Sure, commercial success isn't necessarily the mark of a well-written female character. However, recently both current and former staff at Ubisoft have alleged that the company's marketing department shot down plans for women to have prominent roles in their games, because "women don't sell."
While the recent success of The Last of Us Part II and Horizon: Zero Dawn is enough to disprove this claim, here's six ladies—all wildly different in what they bring to the game—who have the spotlight and didn't exactly hurt the sales.
Yuna - Final Fantasy X & X-2
Kicking off the list is the one-time summoner and one-time sphere hunter, Yuna. While Tidus is officially the star of Final Fantasy X, it's her story as much as his, so it's little wonder that she took her rightful place as the protagonist of the first-ever direct sequel in the Final Fantasy series, with the release of Final Fantasy X-2. Further still, all three central characters in Final Fantasy X-2 are women, and the game isn't shy to show this off. From opening up on a live pop concert to combat literally revolving around swapping outfits mid-fight, this is a game which isn't afraid to have features more associated with femininity.
This is why Yuna is such a great female character. While physically strong, less emotional, and less feminine female characters can be brilliant in their own ways, it's nice to see Yuna develop from passive to active, all while embracing her femininity. Her role as Tidus's love interest could have made her fall flat. The story still would have functioned if she existed solely to serve him, but it's elevated by her having her own past, her own motivations. She's been passive her whole life, becoming a summoner because it is what is expected of her. But then she chooses life, she chooses to confront her fears, and she chooses Tidus as much as he chooses her.
Final Fantasy X-2 Sales
Being led by women didn't stop Final Fantasy X-2 from becoming the best-selling game in the first half of 2003 in Japan, with lifetime sales of 5.4 million on PlayStation 2 alone (as of 2013). Ports of the game, alongside Final Fantasy X, have found its way onto more console generations. While the sales were less than FFX (by about 3 million) this dip is expected for direct FF sequels/prequels, but is actually less dramatic than others in the series, such as Crisis Core and FFXIII-2.
Ellie - The Last of Us Series
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, we have Ellie, who shows that femininity isn't the only route to growth or to a well-written female character.
Joel may be the player character in the The Last of Us, but the story is about them both. Aside from The Walking Dead's Clementine, young girls and zombie apocalypse stories don't tend to go hand-in-hand. However, through Ellie, we not only see the effect this has on a kid, but also how it molds her into the woman we see in Part II. In the sequel, we see how well-written female characters don't have to be perfect; in fact it is often better to see them flawed.
As she pursues revenge, any warmth lessens, only becoming hellbent on vengeance. And without delving into spoilers, this is something which the game does not celebrate. Ellie shows us that female characters can go on the same aggressive stories as men and confront the fact they may have been wrong.
The Last of Us Sales
Both parts of The Last of Us sold monstrously well. According to a senior industry analyst, the first title sold 20 million copies across both PlayStation 3 and 4, as of 2019. And while the sequel has only just hit shelves, it's catching up fast, selling 4 million in its opening weekend and becoming the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive.
Commander Shepard - Mass Effect series
While it may seem like cheating to bring up a character who can also be male, Shepard deserves a mention for not only how iconic she is in gaming history, but also how prevalent she was in the in the marketing for Mass Effect 3—something which allegedly informed Ubisoft's apprehensiveness about female characters in their games. Some employees claimed that women (such as Evie Frye: in Assassin's Creed Syndicate) had their roles reduced in the narrative, out of fears of the game wouldn't sell.
But first, rewind back to 2007, with the first Mass Effect. Jane Shepard—better known as Femshep—is just a female version of John Shepard. In personality, strength, and story arc, they are the same, which means Femshep gets to have a role that is typically reserved for gruff military men. The opening scene sets her up as an alliance veteran, having already experienced the horrors of war. While not completely trusted, her accomplishments at least earn her respect. As a female player, taking control of the Normandy, having the esteem of your crew, and saving the galaxy as this strong woman is refreshing to say the least.
Mass Effect Sales
I don't think I have to tell you that the original Mass Effect trilogy performed fairly well. The series wasn't harmed at all by enabling us to play as Femshep, with the entire trilogy hitting 14 million sales as of 2014, according to a financial advice company. Further still, the third game's sales certainly didn't suffer for putting the spotlight on Femshep, as it sold twice as well as its predecessor in their respective opening months.
Max Caulfield - Life is Strange
Max Caulfield is a socially awkward, nerdy, isolated 18 year old. While she's the polar opposite of Femshep, what they do share is that they both fill a role which is usually reserved for men.
While the writing of Life is Strange can occasionally leave a lot to be desired (is there a mod to remove every use of "hella?"), Max shines as an introverted and romantically inexperienced young woman that often isn't explored in media. Being a Peter Parker-esque underdog isn't restricted to gender—we can all feel like we don't belong, struggle to make friends, and feel like our anxiety is holding us back. Life is Strange shows us that this happens to women too.
Max's journey sees her confront everything from college mean girls and a predatory teacher to the supernatural occurrence that granted her time-travel powers. Her insecurity lends itself well to the ability to time travel, as the player is also left second-guessing themselves as she does. But aside from that, it shows female players that other women are just as unsure as them.
Life is Strange Sales
As of 2017, this unassuming episodic game about an anxious queer girl had sold 3 million copies, and featured in the 100 best=selling games of Steam in 2016. Even from the offset, the first episode was the fifth best-selling game on PlayStation 3 and 4. What started as a simple game about a girl trying to save her town has even now sprung a prequel and sequel.
Bayonetta - Bayonetta Series
There's sometimes a misconception that a female character can't use her sexuality and still be well written. True enough, reducing her to just her looks is a quick way to sound alarm bells, but as long as there's enough of a personality there, the character being in touch with their sexuality doesn't have to be a bad thing. There are many that fit this category, but a notable addition to these ranks is Bayonetta.
This Umbra Witch looks great—and absolutely knows it. Some characters of this caliber can fall into the recently documented "born sexy yesterday" trope, which describes a character who is naive, sometimes childish, and completely unaware of their own sex appeal. Bayonetta completely avoids this, and this is perhaps part of what stops her from being just a sex object; she absolutely knows how gorgeous she looks, and is 100% the sort of person to choose to fight in an outfit looking like that. Her design manages to be sexy and powerful, all at once.
The first Bayonetta was a success, selling 138,000 units in its first week in Japan alone. There's no public sales figures beyond 2010, but as of that date, it was reported to have reached 1.35 million units. It found further success when it was ported to PC in 2017, with SEGA saying they were "really happy with the performance." While Bayonetta 2 couldn't capture the success, a reason cited for this is the fact that it was an exclusive for the ill-fated Wii U. Despite this, it found moderate success on the Switch, and a third one is on the way.
Kassandra - Assassin's Creed Odyssey
I couldn't pass up an opportunity to prove the alleged statement from Ubisoft wrong—using their own game. Kassandra is one of two playable characters in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, the other being her brother Alexios. However, according to employees who spoke out as part of the investigation into Ubisoft, Kassandra was originally intended to be the only protagonist.
While there is nothing wrong about a game giving players the choice, this shows that the outdated belief that "women don't sell" was restricting the freedom of the writing team to tell a story solely about a woman, as they now had to account for a male lead too.
Despite this, Kassandra turned heads in 2018 for taking a role traditionally expected of men in media: a Spartan mercenary who can take out dozens of enemies at a time, no problem. Who knows what could have happen with her if the writers were allowed to hone in on her character, rather than write a story that worked for both her and Alexios. A whole story may have gone untold because of this interference.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey Sales
Assassin's Creed Odyssey was a smash hit, so if the testimonies of Ubisoft employees are true, the marketing department needn't be so apprehensive about female leads. Odyssey smashed series records and outpaced the sales of the previous title, Origins, by 50%.
While not confirmed, it can be interpreted that this success has helped Ubisoft open up to female protagonists. The next Assassin's Creed title, Valhalla, has its own female protagonist who appeared in the latest gameplay reveal.
What does this all even mean?
There's plenty of other female characters out there, hailing from moderately successful, or even unsuccessful, games who are still superbly written. There's also women who might not be the star of the show, but are nevertheless brilliant. The purpose of this list was to highlight that putting a female character in the lead role doesn't spell failure. It was also to point out that well-written characters can come in many different forms, from the no-nonsense Jane Shepard to the meek Max Caulfield. These characters come in all shapes and sizes and offer unique voices to the stories they're in, so it is a real loss if marketing departments fear rocking the boat.
To take these women out of their games would take away something special, and a gaming industry that isn't scared about bringing new voices into its stories is one which will be more free and more creative.
Are there any heroines (or even villainesses) who you wanted to make the list? Let us know in the comments.