Reflecting upon the heroes that have been sweeping gaming lately it's hard for me not to wonder where all the girls are. Not in the sense that I want to see more ladies popping all over gaming, it's never gone well when a company has simply decided to inject a random character simply to meet a gender/race quota. But with characters like Isaac Clarke redefining the face of survival horror and Nathan Drake's sharp wit and smooth moves making its way to the big screen, it's hard not to wonder where the female leads are. This isn't to say that they don't exist, but why hasn't a developer taken the time to make a female lead that doesn't embrace the typical 'girl' characteristics?
Sure there are a few examples that come up, Bayonetta, Alyx from Half-Life and Lara Croft are some pretty immediate examples; but they're examples that are far and few in between, examples that may not even be all that encouraging. Having Laura Croft be the poster girl for female gamers is about as encouraging as saying Duke Nukem represents men. It's funny, but there are far more interesting and inspiring characters out there. So why are companies willing to make compelling and interesting male characters when simply altering their gender slightly is all that it really takes to make an interesting female counterpart?
Take a look at Mass Effect, a game that prides itself on a compelling story told through choices made by the player. In fact, it's a game where plenty would agree that the female character steals the show simply because character design takes a complete backseat to character development. However, when a storyline that feels overdone and typically masculine in nature is considered 'breakthrough' for the female counterpart, you know things are bad. Even so, this kind of thing isn't exclusive to a Bioware title as most Western RPGs fall prey to the same issues. It's pretty popular for commericals, box art, and trailers to flaunt a male character when a female one is just as viable an option.
Japanese games are in a similar boat, lacking the direct male/female choice (in most cases) in exchange for a dual main character situation. But it's always the same, the girls are at times portrayed as weak and immature, exploring the world in search of themselves while making decisions that reek of insecurity. I wonder what kind of woman actually looks forward to this sort of gameplay, or (even more disappointingly) what sort of men do. Is it really so hard to make a female character that isn't intentionally trashy or shallow? Sales couldn't possibly suffer from offering a female lead; I'd like to think that gamers as a whole are far more open to the idea that gameplay, mechanics, and creative storytelling supersede any sort of 'anxiety' one would have about playing as a girl.
Valve seems to be able to churn out a pretty decent amount of female protagonists, most of whom are all normal looking people; yet, they're all still incredibly memorable too. Alyx is just one prime example, but Left 4 Dead's Zoey and Rochelle are pretty enjoyable themselves. Most would say that GLaD0S, while not your traditional 'girl' or a protagonist for that matter, stole the entire show that was Portal, and is looking to be just as engaging a character in Portal 2. Good writing is what makes these sorts of characters spring to life, making them far more preferential (at least in my book) to the likes of Trish and Bayonetta; women who're designed to parody society's sexual standard for women, but really just fall into the trap of obnoxiousness.
I can't help but feel though, that times are changing rapidly enough that we may see something a little more reasonable soon. Sure it's not a big deal in the long run, but when I hear developers of Bulletstorm fighting over the female lead's breast size and see discussion about how Gear's Anya is both a babe and a overly-jacked ass kicker, it makes me smile. I'm genuinely bored of how this industry tends to feel that gamers will lap up the same garbage year after year, and watching a developer try and break away from the norm on any level is a sign for the better. It means they're trying new things, attempting to reach new audiences, and from a gamers perspective it means not having to deal with the same storylines over and over again. For the most part, I'm tired of playing as a dad searching for his child or a husband looking for his wife. The 'man with a haunted past' cliche is equally boring, let alone when a developer makes an entire team of characters that have almost zero past and die in droves. It's hard to grow attached, let alone interested, in a character whom you know is going to die somewhere in the next 2-3 hours.
So how long till gaming sees a more 'genuine' female protagonist? A few years? A new console generation? I get the feeling that sort of breakthrough is close, perhaps even right around 'the corner'. Perhaps this is what Hollywood felt like back in it's more sexist prime, with the world watching and waiting for a film that would finally have not simply a leading female but have the woman be the main character. Until then, I suppose we'll just be waiting as a wave of white and brown haired men continue to dominate the face of gaming. Maybe if we're really lucky, the wait will be well worth it; I would sit around for another two years of Nathan Drake/Alan Wake/Commander Shepard/Isaac Clarke's just to get to a female lead in the next big Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps the new revamped Lara Croft will mark a change since Crystal Dynamics are talking her up as a more 'human' character. Also, if Bonnie Macfarlene was any indication of what Rockstar could do, I don't imagine being left for wanting. I'm sure the news would eat that right up.