I'm sorry to say this, but most female leads in video gaming are generally rubbish. If they aren't so utterly bland that they're virtually interchangeable with a male lead, they're instead hyper-sexualised. Female role models in gaming are few and far between. Peach is a helpless Stockholm Syndrome sufferer, a perennial victim and simpering girl. Lara has had her entire gaming history built upon the marketing appeal of her rounded assets. Samus played upon the notion that male and female leads were completely interchangeable and her gender was quite literally an afterthought. Unlike Nelly Furtado, Rayne actually eats men, and the less said about Bayonetta the better.
But that's not to say that there aren't well rounded (no, not in the Lara sense of things) female role models out there, it's just that you usually have to dig on past the mainstream fluff to get there. April Ryan (Dreamfall) and Jade (Beyond Good and Evil) are two figures that crop up regularly when such discussions arise, but for me there's another: Cate Archer.
Heroine of Monolith's No One Lives Forever series, Ms. Archer essentially gave gamers a chance to become Emma Peel. Smart, sophisticated, respected and utterly, fearsomely capable, No One Lives Forever was a daring homage to the swinging Sixties and told of the adventures of the secret life of one of the first female spies. An ex-cat burglar, Archer now works for UNITY, a secret organisation sequestered in England, as their first female operative. Initially, as the attitudes of the times would suggest, she is not taken into full confidence by the organisation's patriarchal hierarchy, and her first two high-profile missions aren't exactly successes, but Archer slowly wins them over through merit.
Our primary aim was to make the player feel like the hero of a 60s action/adventure/espionage movie. We came up with a list of the characteristics we felt were necessary to achieve our objective. The game must have a strong narrative, with twists and turns in the spirit of Charade or Where Eagles Dare. It must feature a fiercely competent hero and an assortment of despicable villains. The hero must have access to an impressive arsenal of weapons and gadgets worthy of Our Man Flint, Danger: Diabolik, or Get Smart. There must be memorable, death-defying situations, opportunities for stealth as well as all-out action, and a variety of exotic locales to explore. Finally, every aspect of the presentation must convincingly evoke the era. - Craig Hubbard, Designer, writing for Gamasutra
Positioned nicely in the late 1960's, NOLF was soaked in groovy nostalgia. James Bond-meets-Austin Powers-meets-The Avengers. The first is telling. Originally, the protagonist was to be male, but preview reactions brought too many James Bond comparisons for Monolith's liking and so they changed a he to a she and, in doing so, created a game that not only stood out from the super serious shooters of the day such as Raven's limb-lopping gore-fest Soldier of Fortune or Valve's Terrorists vs. Counter Terrorists multiplayer romp Counter-Strike, but proved to be an utter blast too.
Archer has the 60s catsuit down, but Monolith are never heavy-handed about that. NOLF and its sequel were all about presenting an unashamedly good character who never needs to resort to the ends, or compromising herself in ways that perhaps other blockbuster female protagonists often do. She managed to be feminine and extremely capable, giving the designers license to softly parody the representation of women within such media through her exceptional range of gadgets such as lipstick grenades, the barrette as lockpick, the cigarette lighter that doubles as a welding device. She even has a robotic poodle for distracting guards!
Of course, Half-Life was out and so internet fans shat all over any other FPS that reared its head, but they needn't have. NOLF boasted AI just as good as that of Valve's creation. The first game in particular was fiendishly difficult at times. But Monolith weren't afraid of mixing things up. And this is where Archer and co. truly shone, because, you see, No One Lives Forever did stealth just as well as Thief. Dodging cameras, sneaking around behind guards' backs, finding different ways through a level, No One Lives Forever gave you a score at the end of each level and stealth, even if it wasn't required, was always rewarded. The pacing was perfect, the variety spot on. Monolith ramped it up even more with the second game - No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way: how many games, for example, can boast an incredibly thrilling tricycle battle as a centrepiece?
And there's another thing that NOLF had going for it: the humour. The writing was absolutely superb, conversational exchanges peppered with pithy witticisms and well placed banter. Characters weren't simply one-dimensional tropes, but fully fleshed out personalities, brought to life by some of the finest voice acting heard in video games to this day. These games made me laugh out loud with genuine mirth. When's the last time a game did that to you? If you say DeathSpank I'll hit you.
We don't really see games like this a decade on, and there's a good reason for that. We're stupid. When Eric Hirshberg came out and said that gamers are killing original IPs he was right, because so very often utterly brilliant, original, quirky or funny titles simply don't sell. Monolith made an outstanding couple of games for this series, but both of them found their way towards bargain bins pretty damn quick. The real lament is that you'd never see anything this daring, this risky, or this funny today. The game aged technically, it looks pretty horrible nowadays but, playing it through again earlier this week, it's still every bit as delightful and engaging as I remember it.
Seriously, you owe it to yourself to give Cate Archer an introduction. She'll probably surprise you.