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Games are, of course, traditionally marketed to male teens. And what makes a male teen feel like he's better endowed than he may or may not be in real life, than having to save some helpless woman who somehow, through extreme ineptitude or idiocy managed to get herself captured.
It's a formula that goes back throughout the ages, and is as old as time, or at least as old as Super Mario Brothers.
And I sat here today and thought...there's got to be someone who bucks the trend, a game heroine who isn't content to just be rescued, but to get out there and do something.
The answer was so obvious, she was staring me right in the face with that trademark sarcastic grin of hers: Alyx Vance.
For those of you not initiated to the storyline of Half-Life 2, Alyx is the daughter of one of the main supporting NPCs. You, as "everyone's favorite emotionally oblivious mute, Gordon Freeman"* are introduced to her in the beginning of Half Life 2. After being stunned by Civil Protection, you hear her call their attention and upon coming to, you see her and four or five Civil Protection units out cold on the floor.
The immediate implication is that she is a girl who can take care of herself easily. As you play through the first game, she leads you to safety, gives you remote protection when you are separated and you must find your way to her and her father, and she serves as your teacher for some of the mechanics of the game. In short, without Alyx, Gordon would be next to nothing, if not actually nothing.
It's an interesting switch of the roles, in which Gordon literally needs Alyx to show him the way, to clear obstacles and survive. Through subsequent releases of Episode 1 and 2, Alyx becomes even more vital to you, fighting side by side with you as you struggle to make your way back to the resistance.
Valve, Half Life 2's developer, has usually been quite progressive in this way, using Alyx as a companion, as a teacher, and as a helper without whom Gordon would not be able to survive, and they are to be commended on this point. It's been a growing trend in gaming lately to give more and more strong female characters, and I suspect this is because it hasn't gone unnoticed that the demographic for games is changing: that more and more women are becoming gamers.
We're talking about more than a "token feminist" or some such, we're talking about true strong women who can get along as easily without a man as with one.
Of course..Half-Life 2 is not perfect. Alyx is meant to visually appeal, and while not nude or scantily clad (though there are mods you can get for that), she is at least somewhat sexualized. There are no cutscenes, and Gordon never talks so the storyline must be conveyed through the actions and words of those around you, and it does get a bit frustrating to see Alyx sort of shyly and tentatively throwing out hints as to her attraction to him so that the player begins to feel as if there might be a romantic relationship between the two. The idea, I'm sure, is that Gordon is silently conveying his approval and reciprocation of this, and many players I'm sure vocally convey this from behind their computer screens but as a woman playing the game, it feels a little forced to me.
However, it is a step in the right direction, a step that few developers previous have even bothered to take, and in light of that I'm willing to be less harsh on them for sort of forcing the romantic storyline between Gordon and Alyx. Overall, Alyx Vance is a very good example of the growing shift in gaming towards women of power and capability, and I look forward to what Valve intends to do with her in the upcoming Episode 3.
*Quote credit goes to Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame.