If Isabela gives you this Arched Eyebrow of Doom, it is not a Good Thing.
I like to bemoan the lack of good female protagonists in video games. The truth is that video games are not exactly lacking in female characters, per se. It just seems that if you strip the pants off of some pixels and change the way they sashay around, then most developers consider the field leveled enough to make the meager crowd of non-male gamers happy. As if that was the mark of anything.
There has, though, been a quiet roster of characters from the annals of video games who have done the woman gamer crowd fairly well. If we are going to be stuck in the gender binary for characterization we might as well be looking for the best ones we can find. For every five or six tropes and hypersexualized characters we have there are a few that shine for various reasons.
One of the first that comes to mind is Samus Aran of the Metroid series. An icon to women in gaming everywhere, I am constantly reminded of her whenever I am skeptical of the quality of women depicted in video games. Sure, Samus was and still is a remarkable achievement to those who want to see positive representations of women depicted in games—the big schtick being that the player was not even aware that this kickass hero was really a woman infused with cybernetic DNA. Everything would have been well and great if the developers hadn't felt the need to strip her down to her underthings at pretty much the end of every game. Underscoring all of the great work that had supposedly been done in the name of creating a woman superhero in a super power-suit was this need to ensure you knew that Samus was there for your sexual gratification when all was said and done. All of this is long before you ever get to the train wreck that is Metroid: Other "M", with more subtle hints of mom and daddy issues than a superhero gal can shake a blaster at. And more of Samus without her suit.
Nariko of Heavenly Sword, a game produced and released exclusively for the PlayStation 3, is a character I came to adore probably more than I should have. The lore and story of Nariko focuses on a sword forged and meant to be wielded by a deity and so powerful it will take the life force of any mortal who tries to harness its power. Nariko is the daughter born to a clan who was expecting a son born to fill the role of the sword's protector. She is called a curse and a scorn and several other terrible things while she is trying to rescue all of her clansmen from a king bent on their annihilation—all without wearing any pants. However, an overabundance of Quick Time Events aside, Nariko is awesome enough to not need pants, and to wield a sword bigger than she is and that can be used three ways. Once again though, despite Nariko's clan being from the mountains where there is a ton of snow, she is wearing hardly any clothing and is hypersexualized. It has nothing to do with her character, other than some apparently think having a powerful woman in a leading role might get boring if she isn't stereotypically "hot."
Before I am accused of thinking that only chaste women are praise-worthy, one of my favorite characters recently has been Isabela from the new Dragon Age II. Speaking of characters who rock without pants, just like Miss Anthropy at Pop Matters says, she simply doesn't need them. Isabela romps around the game in little more than a night shift—having washed up on shore from a shipwreck—when you meet her, but a rogue more full of slice and dice bad assery I've never encountered until I was inspired to roll my own (and even then, she was my contingency plan "B" to keep my healer safe). Most endearing about Isabela to me, however, is that no amount of slut-shaming is going to bring her down. Is every aspect of Isabela smashing? Certainly not. I can absolutely not wait until the day I see the sole non-white woman not painted the sex pot. But there is a way that Isabela has of reminding me that no matter what people say about you it really is your own opinion that matters. When asked if it ever bothers her that she had been called a "pirate hag," she simply says "They don't know me. I know me". DAII is not a bastion of progressive ideals (not entirely, in my opinion), but Isabela earned some of my respect back when I heard more of her insights as the game went on. Or, perhaps it was the sailor love talking.
So, gentle readers, hit me with your favorite female video game characters. Who has surprised you by being more awesome than you expected? Who disappointed you when you expected more?
Dragon Age II screen capture courtesy of the fabulous Twist Shimmy, who always reminds me to put the coffee down.