I really like Jennifer Hale. From the sudden, sharp sounds of Samus in the Prime trilogy to the full range of heart, soul, and rage in her Shepard from Mass Effect, I will rarely stumble across a character of hers that I dislike.
But I’ll admit, I’m spoiled for choice there. Shepard is, to a degree, how I’d like her to be. Strong when needed, harsh when deserved, and helpful and constructive where appropriate. Her gentle tones are perfect where needed, and when diplomacy needs to become a scarce art, her voice can fill with scarlet rage and violent certainty. Both equally deft, and endlessly suited to the passions that the player requires of the scene. A coloring book of emotion wherein the player has the paint.
Samus, conversely, is a strong and stalwart character because of her few punctuations of sound. She’s largely an icon of stoic reliability, whose fortitude in completing her mission is near unstoppable. Samus had always been as reliable as a glacier, hers an unchanging course that will meet its end regardless of how big an obstacle is placed in front of it. Samus is, and has always been, an amazing character.
Ask anyone with an interest in Metroid about her character, on the other hand, and they will immediately and exclusively talk about Samus as portrayed by Metroid: Other M. Which isn’t really fair, given that she has a long history of being strong, largely silent, and an unflinchingly competent agent both in and out of the field. So why is her only sense of character the one people universally hate? In part, I think, because of human nature. By design, the human mind tends to reminisce and feel most strongly about negative feelings and events. Where there are countless examples of Samus’s character by personality and action in many of the Metroid games, there has also been one infamous example of her inability to act, her flinching uncertainty, and the destruction of the character that had been endlessly and carefully designed. So naturally that’s the one people remember. Which is a shame given just how good a character she is.
It’s the nature of the beast, though, and one that makes talking about it difficult. For vocal feminists and culture critics online who heavily criticize the lack of strong female characters, and for those who feel that characters like Bayonetta (for instance) are sexually liberated a stretch too far, it can be hard to find a happy medium. Any examples that don’t fit a certain mold will be much more readily seen as negative or offensive. The pressure to create an ideal female character for critics and community alike to applaud is difficult. Everyone’s threshold for what’s “good” or “bad” is naturally going to be highly variable, so of course any character that’s less than collectively praised is going to be problematic.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing, though.
In reality, it’s nearly impossible to do anything completely right, and that’s the case for strong character design, or realistic fiction, or costume, or even music. The risks anyone undertakes when creating media are absolutely necessary for making progress. The way to improve on the baseline is by pushing out in an area that’s been previously unexplored. It’s been the powering push behind cult classics that were commercial flops, like Shenmue, or the criticism against critically panned but commercially successful games, like Call of Duty: Ghosts. The ability and expectation to push the envelope is a necessary part of innovation, and being able to take those risks head-on is what makes games move forward. Without it, there would have been no Minecraft, or Papers, Please, or Fez, or even the Grand Theft Auto series.
However, the idea that these innovations are only “safe” on male characters seems suspect in the face of it. Being afraid to innovate against criticism isn’t the way to have even initially created Guybrush Threepwood. A character like Guybrush was launched in 1990, alongside action robot Megaman (Megaman 3), action plumber Mario (Super Mario Bros. 3), knightly and well-traveled Graham (King’s Quest V), and grizzled veteran Big Boss (Metal Gear 2: Snake’s Revenge). Were he to be compared to his peers, he would be weaselly and somewhat pitiful, over-young for his adventure, and little too incapable to be a hero. Even at the time, Guybrush was a dork, a hopeful in a world too big and too out of his depth to really succeed and thrive. He was never an easy choice, but he was an effective one.
The same could be said of the protagonist of Saint’s Row or Mass Effect, assuming the player takes the female option, and holds their own in numerous rough-and-tumble situations with little more than a good smile, an easy wit, and the ability to handle large purple weapons. To suggest that a female character like Galbrush can’t work in a market that gave us a floppy dildo-bat suggests that any success that players have enjoying a female-driven Mass Effect or Saint’s Row is simply a fluke of probability rather than genuine enjoyment and competent game design whereas a character like Guybrush was accepted simply because “it’s okay to make fun of guys.” It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that people do, and it’s hard not to root for the underdog.
By the same token, we have to look to characters like Terra from Final Fantasy VI for this. Terra was young, unaware of her own powers, and largely getting bandied about by her party members, peers, and adventure’s circumstances to get where she’s going. By the time she happens upon her Espers and really comes into her own, she’s lost. Everyone has. The world fell, and the crazy clown won. The heroes didn’t succeed triumphantly: they lost. The whole world suffered, and for a year, the villain made the world his personal plaything. To suggest that female protagonists aren’t allowed to fail is to deny that Final Fantasy VI is still debated as one of the best Final Fantasy games in the series. Same could be said for the brash, young, and hot-headed Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, whose little character and personality quirks are on display throughout the game. Or the terrifying tragic villain Alma in the F.E.A.R. series. Or the fan-beloved but deeply flawed GLaDOS in Portal. Or Lenneth’s mistakes in Valkyrie Profile.
But even excepting these examples, and assuming that there’s nothing worth noting in terms of female character design for why having a flawed and female character isn’t an issue, the first example has to come from somewhere. Being able to make a character like Bayonetta is absolutely pivotal, even if culture critics like Sarkeesian may consider her oversexualized. Because we already have that in Dante from the most recent Devil May Cry, and even he was heavily criticized for his appearance and personality. That’s why it’s so important for characters like this to exist, so even little mistakes don’t ruin the grand picture.
There need to be examples because characters like the foolish, dumpy, absurd, and ridiculous can’t come about without having made the first step. Because without that, without having a female hidden under the armor “he” wore throughout the manual in Metroid, there would be no Samus for Other M to ruin. There would be no opportunities for Galbrush. There would be no hope for having any character other than the male Shepard that dominated the cover of every Mass Effect, or the soldier in the Battlefield covers, or the Call of Duty covers, or any animators rigging lady-assassins in Assassin’s Creed.
But without being honest with ourselves, and acknowledging that it can happen, we ignore the fact that it already has, and we might continue to believe that it can’t be done. Even when Jennifer Hale does it.