This year, I've had the honor of meeting and playing as some incredible fictional heroes. They were almost all women.
When I look back at the most interesting, memorable characters of 2014, they are almost all women. From an engineer lost in space, to an ensemble crew of ass-kicking women in a high fantasy world, to the humble Toadette, the best games of the year often had women at the helm.
Throughout the year, starting with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and ending with this month's Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, just about all of Nintendo's first-party games gave players the ability to play as a woman character.
Dixie Kong is the best character in Tropical Freeze — a gal that can use her hair to get extra height on jumps. In Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. (both on Wii U and 3DS), there are a number of kick-ass women characters. Hyrule Warriors was full of women warriors, like Impa, Midna and the most powerful version of Zelda herself this side of Sheik. Without spoiling anything, even Captain Toad reverses the usual "kidnapped woman" storyline and allows players to play as Toadette.
When I was a little girl playing Nintendo games, I would've loved to have been able to choose woman heroes to play as — outside of Metroid games and Super Mario Bros. 2, my options were slim. It's heartening to know that Nintendo is finally letting girls into the party in a more inclusive way.
I've written a bit about just how fantastic Alien: Isolation's protagonist, Amanda Ripley, is. She's smart. She's tough, but relatable and human. She cares about the people around her. She doesn't like corporate bullshit. The best part: We learn almost everything about her through gameplay, as cutscenes are few and far between in Isolation.
This makes the story — and Amanda's character — shine all the brighter, since the player has to really role-play as Amanda in order to survive. How do I know Amanda keeps a cool head? Because I survived when I hid and took my time traversing the vast, broken space station that Isolation takes place on. How do I know she's smart and resourceful? Because she knew how to fix things, and made use of crappy equipment in order to do it. She hates the corporate line, muttering complaints about the station as it falls apart around her. And she cares about her fellow crewmate, putting herself in danger in order to get help for her.
Amanda doesn't talk much. But she doesn't need to to be one of the best and bravest heroes of 2014. Her actions speak louder than words.
Zoe and Julia — the women heroes of The Terror Aboard the Speedwell, also deserve a mention here for their smarts, cool heads and performance under pressure in a very Alien-esque setting.
Queens of the Dragon Age
Dragon Age: Inquisition featured some of the most memorable — and best — women characters of the year. There's Cassandra, a tough-as-nails warrior woman and seeker of the Inquisition. She also happens to be a huge fan of pulp novels. There's Sera, a queer archer who was as quick with her snark (and cookies) as she was with her bow. I can't forget Josephine, an intelligent, deft diplomat, Vivienne, a no-nonsense mage and Leliana, the spymaster for the Inquisition. All of these characters are written with care, attention to detail, and enormous respect.
Even outside of its principal characters, Dragon Age: Inquisition made small, quiet steps forward by simply having women all over the game, in non-stereotyped roles. Mike Williams at US Gamer explains how Inquisition expertly places women and minority characters in the background. Women appear as soldiers, scouts and craftspeople throughout the game. Everywhere I went, I was heartened to see women in armor, instead of just women in aprons. These small details helped to create a world where gender and racial stereotypes are defied.
Solid supporting players
Far Cry 3 was an interesting game that was plagued by a vague sense of racism and imperialism, a problem that Far Cry 4 — while far from perfect — sought to improve. Much of that improvement came from its main characters, particularly Amita, a revolutionary who cares deeply about her community and her country.
Ilona from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare had the honor of being the only character worth a damn in the game. The top marksman in the total boys club that is the elite ranks of the Atlas Corporation, Ilona is a steely, smart sniper. No characters in Advanced Warfare were exactly fleshed out — everyone is playing an archetype here. But It was refreshing to see a woman playing one of those archetypes: the hyper-competent badass that always gets her mark.
And then there's Bayonetta. I imagine Bayonetta will come up in our discussion of best and worst women characters of 2014. The star of Bayonetta 2, she's a strong, capable woman who kicks everyone's ass. But she was designed to appeal to a particular demographic, that is, straight dudes who are into panty shots.
In Polygon's review of the game, Arthur Gies found the over-sexualization of the character a gross distraction.
the deliberate sexualization and objectification on display serves as a jarring distraction from the creativity and design smarts elsewhere.
Some, like Paste's Maddy Myers, have argued that Bayonetta's sexualization isn't inherently negative, because the character owns her own sexuality, and her identity as a femme dom.
Her dominance goes unquestioned throughout the game, which in and of itself is so unexpected and refreshing that I can forgive the fact that the camera assumes I'm very interested in her butt crack. Even the fact that the camera is trying to sexualize Bayonetta feels like a subversion of sorts, given that she as a character is one who refuses to be owned or manipulated; she is the essence of unavailable. You can look, but you can't touch—not without your mistress’s permission!
For my part, I believe both viewpoints are valid, and well-argued in their respective pieces.
Still not bitten
One of the most encouraging mini-trends of 2014 concerned the representation of young girls taking over the narrative in their respective games, seen in Clementine of Telltale's The Walking Dead: Season Two (disclosure: Nick Breckon, one of the writers of the game, is a personal acquaintance), and The Last of Us: Left Behind. In both cases, the young woman was something of a sidekick or protege of a male hero — Lee in The Walking Dead's first season (disclosure 2: the co-creators of The Walking Dead are also personal acquaintances), and Joel in much of The Last of Us. This isn't inherently bad — both stories are written with care and respect for their women characters.
But in both cases, these young ladies come into their own when the story really focuses on them. In The Walking Dead: Season Two, Clementine is the hero. She's a tough, intelligent, resourceful young lady that's smarter than most of the adults she meets. Still a very young girl, she's survived more encounters with the walkers than nearly anyone else, and she gets by using her cool head and general sense of decency.
Ellie is arguably the most important person in all of The Last of Us' universe. While the main game focuses more on wounded dude Joel, Left Behind is all Ellie's story, and it makes the overall game much stronger for its presence. Set partially in flashback to her time in Boston with her best friend, and partially in the present where Ellie struggles on her own, it's a heartbreaking character study and an essay in determination. It treats her sexuality as a non-issue, and gave me even more reasons to care about this tough — but very human — character that I was already rooting for.
People have called 2014 the worst year for video games. I'm not so sure about that. Between the amazing horror games that arrived this year and the incredible women I got to play as, I wouldn't call 2014 a wash. That said, stay tuned for the upcoming companion piece to this article for the worst women characters of the year.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.