Horizon: Zero Dawn and the evolution of the video game heroine

With the help of several female game developers, we’ve put together a guide of some of gaming's original heroines — as well as the new generation leading the charge.

Female leads in video games no longer the exception

Aloy takes on a group of hostile robotic beasts in Horizon: Zero Dawn. (Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Horizon: Zero Dawn, a massive open-world game set in a lush, post-apocalyptic jungle inhabited by robot dinosaurs, is one of the most anticipated games of 2017.

Players take the role of Aloy, a young hunter in a far-flung future, well after most of human society has disappeared in a long-forgotten disaster.

Nature has reclaimed the land, with overgrown city ruins giving way to lush forests and plains. But there are still roving bands of robotic dinosaurs of unknown origin to contend with.

The last few years have seen a rise in female leads, such as Emily Kaldwin (Dishonored 2) and Evie Frye (Assassin's Creed: Syndicate).

That doesn't mean the medium has always been a complete dudefest. Since the earliest days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (even further back, if you count Ms. Pac-Man), gaming has seen a number of playable female leads.

With the help of several female game developers, we've put together a guide of some of gaming's original heroines — as well as the new generation leading the charge.

Samus Aran, Metroid

Samus Aran from Nintendo's Metroid series, in her battle armour and 'zero' suit. (Nintendo)

Players didn't know much about Samus Aran, the armour-clad lead in the sci-fi adventure game Metroid for the NES in 1986. That is, not until she removed her helmet at the finish to reveal her long blond hair. This bounty hunter has been one of the first ladies of Nintendo ever since.

She's often been portrayed as a slender women while out of her suit, but an infographic in an old issue of Nintendo Power magazine had her standing at 6'8" with the physique of a mixed martial arts champion.

Laura Bow, The Colonel's Bequest

Laura Bow in 1989's The Colonel's Bequest, designed by Roberta Williams and Jacqueline Austin. (Sierra Entertainment)

Montreal-based developer Brie Code cites The Colonel's Bequest, a point-and-click adventure game designed by Roberta Williams and released in 1988, as the reason she got into games as a career.

The game stars Laura Bow, a college student and amateur detective investigating a Clue-like murder case in southern Louisiana. Code describes Bow as "a quiet but strong and inquisitive smart young woman."

Chun-Li, Street Fighter

Chun-Li in Street Fighter 5. (Capcom)

Chun-Li was the only female fighter in 1991's Street Fighter 2 and quickly became known for her rapid-fire Lightning Kicks. Her quote after winning a match, "I am the strongest woman in the world," remains a powerful statement and one of gaming's most memorable lines.

SHODAN, System Shock 2

SHODAN, the malevolent artificial intelligence from System Shock 2. (Irrational Games/Electronic Arts)

One of Toronto-based developer Mare Sheppard's favourite female characters isn't a hero, or even a human. It's SHODAN, the malevolent artificial intelligence in the cyberpunk horror game System Shock 2 and one of gaming's most feared villains.

"SHODAN is just so cool. She is shrewd, ruthless and deliciously evil," says Sheppard. "You have to respect her drive and focus!"

Sorceress and Amazon, Diablo 2

Characters from 2000's Diablo 2, including the Amazon (far left) and Sorceress (second from right). (Blizzard Entertainment)

Fantasy dungeon crawler Diablo 2 had five characters to choose from. Two of them were women: the Sorceress and the Amazon.

"Playing as a boy character when I could play as a girl didn't even cross my mind," recalls game designer Kara Stone, who first played Diablo 2 when she was 10. "Seventeen years later, I see that the sorceress had a big impact on how I play games now."

The 2012 sequel, Diablo 3, let players choose either a male or female version for all character classes.

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil

Jade, the lead character of Beyond Good and Evil. (Ubisoft)

Beyond Good and Evil, a cult hit from 2003, is still loved by gamers for its Pixar-styled world and adventuring gameplay similar to the Legend of Zelda series. You play as Jade, an investigative photojournalist who's also good with a bo-staff.

Critics lauded Jade as one of the few female games characters of the era without an overtly sexualized appearance.

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (1996)

Lara Croft from 1996's Tomb Raider. (Core Design/Eidos Interactive)

The original Lara Croft might be gaming's most problematic fave. Debuting in 1996's Tomb Raider as a self-confident millionaire archaeologist, she became one of gaming's best-known faces for years.

She even crossed over into mainstream entertainment, portrayed by Angelina Jolie in a pair of Hollywood films.

Inspired by singer Neneh Cherry and comic book character Tank Girl, Lara's designers originally wanted her to run counter to stereotypical female leads in pop culture. But her buxom figure and racy poses on men's magazine covers resulted in confusion: Was she empowering to women or just a digital pin-up?

"New" Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2013)

Lara Croft from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. (Crystal Dynamics/Square-Enix)

Developer Square-Enix went back to the drawing board for the Tomb Raider reboot in 2013, recasting her as an archaeology student just discovering her potential for heroism. Trading in her hot pants for a bow and arrows a la Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, critics praised the reimagined Lara.

Red, Transistor

Red, star of Transistor. (Supergiant Games)

Red, from Supergiant Games' Transistor, is a silent protagonist much like The Legend of Zelda's Link. But it's not by choice: The former singer had her voice stolen by the rulers of her cyberpunk hometown, Cloudbank.

"Red deeply resonates with me because she reverses her setbacks into strengths," says independent game developer Tanya Kan. "By combining the strengths of the best citizens who've gone before her, she seeks to rewrite the city's fabric against a legion of killer robots."

Lilith, Borderlands

Lilith, also known as 'The Siren,' from Borderlands. (Gearbox/2K Games)

Toronto game designer Kaitlin Tremblay's favourite female character is Lilith from Borderlands, an action game set in a Mad Max-style universe.

"She gets to actually be a person, in a lot of ways," says Tremblay. "She's incredibly powerful, her progression toward becoming a leader is believable, but she's also vulnerable, not afraid to show fear and pain. She's also just a massive dork when it comes to flirting."

Shepard and Ryder, Mass Effect

Commander Shepard, left, and Sara Ryder from the Mass Effect Series. (Bioware/Electronic Arts)

Mass Effect, a sprawling sci-fi adventure series by Canadian studio Bioware, let players choose between a male or female version of the hero, Commander Shepard. Since both versions had to be more or less interchangeable for the plot, "FemShep," as fans know the female version, was as smart, strong and respected by her peers as the male version.

The next game in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, is due in March and will again let players choose their hero from one of two siblings: Scott and Sara Ryder.

Heroes of Overwatch

Left to right: Farah, Tracer, Zarya and Mercy, 4 of the playable characters from Overwatch. (Blizzard Entertainment)

Online multiplayer shooter Overwatch was one of the most popular games of 2016 and is still going strong. It's been praised for its large and diverse cast, which includes women of different ethnic backgrounds, ages and body types.

A Christmas-themed companion comic also confirmed that British adventurer Tracer is gay, making her one of a very small number of LGBT characters to appear on the cover of a video game.

Aloy, Horizon: Zero Dawn

Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn, out now on the Sony PlayStation 4. (Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Voice actor and gaming personality Ashly Burch voices Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn, out now on Sony's PlayStation 4. She's a member of the Nora, one of a smattering of human tribes and settlements left on the planet.

Aloy has made a strong impression on critics as the latest heroine to headline a major console game release.

"She's as clever as Hermione Granger, as tough as Lara Croft and better with a bow than Katniss Everdeen," writes Engadget's Jessica Conditt.


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.