As well as being a day where you stuff your face with flour and milk, today is also International Women's Day - a day for celebrating women's rights and lauding some of the revolutionary achievements of the fairer sex. For the games industry, it should provide an obvious moment of reflection. This is, after all, an industry that has been borne out of obscurity on a wave of guns, graphics, and girls. But we've come a long way from T and A. Although it's clear that the mantra 'sex sells' still holds true on so many levels, there are some fantastic female characters to be found in amongst the faceless swathes of the abnormally proportioned.
A little disclaimer before I begin. I've tried to avoid the blatantly obvious ones here. You won't find Lara or Samus or Chun-Li or Zelda on this list. Whilst important figures, all of them, there are far better examples of strong-willed, deeply drawn characters out there. This isn't about importance in terms of video gaming's legacy, this is about well-written, well-crafted characterisation. Have a look and see what you think. Agree? Disagree? Feel I've missed someone out? Hit the comments box below. You know what to do...
NB. I've tried not to, but there might be a few SPOILERS for those yet to play any of the games involved. If you haven't, you really, really should get that sorted out...
10. Kreia (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II)
BioWare are often just as unsubtle with character tropes as their Japanese cousins when it comes to fleshing out party members, but Kreia provided something a little different. She assumes the mentor archetype, but her motivations are deeply complex. If there is a criticism to be made it is that she represents a nihilist philosophy borne out of several betrayals, but it's her somewhat maternal connection to the Exile which humanises her and makes her such a fascinating character.
9. Alice (American McGee's Alice)
A course at uni taught me that all kids' literature is fundamentally f*cked up and systematically ruined my favourite childhood stories from thence on. But American McGee embraces this darkness. His Alice is about as screwed up as you can get - parents dead, life literally burned to ashes, institutionalised and abandoned with only her thoughts for company. If Lewis Caroll's original provided childish metaphors of the shift into adolescence, McGee's Alice and her adventures take the frame of Wonderland and apply it magnificently to more mature themes, with the whole game a reflection on her character.
8. Faith Connors (Mirror's Edge)
I really liked the idea behind Mirror's Edge, even if DICE didn't quite nail the execution. But they got some things spot on. Gone were the greyscale fields of fury for beefed up space marines, instead - leaping across rooftops gleaming in primary colours - skipped Faith. I found there to be something really believable about Faith's story, the way her appearance, motivations and background bled into her gameplay style. Light, agile, adept at combat acrobatics and kicking bad guys in the face, everything was focused on the task - it fitted together brilliantly. Plus there was a slight whiff of Dark Angel about her. Which kicked ass.
7. Carla Valenti (Fahrenheit)
Unlike Heavy Rain's Madison Paige, we don't spend the first few introductory minutes with Carla Valenti perving on her in the shower. Whereas Madison subscribed a little too much in places to a heavily inferior female stereotype, sidelined in places as simply the love interest, Quantic Dream produced a stunningly complex character in the form of Ms Valenti. A dedicated, hardened police officer, a perfectionist and completionist, it's the slowly revealed vulnerability, the claustrophobia and her relationship with Lucas - in no way detracting from her strength of character - that makes her a character worth remembering.
6. The Boss (MGS 3)
It's too easy to highlight innumerable female characters that simply fill the role of eye-candy or love interest (or often both). Not so with MGS 3's 'The Boss'. She's not only a legendary war hero, she the last of the Philosophers. Not just a mentor, MGS takes great pains to establish an almost maternal relationship...in many ways she's a mother to the Special Forces, the maternal connection re-establish when she survives against the odds having been shot moments after finding out that she's pregnant. So much more than a mere legend, The Boss is a towering figure of capability, nobility and heroism. And she could only really have been a woman.
5. Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2)
I'm allowed one obvious entry! Alyx Vance is on the list because she's pretty much the default option for this kind of list. I asked a bunch of people - men and women - who they'd put on this thing as Ms. Vance was the first name on the majority of people's lips...and with good reason. For starters, she's useful. I mean actually useful, plot-bendingly, life-savingly useful. And she likes Gordon, it's all there in the details, the facial expressions, the masterful scripting and voice-acting, but also has the embarrassingly pushy Dad to deal with. She's the girl-next-door all grown up, all exhibited in brilliant fashion by Valve, beautifully capturing the slight awkwardness in the tiny details that separate good games from great games.
4. Alma (F.E.A.R. 2)
Alma is pretty much just a childlike apparition of terror in F.E.A.R., but she gets a massively expanded role in the expansions and, particularly, the sequel. Arguably the most messed up girl in gaming (and who can really blame her?) the psychic link between Alma and Becket and her burgeoning attachment to him form much of the story. It's a little much to compare Alma's reimagining of herself to fuel her romantic advances to getting tarted up for a Friday night's clubbing, but the romantic angle of the plot (even if it is all delusional) expands upon Alma's character. Her rejection, the way she finally gets what she wants anyway, the final camera shot and the whispered 'Mommy'. Little demonic children were one thing...rapacious, obsessive psychic twentysomethings are so much more terrifying.
3. Heather Mason (Silent Hill 3)
Heather's a 'normal, carefree girl who loves to shop' according to the official character blurb, and she's one of gaming's most well-realised teenagers. She's sarcastic and witty (occasionally breaking the 4th wall), moody and quick to temper, buzzing with high-energy and fiercely adaptable, and highly self-conscious (partially manifested in her mild phobia of mirrors). She has to deal with the death of a father she loves, but later connects with Douglas - the bond between them developing on account of their mutual losses. She's one of gaming's most realistically-drawn, aesthetically and emotionally flawed heroines...and she's all the better for it. Oh yeah, and she's a Shakespeare fan.
2. Jade (Beyond Good & Evil)
There's something special about Jade. Maybe it's her intelligence, her compassion for others, her inner drive and strength to not simply go along with the crowd and question the motives of higher powers. She's a moralistic journalist with scruples who looks after orphans! But I rather think that, for once, Jade is such an enduring character because we like her. We want her to win. We want to be her friend, to get to know her a little better. She's street-smart, she's cool, she can handle herself and she pulls off green. In a sea of amply-chested clothes horses and long-legged fantasies, she's one of the most attractive game characters of all time.
1. Zoe Castillo (Dreamfall: The Longest Journey)
Zoe Castillo is one of the greatest video game characters of all time and a good chunk of you won't have heard of her at all. She's not a military mastermind, a noble's daughter or a famed archeologist. She's not imbued with special powers or dark magic. She doesn't have enormous breasts and she doesn't play beach volleyball either. Sure, she has a black belt in some form of martial arts, she goes to the gym, takes care of herself and is a strong-minded young woman, but she's just like you and me. She gets depressed, she drops out of college, she breaks up with her boyfriend though she still cares deeply for him. She's a complete mess who's questioning the world around her and her own self...and she lands in an unimaginable adventure.
Like all of the finest protagonists in literature and cinema, across stage and screen and page, in Zoe there's a fully realised character with whom it's so very easy to empathise and identify.