Despite making up over half of the world’s population, women have been criminally underutilized as video game characters, especially in the role of protagonist. In the early days, women in video games were mainly used as plot devices — princesses in need of saving and the like — but a few managed to break that mold. Today, we have a larger pool of women in games that we can point to as great examples of characters done right, but as a whole the industry still feels like a boy’s club.
There have been many stumbling points in writing believable and realistic female protagonists, even for some of the characters on this list. The ones that manage to hit the mark and give us a strong character with their own realistic motivations, strengths, and weaknesses are worth spotlighting as examples for future developers to take inspiration from. We’ve focused this list on playable female characters, as either one of or the primary protagonist, and we’ve limited it to one character per franchise.
Samus Aran (Metroid)
Back when female representation in games was almost exclusively limited to the damsel in distress role, including Nintendo’s own Mario and Zelda franchises, along came the stoic and capable bounty hunter known as Samus Aran. What makes her debut particularly noteworthy is the fact that absolutely no attention or special care is placed on her gender during the game. At the time, many people just assumed she was a man, but if you managed to beat the game fast enough, you would get an ending that revealed she was a woman. Some might consider this a cop-out of sorts, but by not focusing on Samus’ gender, the game subverts players’ assumptions and proves that a female protagonist is just as capable as a male protagonist at becoming an all-time classic character.
The only slip up here is the “best” ending for the game: By beating the game in faster and faster increments, you can eventually get the ending showing Samus in a bikini. Since then, she has also appeared in her Zero Suit, which is arguably just as disempowering to the character. But we still have to give credit to Samus for being among the first female protagonists to be just as cool and deadly as the men. Just ignore Other M.
Bayonetta is way more than just a clone of Dante from Devil May Cry. Yes, both were created by the same director after a studio switch, and both star in fast-paced, high-octane character action games, but Bayo has a personality all her own. From a design standpoint, there was a lot to be concerned about. Anyone who looked at her, without the context of playing the games, could easily assume she was just another overly sexualized female fantasy for men to drool over. In reality, Bayo knows what she looks like and subverts the expectation of being just another sexual object.
Bayonetta is strong, and not just physically. Her personality shines through in every word she says and movement she makes. She isn’t the most complex character, but you will quickly realize her wit is just as sharp as her blades. Any time a character, or monster, tries to treat her like a defenseless or weak damsel, she efficiently cuts them down in a brutal assault of words, bullets, and blades. She has no interest in a romantic relationship with the male cast, instead becoming and remaining platonic friends with them, which is almost unheard of in video games.
Ellie (The Last Of Us)
After a very strong character introduction and a small gameplay segment in The Last of Us, Ellie took on a starring role in the game’s follow-up, The Last of Us Part 2. Not only did she have the huge responsibility of replacing the former protagonist, Joel, but she also carried on a narrative many thought didn’t need a follow-up. After an inciting incident that we won’t spoil, Ellie goes on a quest for revenge that challenges her morals and perspective every step of the way. While she is emotionally and physically vulnerable at times, it is in an incredibly human way that is in no way influenced by her gender.
Ellie is tough. She knows how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombielike clickers and other people just as desperate as she is to survive. The decisions she makes and the actions she takes have caused many discussions on whether or not people agree with her, which we consider a sign of a successfully written character. No matter which side of the discussion you fall on, it is hard to deny that Ellie is one of — if not the — best examples of any character in a game, female or not.
Chun-Li (Street Fighter)
Chun-Li has often been dubbed “the first lady of video games.” While that title is a little exaggerated, her influence on female representation in games, specifically the fighting game genre, is not. Chun-Li took a similar path that Samus did, only without a full spacesuit hiding her identity. She was clearly identifiable as a woman right from her character portrait in 1991’s Street Fighter II, and in fact she was the only woman on the entire roster. That made her stand out, but more due to her ability to match any of the other male fighters in the game.
Chun-Li was no more sexualized than any other character in Street Fighter II. She had a somewhat revealing outfit and large legs, but as a fighter whose style focused primarily on fast and powerful kicks, it made sense. Since then, she has paved the way for many more female fighting game characters, both in the Street Fighter series and outside of it, and has herself become just as much of an icon of the series as Ryu. She admittedly doesn’t have a lot of character outside of her design and fighting style, but that’s on par with the amount of story and personality given to any of the cast.
Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn)
Two of the biggest “risks” publishers seem to focus on in gaming are launching a new IP and having a female protagonist. Sony’s Guerilla Games proved both of those fears to be misguided in one amazing game with an equally fantastic female lead: Aloy, star of Horizon Zero Dawn and the upcoming Horizon Forbidden West. As an outcast in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by machines and staunchly traditional tribal culture, Aloy has all the benefits and drawbacks of an outsider to the world’s culture. She is able to think for herself, disagree with the ways of the tribes when necessary, and determine what is right based on her own beliefs.
Aloy isn’t the lone strong female representation in the game either. Other female characters appear in a wide range of roles, from matriarchs to skilled hunters, that flesh out the world to be realistically diverse. It’s not the main thrust of the narrative or theme of the game, but the empowerment of women is a current you can feel running under the surface throughout the entire game. It doesn’t shove anything in your face; Aloy never is outright denied or objectified based on her gender, which only strengthens the game’s ability to normalize a great female protagonist.
Clementine (The Walking Dead)
Clementine shares a lot of similarities with Ellie, only in a slightly younger form. They were both introduced as companions before taking on a lead role, they both exist in worlds overrun by zombies and untrustworthy people, and both are incredibly believable characters. Clementine was initially noteworthy in season one of The Walking Dead because she was one of the few child characters people actually grew to like. She was still a kid and naive about many things, but she wasn’t making dumb decisions just to put herself or others in danger and build narrative tension.
Another factor that makes Clementine such a well-written character is how she evolves in meaningful ways. TellTale Games are narrative and choice driven, and while there are limits to how far you can push those boundaries, it is still rewarding to see things Clementine learned in the first season influence her actions in the subsequent seasons. Her struggles in the world, and more importantly her responses to these struggles, are what make her a character that is almost impossible to dislike.
Jill Valentine (Resident Evil)
There must be something about zombie games that produce fantastic female characters because here we are again, this time with Jill Valentine, star of several Resident Evil entries. She made her debut alongside Chris as one of the two playable characters in Resident Evil, the first female playable in the entire survival horror genre, and has never had a poor representation. The differences between her and Chris were based on their own skills and training: She can pick locks, and he has a larger inventory, but she is otherwise an equal member of the S.T.A.R.S. team as anyone else. Once she got to headline Resident Evil 3, and the series really began to flesh out the cast, she only became better.
Jill is more than just a soldier, though. She is driven by her own moral compass and will go against orders or others when they go against those beliefs. You really feel that she is a good person wrapped up in a terrible situation.
Yuna (Final Fantasy X)
There are a ton of great women to play as throughout the Final Fantasy series. We landed on Yuna to represent the series for a few reasons. First, she is arguably just as much the main character of the game as Tidus even though you go through the game from his perspective. Second, she arrived at the point in the series where the production values really evolved, so her performance shines through along with the writing. This is the first game in the series to have voice acting, and the GC cutscenes are still kind of breathtaking in how much detail and emotion they can convey.
Yuna herself is a very complex character, but you don’t get that right from the start. She’s a summoner who must go on a pilgrimage across the world of Spira to defeat Sin, an unstoppable monster that targets any civilization that gets too large or too advanced. What you learn later, but Yuna knew from the start, is that summoners die to defeat Sin, and that defeat is only temporary. Yuna knows she’s sacrificing herself just to give the world a few years of peace, but she goes along without telling Tidus. A romance does form between the two characters, but it happens in such an organic way over the course of the journey that it feels earned rather than forced. The sequel kind of messes with things, specifically in sexualizing Yuna and the other female characters, but in Final Fantasy X, she hits the mark.
Senua (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice)
Senua was a major risk that the developers had to nail, not because she’s a woman, but because she also suffers from mental illness. In a medium where just having a well-written female character is out of the norm, stacking on the responsibility of accurately portraying something as personal and intricate as psychosis is a bold and potentially dangerous endeavor. Thankfully, the developers did a ton of research and consulted with experts — even getting extra funding for the game from the Wellcome Trust, who were able to put the team in contact with actual people with mental illnesses — and the resulting game was celebrated for how well it executed Senua’s depiction.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice manages to punch way above its weight class for a small-budget game. Visuals alone make it hard to believe it isn’t a major triple A release, but the incredible ambition of the plot, character, and setting are things we just don’t get enough of in the industry. Senua is a massive step forward in representation, not just for women but for anyone suffering from mental illness.
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
What list would be complete without one of the most well-known female video game protagonists, Lara Croft? Her iconic status may not have had the best beginnings — being the most sexualized one on this list in her early marketing materials — but over time the character evolved and gained a lot of depth. This new interpretation starts her off as a younger scholar with big ambitions for adventure who is pulled into deadly and dangerous situations. The first game somewhat stumbled in the pacing of her evolution, with her mourning the killing of a deer one moment and murdering a camp of men without a second thought the next, but once it found its footing, it delivered a Lara that is extremely compelling.
Lara’s history is what makes her such an interesting protagonist to follow. She was born into a very wealthy family and remains rich after the murder of her father, whom she idolized. But she chooses to place herself in precarious situations in search of adventure, answers, and most of all the desire to help people. While these adventures often include some mythical or fantastic elements outside the realm of reality, they are based on real life cultural mythology that Lara must use her expert knowledge of to unravel. She is just as intelligent as she is skilled in survival, but at the same time she isn’t invincible and does make wrong decisions at times. Lara is still a human being, just with a superhuman drive to never give up.