A Year in Review: My Journey With Female Protagonists in 2014

I played some pretty good video games in the past year. The thing is, not all of them came out in 2014. I’m always terribly behind on video game releases, partly because I’m a broke grad student who tends to wait until things show up on Steam sales, and partly because I’m a PC gamer with a PC that doesn’t always want to game. But just because I’m late to the party doesn’t mean I never show up, and this time the waiting was definitely worth it.

I’ve met some pretty great fictional ladies in the past twelve months, from sword-wielding warriors to coming-of-age teenagers. Their legends preceded them, thanks to all of you who played their games on time, and I was not disappointed by what I found. If you haven’t met these badass ladies yourself, well, maybe it’s time you did.

Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins (2009): The Warden, Morrigan, & Wynne

Okay, I know I’m very behind with the times on this one. Everyone’s busy playing the hell out of Inquisition right now, and I’m still not even halfway through a six-year-old game I bought last May solely because it had the word “Dragon” in the title. (Well, okay, and because Morrigan looked really cool in the trailer.)

With those hefty disclaimers out of the way, I am quite enjoying Dragon Age: Origins. I’m playing a female rogue elf whose expression seems perpetually torn between sarcastic and half-asleep. I’m actually happy she doesn’t read her dialogue lines out loud; one of the minor things that annoyed me while playing Mass Effect was that Shepard’s lines always sounded way more sassy in my head than when she said them out loud. In Origins, my Warden’s silence gives me the space to imagine her as being as snarky and unimpressed as I want (even while I pick all the helpful and peaceful dialogue tree options).

As I said, I’m only partway through the game and haven’t even picked up my full roster of party members yet, but I’m so satisfied with my default party of me, Alistair, Morrigan, and Wynne that I doubt I’ll be changing it much. As has already been described, Morrigan and Wynne are both pretty excellent characters; in my own interactions with them, I like to think that Morrigan approves of my Warden because they share the same world-weary attitude, and Wynne approves of her because of those occasional moments when I decide not to be world-weary. Meanwhile, Alistair does a nice job providing comic relief and letting enemies beat the crap out of him while the rest of my party prepares a counter-attack.

Transistor

Transistor (2014): Red

I love Bastion, the previous game from Supergiant Games, and its narrator, voiced by Logan Cunningham. I also love playable female protagonists, big-ass swords, and tech-infested dystopian futures, so you’d better believe I was excited about Transistor from the minute I heard about it. Sadly (perhaps predictably), the game wasn’t nearly as perfect as I was hoping it would be; the combat is extremely glitchy and frustrating, and despite playing the whole thing almost twice, I’m still thoroughly confused about the actual plot.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. The world it takes place in is fascinating, the art is drop-dead gorgeous, and I loved its protagonist, Red. A famous singer beloved throughout the city, Red is attacked by a mysterious group known as the Camerata. The game opens just after the failed assassination attempt, with a suddenly voiceless Red puling a giant glowing sword out of the body of a man—a sword that can talk, and knows her well. If that’s not the ingredients for an interesting story, I don’t know what is.

I loved the little glimpses the game gave us into Red’s life before the attack—her fame as a singer, the pizza she liked to order, the quiet moments she spent with a man who was her friend, muse, and lover. I have to admit I found the ending troubling, though. I’ll stay vague to avoid spoilers, but the imagery used in conjunction with Red’s motivation for making that choice made me very uncomfortable. Within the context of the game, and taking into account Red’s understanding of how the Transistor and the Process work, I completely understand her motivation, and have no problem with what she was trying to achieve. But the means of doing it made me uncomfortable. At least the scene that followed was so beautiful and touching that it almost redeemed the moment for me.

The bottom line: Red fascinates me, and I would cosplay her in a heartbeat, but her character remains largely a mystery. I wish I could have gotten to know her better.

Assassin's Creed Liberation

Assassin’s Creed Liberation (2012, PC release 2014): Aveline de Grandpré

I admit I haven’t gotten very far with this game either, partly because it doesn’t run very well on my computer and partly because I’m terrible at the combat (ironic, considering the player character’s occupation). But I really love the care that’s been put into Aveline’s character and how her identity affects the entire structure of the gameplay. Aveline is mixed-race French and African raised in 18th-century New Orleans by a wealthy family (and somehow also a trained assassin? I think I may have missed part of the larger backstory somewhere).

For each assignment she undertakes, Aveline has the option of choosing between three outfits or “personas,” each with its own perks and weaknesses. She can dress herself like a lady of society, which grants her access to most areas but inhibits her movement and fighting; she can dress herself as an assassin, which grants her freedom of movement and access but gains notoriety points almost immediately; or she can pass as a slave, giving her mobility and near invisibility, but very little access to restricted areas.

This is my first experience with the Assassin’s Creed games, so I can’t say how this approach to gameplay compares with the other installments in the series, but it certainly seems original to me. I love that Ubisoft (really? ‘Ubisoft?’) not only chose to write a protagonist who is not white and not male in a bestselling series, but that they took the extra step of making her race and gender a crucial element of the gameplay. I haven’t played enough to get more than cursory sense of Aveline, but what I have seen reveals a determined, compassionate woman who uses the experiences of her race, privileges of her wealth, and skills as an assassin to do whatever needs doing—and look darn good while doing it. We need more characters like her.

Gone Home

Gone Home (2013): Kaitlin & Sam

Gone Home, if you haven’t heard of it, is an indie first-person exploration game that’s heavy on story and light on gameplay. You play as Kaitlin, a girl who returns from a year of studying abroad to find that none of her family are waiting at the house to meet her. Where are they? What’s been happening in the year Kaitlin has been gone? By exploring the house and examining the objects in it, you and Kaitlin must piece together the mystery.

The thing about Gone Home, though, is that it’s really not Kaitlin’s story. It’s her sister Sam’s story. Through clues and journal entries found along the way, Sam’s emotional year is slowly revealed in a tale of high school, heartbreak, and happiness. Though we never see them interact, the game provides a wonderful sense of the bond between these two sisters, and between Sam and her friend Lonnie. Katlin has left a hole in her little sister’s life, and in that time, Sam has had to grow up on her own. While Kaitlin for the most part becomes absorbed into the role of the player, never really developing a personality of her own, Sam is an astoundingly rounded and human character, and her love for Lonnie feels very real.

I was living Kaitlin’s urgency to find out what happened to them both as I frantically ran around the house, searching for journal entries and hoping desperately that all those hints about ghosts were just red herrings. (They were, to my relief. I can’t handle jump scares, and after three hours alone in that house, anything more sentient than the severe weather alert in the TV room would’ve sent me flying out of my chair.)

Obviously, Gone Home isn’t the most action-packed game out there (or is it?), but if you want a story and some characters with some real heart, give Kaitlin, Sam, and Lonnie a try.

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