom boss encounter designed to infuriate Chaz. She’s also the central construct around which the player party is based for that first half of the game, powerful and versatile in combat. When a weaker character is introduced she actively dismisses him in cutscenes as not worth their time, and although the game eventually does throw in a love interest for her it takes an interesting format. Alys and Rune are two of the most powerful characters in the game and they have a mutual respect for each other that borders on a ‘bro-mance’ rather than a traditional romantic story arc. She’s donned in head to toe battle armour that makes practical sense, and her sprite has more animation present than any other found in the game, protagonist included. Her death was an early example of the reaction people experienced with Aerith was killed off in Final Fantasy VII, with many not returning to complete the title after her death because it had affected them so personally. Alys is always put across as capable, practical and driven.
Whilst all three of these examples are warrior class characters, they all have versatility that enhances them past their basic class. Many games, especially the Dragon Quest series, feels the need to reduce female characters to the Spellcaster role, often existing to heal or buff the rest of the party. You keep them in your team out of necessity rather than love of their character. With a resurgence in Western styled RPGs of late there has been an uptake in the ability to edit the game’s leading role as male or female as well as alter their visual appearance, but supporting cast members still tend to fall into traditional roles. Dragon Age: Origins was ground breaking but Morrigan was the seductress at heart, Wynne was the mother archetype and Leliana, innocent or seductive depending on how you moulded her. It wasn’t until Dragon Age II that Aveline broke that mould by being a former wife, a workaholic and eventually finding another reason to go on and embrace life again. An amazing personal arc for a character in a game widely deemed less than its predecessor. Personally I appreciate a great story arc in male AND female characters and like to see everybody done justice. Neir features a sword wielding hermaphrodite in a G-string for heaven’s sake!
Ultimately what one person takes away from a game is very different from what another player will find. One person’s personal experiences may strike a chord with somebody otherwise considered underwritten and there are HUNDREDS more examples of excellent women in RPGs I could give you. With enough time I could make an argument that Aerith was the real star of Final Fantasy VII or that Odessa’s role in Suikoden was pivotal to the way the games story played out. RPGs are a treasure-trove of good writing and something can be found in even the worst of them.