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The best video game women of 2015

As we went through our favorite games of 2015 — and there were a lot — we noticed an encouraging trend: Many of the best games of the year just so happened to feature some awesome women characters. We're not just talking about the prototypical "strong woman character" (although we love them and you’ll find a few of them are on this list as well!), but an assortment of leading ladies who were interesting, fun to inhabit and ultimately human.

Lara Croft (Rise of the Tomb Raider)

rise of the tomb raider

Let's start with one of gaming's most iconic leading women — Lara Croft. Yes, Lara is every bit the action hero that Nathan Drake is in his own adventures: a strong, badass woman who can climb sheer ice cliffs, hunt big game and mow down rooms of bad guys without breaking a sweat.

But she also has a heart and a soul — thanks, in large part, to the enthusiastic performance of Camilla Luddington in this year's game. The story concerns Lara's backstory, but it also shows a woman growing in confidence in both her skills and her moral beliefs.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fine showpiece for Croft, with a perfect mix of action, platforming and heady puzzle-solving (the latter, devious "challenge tombs" can be bypassed if you hate fun). If video games are fantasy wish fulfillment (and some of them certainly are), this is exactly who I'd like to be — smart, strong and ultimately thoughtful.

Ciri (The Witcher 3)

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Ciri Image: CD Projekt Red/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Witcher 3 certainly isn't bulletproof in its representation of women. It depicts a dark, grimy fantasy world that, in some places, spills over with bloody machismo. But there are strong, complicated, nuanced women throughout the world — and the game never shies away from acknowledging unfairnesses and just how much tougher these women have needed to be to shine in such a world.

We see this in the cunning and strength of a young woman looking to take over and lead her tribe, and again in another woman who wants to be an armorer, but has to pretend to be an assistant. In the complexities of Triss and Yennefer, two witches that use their powers very differently — and both of whom the player can engage in adult — actually adult — relationships with the player.

But we see it most in Ciri, Geralt and Yen's adopted daughter, who is a playable character for portions of the journey. Like Lara Croft, she's a tough, capable fighter with heart, substance and personality. Ciri has Witcher training, despite that particular profession only being open to men. She is treated as a young but capable person — with her own agency and reasons for doing things — instead of merely a motivating factor for dear old dad.

The Witcher 3 also deserves a nod for including a gender fluid character with grace. Eliha is not a major character in the game, but you must encounter them to get through the main quest. They are presented with dignity, and if the player asks about their identity (which is acknowledged as a rude option!) the player is treated to one of the most eloquent, well-done passages about gender and identity I've ever seen in a game of this size. Queer characters are also treated with respect and dignity, and yes, you can even determine that Ciri is queer, if you so choose, in one conversation option. That says a great deal about CD Projekct Red's commitment to building a complex universe that mirrors, on some level, our own.

Chloe and Max (Life Is Strange)

life is strange Square Enix/DONTNOD Entertainment

I typically stay miles away from media having to do with high school. There's a weird mix of about ten percent nostalgia and ninety percent trauma that just makes it too uncomfortable for me. But Life is Strange was so good — so real, despite it's melodrama and supernatural elements — that I broke that rule this year, and I'm so glad I did.

What makes Life is Strange work so well are its characters — sharply drawn and human, despite some clunky writing, while always fascinating. And no characters are better drawn or more fascinating than Chloe and Max, the best friends at the heart of the game.

Max is a little awkward. She's a talented photographer and a sensitive kid. She cares about the people around her and wants to do good. She also happens to have super powers, but that's almost beside the point. Chloe is a typical rebel girl. She smokes, she listens to punk music, she flirts, she drives a car with a Twin Peaks reference in the license plate. The two mix like absolute magic. There's so much life and obvious affection in their scenes together, and it's a testament to every creative voice on Life is Strange that their relationship works this well.

I believed every moment of Max and Chloe together, because it felt absolutely real to me. The attraction between bad girl and good girl. The intimacy between them. The desire for their adventures to last forever. I still think about Chloe and Max, long, long after I finished the game.

- Danielle Riendeau

Evie Frye (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate)

assassin’s creed syndicate review hero Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft

Evie Frye was significant not just for her in-game contributions, but as a testament to the industry’s overall push toward diversification. When last year's Assassin’s Creed Unity failed to include any women among its cast of playable characters, Ubisoft issued a mea culpa — but only after offering a bogus explanation for the homogenous roster.

Two separate members of the game’s development team told Polygon that they elected not to include women as playable assassins because they required "a lot of extra production work." Neither gamers nor fellow developers were happy with that response, and Ubisoft quickly issued a statement reiterating its dedication to diversity.

That's not to say Evie is the result of "affirmative action," so to speak. But knowing that background is certainly important when considering her portrayal in the game, and as one of its two leads. The best thing about Evie is that she's awesome in her own right, and not just there to prove that Ubisoft truly does care about equal gender representation.

This veritable badass serves as a complement to Jacob, her twin brother and fellow playable lead. Where Jacob is impulsive, Evie is logical; while Jacob favors brawn, Evie is more stealth-oriented. These differences merit her inclusion in the game — she’s not just a female-skinned clone of her brother — while also emphasizing that she's a heroine defined more by her skills than her sexuality, and that's a great thing to see in a series like Assassin’s Creed.

Evie even gets her own romantic subplot, which only serves to further humanize her. Instead of turning the character into a sex symbol, her love story is down-to-earth, unique and genuine.

Nina Freeman/Cibele (Cibele)

cibelle 2

In a list of fictional women, it might seem strange to offer a spot to the very real Nina Freeman. But in her game Cibele, Freeman affords players the chance to explore their own experiences with teenage heartbreak through the Nina Freeman avatar.

Players control Nina from both the first-and-third-person, rifling through instant messages and selfies before taking direct control of the character's own in-game MMO counterpart, Cibele. It’s an interesting conceit, one that lets you see the character as both an action heroine and an average insecure teen.

While the crux of Cibele hinges on the playable Nina Freeman avatar's first love, the sexuality inherent in the character is never objectifying. It's exhilarating to play as a female character who is not only a teenager, but one whose romantic exploits are at the forefront and portrayed in endearingly awkward and honest ways.

Less talked about than the game and character's affecting autobiographical elements — something we and Freeman herself have written about on Polygon before — are the MMO aspects, and the Cibele character within them. The bulk of the conversations you have in the game are while playing as Cibele, not Nina Freeman. Cibele is an exceptionally capable fighter in the RPG, a magical girl-type who moves gracefully and fends off enemies with ease. She makes the understated combat sequences just as fun to watch as they are to listen to.

Rare is the game that lets you play as a teenage girl; that Cibele's is vulnerable, honest and powerful is remarkable.

Undyne (Undertale)

undyne undertale

Undertale has a wealth of female and non-binary characters to choose from when assembling a best-of list. Its main character is exclusively referred to by neutral pronouns, and several of the most well-developed side characters are women. While it's hard to pick just one, Undyne might be the woman most deserving of a place among the rest of 2015’s greats.

Undyne has an interesting trajectory over the course of the story. She starts out as one of your antagonizers, a fish-like monster that comes outfitted with armor and a bloodlust for humans. She's frightening and merciless, and she won't stop pursuing you until you defeat her in battle.

It’s when you do — without killing her, that is, assuming you're playing the game as a pacifist — that she reveals herself to be as three-dimensional as the rest of the role-playing game's cast. The ability to kill enemies with kindness is one of Undertale's most charming and special qualities, and Undyne at first bristles at the main character’s friendliness. Over time, however, the fierce and fearsome woman lets down her guard, warming up to you little by little.

If you are going for that "true" ending, the one that you unlock by showing mercy to all your enemies, you'll even find that it's Undyne’s romantic interests that drive you toward the game's epic conclusion. Undyne dramatically changes from a cold-blooded killer, whose one goal is to flex her muscle and take you down, into a woman with a sweet crush (on another woman, to boot).

That’s not to suggest that she doesn't preserve her fiery attitude throughout the game, of course. Undyne’s most appealing trait is her no-holds-barred approach to everything; she's brash and even hostile toward you until the end, but just like all the best characters — and people — she can be vulnerable and insecure, too. Undyne's arc is one of Undertale's most compelling, which says a lot considering the high quality storytelling at the heart of the indie hit.

- Allegra Frank

Tomb Raider How Lara Croft is changing