For a long, long time female characters in gaming have been overwhelmingly designed to provide aesthetic or narrative gratification to adolescent boys, the once default-and-only target.

The scantily clad warriors and princesses kept in another castle have been an unfortunate constant for years, and for some reason, their diminishing presence in gaming is seen as a bad thing.

That’s not to say that there’s a shortage of attractive women in video games. It’s just that their attractiveness isn’t limited to looking like a pin-up model, and their personalities aren’t limited to “is a woman”.

As a result, we’ve had some truly amazing female characters, steadily growing in numbers. It started in the mid-to-late 2000s and has truly become a trend in the 2010s. Characters such as Horizon’s Aloy, the teen dramas of Life is Strange, or the harrowing medieval wartime experiences ruining A Plague Tale’s Amicia’s life are just a few examples.

But it’s not just predefined characters that lead the charge: in 2007 the world has met one of the most iconic female characters in gaming… should players make this decision in character creation.

Favorite store on the Citadel

Commander Shepard, the protagonist of genre-defining RPG trilogy Mass Effect technically has no set gender, it’s an entirely player-driven choice. Fondly called BroShep and FemShep by the community, the commander is a grade-A badass.

Shepard is an experienced soldier who begins their plot by being recruited to be a special agent for a galactic government, and ends by leading the charge against an invasion from spooky machines. There’s also a lot of small-scale problems to solve, and many relationships to forge with the crew of misfits gathered along the way.

The popularity of FemShep was complicated. Both versions of Shepard draw on the same script, except for relationship options only available to one or the other, and the story doesn’t really promote over the other. To make things even more complicated, BroShep is more popular by numbers. So what’s the big deal?

Well, it might come down to the delivery. FemShep, as performed by voice acting veteran Jennifer Hale just had a special sauce that made people appreciate the delivery even as most of them went for Mark Meer’s BroShep for the long haul. FemShep’s popularity might also have something to do with getting to romance series’ best companion Garrus, but that’s conjecture, your honor.

But Mass Effect trilogy ran from 2007 to 2012 and is, by gaming metrics, pretty old now despite the refreshed Legenedary Edition. Thankfully, a decade after Shepard saved the galaxy, another character came about to fill in the “same script, and yet…” gap.

Lilith’s child

In December 2022 Firaxis, the makers of XCOM and Civilization, released Midnight Suns, a Marvel-themed tactical RPG with a customizable main character: The Hunter. As the game lacks romance options, the scripts overlap entirely, kept pretty neutral.

So what does The Hunter feel better as a woman? Well, while either Shepard could slot into ME plot with the same ease, Midnight Suns’ story is one where a female protagonist fits much better with the themes and arcs.

The game’s fairly heavy on relationships and bonds. Most of the game’s relationships are forged between women: the romantic bond of Caretaker and Agatha Harkness, the friendship of Nico Minoru, Magik, and Scarlet Witch, the underlying sisterly conflict of Lilith and Caretaker… With such a context, it only makes sense to make The Hunter Lilith’s daughter, rather than a son. In fact, the game’s marketing material seems to think so too, showing the Hunter as a woman in trailers and promo materials a reversal of Shepard’s situation.

Of course, this is something most people wouldn’t know until they play the game and listen to the dialogues. It’s perfectly reasonable to start off with a male Hunter, however, especially since he’s voiced by Matt Mercer. This choice just doesn’t work as perfectly in terms of the game’s themes.

Why are they important?

Of course, neither was Shepard the first, nor will the Hunter be the last character who gets a complete personality and a player-chosen gender.


Shepard was, however, a prominent herald of things to come, a proof of concept, that also in a fully-voiced, cinematic, a female character can work at least as well as a male does. A valid choice, not an afterthought left for the players to fill in the gaps themselves. The Hunter is merely the latest expression of this idea, with the added spice of the plot and writing being better suited for a female version without invalidating the alternative. Lilith loves her child equally regardless, and the team needs its leader either way.

It would be easy to lock these characters to a specific gender, or even appearance, but the power of gaming, and RPGs in particular, is to let players immerse themselves, role-play, and have a hope of finding representation. Which is important, because women are finally getting closer and closer to representing half of the gaming population. Characters like Shepard or Hunter are great examples of fully realized, yet customizable characters, who can coexist very comfortably alongside female protagonists explicitly written to be such, like Aloy or The Last of Us’ Ellie.

Sometimes the story is just universal and flexible enough to let that happen.

What’s next?

We can only hope for more developers to follow in Mass Effect’s and Midnight Sun’s footsteps, creating badass, competent characters and letting players choose the gender they want to role-play as or identify with. As the presence of women in gaming grows, the value of such characters can’t be understated, and make for a much more welcoming hobby.

Of course, there are already more characters like Shep and Hunter. Greedfall’s De Sardet and Cyberpunk 2077’s V are great examples, both given voice and personality way beyond being blank slates.