Some Great Female Protagonists in Indie Games

With March being Women’s History Month, it’s a great time to tip our cap and recognize the many amazing ladies in video games. From indispensable sidekicks like Cortana in the Halo franchise, to merciless (and charismatic) villains like Lady Dimitrescu of Resident Evil Village, to iconic protagonists like Lara Croft or Samus or Aloy, the women in video games have evolved into memorable powerhouses that drive some of the most fantastic gaming narratives in recent memory. For many of the early years in gaming, women were relegated to minor roles or worse, tools that perpetuated the stale and cliched “damsel in distress” tropes that permeate throughout history. Women were merely objects of a male hero’s interest, or the ultimate “prize” to be obtained by defeating a sworn enemy. Now, women are the ones doing the rescuing, both in major AAA titles and in fantastic indie titles just as worthy of your time.

Since many of us are plenty familiar with the likes of Commander Shepard, Ellie, or Bayonetta, I figured it fitting to shine a light on some lesser known protagonists, stars of smaller and often indie games that tell incredible stories. From platformers to resource management games, these games tell stories that empower their players with women characters that drive uplifting, heartbreaking, and essential stories.

Madeline (Celeste)

Contrary to popular belief, Celeste is the name of the mountain, not the main character.

Back in 2017, developer Ninja Theory released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which told the story of a Celtic warrior named Senua who is forced to battle her mental demons to save the soul of her love interest, Dillion. The story was violent with intense and frightening imagery. And though it did a truly wonderful job depicting the battle with intense mental illness, particularly from the perspective of a woman, those more frightening elements meant that the game was not for everyone. 

Celeste provides another story of navigating mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety, without the more frightening elements. Without spoiling much, the story centers around a young girl named Madeline who aims to summit Celeste Mountain. Along her journey she encounters many adversaries, often physical manifestations of the battles she often has with her own mind. While the story is engaging and easily accessible, the gameplay is tough, demanding your attention, strategy, and patience to proceed. While there is an accessibility option that eases the difficulty and make the game accessible to players that may struggle with this, the game’s difficulty is one of the driving forces behind its narrative. However you choose to play, Madeline’s story is one that is relatable, honest, and heartfelt, exactly the kind of empowering female we need to see more of. 

Rebecca Owens (The Mortuary Assistant) 

rebecca mortuary assistant
As a former mortician myself, I can tell you that even without the demons, being a mortician is rough work.

A potentially more controversial choice for this list, since historically, the horror genre has been less than kind to women, but hear me out here. Darkstone Digital’s 2022 critically acclaimed horror game The Mortuary Assistant tells the story of Rebecca Owens, the newest mortician at River Fields Mortuary, owned and operated by her former teacher, Raymond Delver. On her first night shift, Rebecca learns that the mortuary is haunted by demons that are hellbent (see what I did there?) on possessing her and gaining a foothold on the human world. Rebecca must use the tools at her disposal, and the extensive history and records left by Mr. Delver, to determine which demon is hiding in which of the three bodies she must embalm that evening. And it is a grueling, unforgiving task that she must repeat over and over again to ensure the demons stay where they belong. 

The game has multiple endings and depending on your success in banishing the correct demons, as well as fighting your own personal demons, you will earn one of up to six different endings. In the endings where Rebecca is successful, she is able to fight back against this truly malevolent force that uses her past failings as a weapon against her. This is where the game truly shines in an empowering way. It’s revealed through gameplay that Rebecca is a recovering drug addict, and her father was accidentally killed while searching for her during one of her benders. When the demons attempt to weaponize her grief against her, she can use the tangible memories of her father (such as one of his sobriety coins) to remind her of her self worth and the love she had for him. 

So while there are some very valid criticisms about elements of the game that fall into those old tropes, the places that don’t amplify those tropes are strong, and make Rebecca a compelling character to go back to when you are looking to get the pants scared off of you.

Claire (A Short Hike)

claire a short hike
Claire, the protagonist of A Short Hike, is a very cute little bird.

Designed by Canadian indie developer Adam Robinson-Yu, A Short Hike is a very short, very wholesome story about Claire, a young bird who is staying at a national park for the summer along with her Aunt May, who works there as a ranger. 

Similar to Celeste, Claire is committed to climbing the top of the highest mountain peak known as Hawk Peak, since that is the only place that gets any cell phone signal, and Claire is expecting a very important call. Throughout the game, Claire can choose to interact with and assist other climbers and adventurers around the mountain, all of whom can provide tips and assistance on her quest. While the game doesn’t have a grandiose message, it is a very wholesome and relatable one. Claire’s love for her family and her commitment to her task in the interest of making sure she gets that important phone call is a reminder that whatever is most important to you is worth pursuing. 

Gris (Gris)

gris game
The unnamed player character, commonly referred to by the game’s name, Gris, is in search of healing after the death of a loved one.

While the character in Nomada Studio’s 2018 platformer Gris is never named, she is often referred to by the game’s title, so we’ll just go ahead and use that for convenience. Gris is grieving the recent loss of another female character who is strongly implied to be her mother. Throughout the game, Gris must navigate various environmental obstacles and enemies, presumably the stages of her grief, in order to regain her lost voice and accept the loss of her loved one. 

The game employs color as a gameplay mechanic, which is used both as a symbol of the emotional turmoil that Gris is experiencing, and a tool that must be utilized to restore Gris’ world to working order. Gris’ experience with grief is not unique or linear, which makes sense; grief is not a linear experience, and no one experiences it the same way. Because of this, it’s easy to relate to Gris’ pain and the struggle to regain herself, to avoid being swallowed up by her depression and learn to move forward. It’s a powerful message, and Gris exhibits it perfectly, in that she does so imperfectly. 

Stella (Spiritfarer)

Stella, the main character of Spiritfarer, as she appears in the game’s promotional animated short.

Thunder Lotus has described their 2020 game as “a cozy little management game about death.” On first read, that may sound a little jarring, but Spiritfarer handles its subject matter with a level of grace and care most fitting. The game centers around Stella, a woman who has just become the new Spiritfarer, one who is tasked with tending to the needs of wayward spirits on her boat until they are ready to fully pass on. 

At first, Stella seems to be a pretty 2D character (both literally and figuratively), but as the story progresses, Stella’s past and relationship with the various spirits is revealed, and what was initially a story about the spirits themselves, becomes a story about Stella and her relationship with death. Through every meal cooked, every plank of wood cut, and every vegetable harvested, we get closer to understanding Stella’s past, and what her relationship with death means for her future. 

Nobody likes talking about death, especially in the US, where we are culturally so averse to the subject. But through Stella, Spiritfarer makes the game accessible, and Stella’s gentleness, patience, and commitment to her passengers is a lesson to us all to take pause, even on things that we would naturally shy away from.

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