The 32-bit era in gaming was an important era of transition for the industry. Technology was advancing, game design and philosophy were evolving, and game developers all over the world were trying to catch up. This time period, around 1994-2000, was a time of innovation and reconfigurations. The game industry was a playground that played with depth (not just in terms of graphics, and play styles.) I’ve been thinking of this era a lot lately and my favorite games produced within it and being a writer my mind went to narrative and character.
Female characters in games have been much criticized and maligned over the years. In the beginning they were often useless, vapid, or just plain two-dimensional. (Pardon the pun.) Sometimes this was unavoidable to the simplicity of the games, but other times female characters were well, less than solid or valuable to the product. To be sadly honest, this is still the came sometimes today. I wanted to examine the quality of depth for female characters in the 32-bit era since it was, as stated above, a period of evolution and transition. Do more evolved characters pop up around this time? Short Answer? Yes. More names come to mind for more diverse reasons. There are several obvious examples: Tifa, Jill Valentine, Lara Croft, arguably Shiek/Zelda from Ocarina, but I found more that are forgotten or overlooked in this department today. I think these stellar women of the day should get their due so I decided to weigh some options and discuss what makes these unsung ladies special.
Aya Brea- Parasite Eve (PS1, 1998)
Aya Brea is a strong character, very much so in a traditional sense. She’s tough, clever, brave, all the obvious traits that come to mind when thinking of a true hero. All in all she might be one of the simpler characters out of this bunch, but she is well defined where it counts. She is probably the most capable cops in her precinct. Her personal character is further enriched through the game’s bizarre horror scenario with a compelling backstory and satisfying twists. It’s a shame more people don’t talk about Aya and Parasite Eve too much anymore. Perhaps her character has been too tarnished by the sub-par Parasite Eve 2 and the more blatantly awful PSP follow up, The 3rd Birthday. It’s no secret that poor Aya’s strength and integrity was tossed aside with that game. Regardless, she’s a trooper in the first title, and it’s the only one that truly matters.
Princess Gradriel- Princess Crown (Saturn, 1997)
Princess Gradriel is the main heroine of Princess Crown, the excellent, (yet sadly Japan exclusive,) spiritual predecessor to Odin Sphere. The games, and Gradriel herself, are a joy to experience. She is the only person of note included in this bunch that is still a child. Her minor status doesn’t stop her from being a great, valuable little character in my book. What makes Gradriel interesting here is that she chooses to be special and have depth. In the beginning when she is appointed ruler of the land shoe could have chosen the safe and simple path of being sequestered in her castle, being waited on away from the truths of the world. Instead, she chooses to go out out on her own into the kingdom to learn from experience. She chooses to welcome conflict and fight on level with lauded knights. She makes tough decisions and faces grave danger with bravery and grace. She’s a great character for twelve year olds everywhere. And by everywhere I mean Japan.
Azel- Panzer Dragoon Saga- Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn, 1998)
Azel is a tough one to write about. Pretty much anything I can say about her in detail would be a big spoiler for Panzer Dragoon Saga, and possibly Panzer Dragoon Orta. I can say however, that she is an extremely well crafted character that pins a great story together. She is independent, intelligent, and confident in her self and her mission. All of these traits are valuable in any well rounded character, regardless and they enhance one of the most enticing things about Azel, her mystique. Very little is known about her four the first two thirds of the game. Characters like her are tricky and for them to work every move, every emotion, every thought has to have weight not only to the game but to the player, too. When Azel starts opening up a few discs into the game, we see the vast depth of who she is, what she had done and what she faces. She never loses importance or power to anything or anyone, and that includes whoever holds the controller. There are modern gaming ladies that still don’t compare out there. Again, I would love to give examples of what she does and how she is so rich, but I can’t bring myself to spoil a wonderful character in a wonderful game.
Lucia- Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete (PS1, 1998)
Lucia is great character for this list. She has such unique dimension and depth of range. The real beauty of all this is that it all starts so small and simple but then unfolds elegantly before your eyes. She is a great outsider character that brings a new lens for the player; to not only view the rich world of Lunar but also humanity as a whole. She is useful to the party, useful to the plot, and useful to the player’s perspective, all without devolving to a gimmick or through cheap, sketchy circumstances. She starts as a stiff, awkwardly clueless alien of a character, but swiftly develops in a clever way that puts at the player’s heart just enough. Her world drastically burst open over a short time, she faces great challenge and sacrifice, and her character is made whole as it is shown, not told. truly an underrated figure.
Laura Lewis-Enemy zero (Sega Saturn, 1997)
It’s no secret I am in love with late mad genius game designer Kenji Eno’s creations. I’ve mentioned his sci-fi horror title Enemy Zero more than once and I know I’ve mentioned “digital actress” star of his games, Laura before too. So, if you are sick of hearing me ramble on about Kenji Eno, I’m sorry. I am. But, it would simply be an injustice if I didn’t mention Enemy Zero’s Laura Lewis on this list. Out of all the incarnations of Laura that Eno created, Laura Lewis from Enemy Zero is by far the most developed and alive. She is surprisingly human for a character in a game that came out in 1997. She may be a silent protagonist (for the most part,) but that doesn’t dampen her personality or complexity one bit. Her reactions are obvious and genuine but also subtle, and her personality is brought out through her interactions with her environment and the characters she spends time with. When she is in peril, you as a player feel her anxiety and hope for her safety. When her friends are in a bad place you can see the compassionate side of her personality or her tenacious bravery to power forward and do the right thing. She’s not perfect in who she is or how she acts, but that just makes her composition richer. Once again, the power of showing not telling creates a character that has depth and a bit of a spirit. Laura isn’t just one of the better, (and sadly, often forgotten,) video game ladies of a transitional age, she is in my opinion, one of the best, most polished silent protagonists out there.
Who do you think are some of the great female characters from the 32-bit era? Who are your favorites? Are there any you think don’t get proper credit or have been forgotten? Let me know below!