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Time to give rise to the rugged woman

Why video games need more older female protagonists.

How is it that it's perfectly okay and completely acceptable for a man to age and remain cool and for a woman it's seen as a lot more unattractive and uncool? Older men are continuously embraced for their rugged, rough-around-the-edges gruff looks and tough-as-nails demeanor and always seem to be leading man material for video games. I can't help but notice an absence of older female protagonists in video games and the invisibility of an entire generation. It's been deeply indoctrinated into our culture and society that as a woman, when you get older and mature you run out of fuel and you have less importance and less relevance.

In The Last of Us, a game that was met with huge torrent of praise and awards, we follow the adventures of Joel, a grizzled man seemingly in his late 40s/early 50s. God of War (2018) follows the journey of a much-older Kratos, after years of being a vengeful killing machine, living on Nordic lands. Both of these older male protagonists are navigating their ways through second-chance fatherhood, and they're able to hold their own during intense combat, utilise an arsenal of weapons and get us immersed in a compelling, emotionally epic story that we find ourselves really caring about.

Kratos is one example of games being able to accept older antagonists - but only of a certain sort, at present.

Joel, living in a post-apocalyptic, zombie infested America after an outbreak, loses his daughter Sarah at the start of the game and is tasked with escorting a young teenage girl named Ellie to another quarantine zone. We as players get to observe the emotional and heart-rending journey of Joel and Ellie, whilst fighting our way through an influx of infected monstrosities that include clickers and runners. Joel becomes hardened and stoic over 20 years after his daughter's death and we see him reconnect with his fatherly side during his time with Ellie. He even starts calling her 'baby girl'. The most impactful moment by far is when he risks the possibility of restoring humanity because he refuses to let Ellie die, as he is told that she would have to die in order to develop a cure for the infection. Joel's actions are questionable, but witnessing his growth and his willingness to make such a sacrifice was riveting.

In God of War (2018), after years of bloodthirsty revenge against the Greek gods for the death of his family, it's a new beginning for a much older Kratos and we're introduced to his son Atreus, as they embark on a journey to spread the ashes of his wife Faye on the highest peak of the nine realms. We see Kratos flawed and vulnerable as he learns the ropes on how to become a father, while coming to terms with the death of wife and Atreus' mother Faye, and is a million miles away from the enraged killing machine as seen in the previous games. It was an interesting take on Kratos, adding humanity, vulnerability and whole a new level of nuance and depth for the much older generation of gamers, in particular.

And MKX's Sonya Blade is one positive example of what can be done.

In recent years, we've been extremely blessed to have had some amazing, kick-ass female video game protagonists, including Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, Clementine in The Walking Dead, who are just a couple of prime examples, and of course, Lara Croft. These female protagonists in video games are usually young, naïve and embarking on a journey of survival and self-discovery and a search for identity, with their lives pulling them in so many different directions. And throughout these games we get to see their evolution and growth and get fully immersed in their captivating back stories and coming-of-age adventures.

It was refreshing to see video game characters who weren't overly sexualised or objectified or just one-dimensional plot devices and had a lot more depth, nuance and characterisation. But there's a large gaping hole that's just longing to be filled when it comes to the portrayal of women, particularly much older women, in video games and their roles within those games.

Older female characters are either just part of an ensemble or have a minimal role to play, and are usually nothing more than supporting characters who are just helpless, impotent mother or grandmother figures or haggish, menacing antagonistic characters. It's noticeable that there is the unbalanced gender and age parity in video games. Older female characters just never seem to receive the leading lady treatment.

They say with age comes wisdom. And experience. Therefore, it would be exciting to see a much older, wiser, powerful female, with lines and wrinkles and looking like she's actually gone through the passage of time, armed with an impressive wealth of knowledge and experience in a motherly role, possibly planting the seed for a narrative which provides a compelling insight into a mother-child relationship. Or even taking a much younger character under her wing in more of a mentor role.

There really aren't a lot of games which let you play as a 40 or 50-something mother and that needs to change. In Mortal Kombat X, the franchise's original female character Sonya Blade, a military General, showed plenty of untapped potential and it only just scratched the surface in what could be. Sonya's role in the Mortal Kombat X story campaign displayed so much potential for a much older, believable and hardened female character who isn't sidelined, faded into the background and reduced to supporting character tier or even background NPC tier. There's a surprisingly sufficient amount of characterisation for a story campaign in a fighting game known for its graphic violence.

Katherine Marlowe - not so subtly inspired by Helen Mirren - starring in her own Uncharted adventure? Yes please.

Mortal Kombat X gave players the chance to become enthralled in her stoic personality. Sonya notably didn't take the surname of her (now estranged) husband Johnny Cage when they got married. She was a million miles away from the stereotypical domestic goddess trope or the trophy wife. She also showed a level of humanity and vulnerability when needed, where she calls her daughter Cassie, by her name rather than just Sergent, like she usually does. Despite being very brief, it is a moment of tenderness and warmth.

In Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Katherine Marlowe, a character seemingly in her 60s, inspired by Helen Mirren, was the first female, major antagonist in the Uncharted franchise who was highly intimidating. Her main purpose was to compete with the series' roguish protagonist Nathan Drake in finding the lost city, Atlantis of the Sands. Despite being an interesting character, she wasn't given the same level of depth and humanity as Sonya. Nor screen time for that matter.

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Video games need to do a hell of a lot better in making progress in promoting age diversity with their female characters. Audiences and critics must demand way more. Whether young, old, straight, queer, there's plenty of room for every type of woman in gaming, whether within the industry itself or as part of the video game.

With the movie Halloween (2018), starring Jamie Lee Curtis, being a box office behemoth last year with it becoming not only the biggest horror movie opening with a female lead, but the biggest movie opening with a female lead over 55, the same notion should be translated to video games. And there is hope. Developers and writers need to let go of the fear that older women may not be marketable enough and let the people decide that for themselves.

Older female protagonists can and should be allowed to have their very own intricate, diverse and captivating stories told in video games. There is a wealth of story potential there. There is an untapped demographic of middle-aged women and mothers, many of whom may be avid video game connoisseurs themselves, just longing to see themselves represented accurately in video games.

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