Historically, just about every form of media has seen itself dominated by men, and gaming is as guilty as the rest. You could chalk it up to the playing population remaining largely scant of females for reasons too complex and debatable to delve into here, but that's only half the story. The landscape has certainly changed to include more women who aren't so easily reducible to their body parts; today we count Lara Croft, Jill Valentine and even Princess Peach among them. Granted, heroines still feel like the exception, but their path was paved in 1986 by Metroid's Samus Aran.
Just as important as her gender, however, is the way that we found out about it. As gamers originally adventured through the depths of Zebes, they knew little about the protagonist; the informed knew that Samus was purportedly the greatest bounty hunter in existence, while onlookers may have guessed that the main character was some sort of powerful cyborg. Either way, gaming is about immersion, and as with any title worth its salt, Metroid players saw themselves as one with Samus. It's not hard to imagine the likely demographic – people for whom it just wouldn't have made sense if Princess Toadstool had rescued Mario, people who felt more confidence in the accepted portrayal of strong and unemotional men to save the day rather than stereotypically flighty, weak, unpredictable women. Certainly we're not suggesting that all gamers fit that mould, but given early virtual narratives, it's not hard to imagine. By and large, women just weren't the stars.
Imagine with us, then, the look on a player's faces after they've destroyed the Mother Brain and feel completely one with the hero they've controlled up until the end: the strong, mysterious and threatening Samus. What a cool dude, right? Well, guess what, gentlemen. That dude's a chick. A chick, in women's clothing, waving hello.
Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you." And at that moment, a lot of gamers felt gazed into. This was a big twist – but why? Why was it a surprise that Samus was a women? Why was it such a big reveal? One answer is that, as stated before, games simply did not feature women in their lead roles. Another is that culturally, we do not think first of women as heroes. And for both these reasons, it is important that behind the suit was a woman, and that it was unbeknownst to players until the end.
This fact has also coloured and inspired debate and discussion regarding choices made with the series, especially Metroid: Other M. Would it have mattered so much that the developers showed her weak spots with greater visibility than ever before, or graphically displayed her in a much more curvaceous way, if she had not been a woman? Not likely.
We have a long way to go before Super Princess Peach feels less like a gender bender than a Mario universe side-character landing a starring role, before players won't simply assume that a Lara Croft nudity cheat code exists and before strong female protagonists are as accepted as the norm as the fighting breasts-n-butts of Dead or Alive: Dimensions. The Metroid series has pulled this off, as have the Resident Evil titles and more, so anyone who cares about gender equality could tell you that, at least in these areas, we're moving in the right direction.
Still, as recently as Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, we've seen a game's revelation of a character's female gender presented as an unexpected surprise (though that, of course, carried the weight of a much bigger twist as well). And because of her all-cloaking armour, you can play the majority of a Metroid game without acknowledging Samus's sex.
Do you think that gaming has gone far enough toward gender equality? If not, what do you think needs to happen? To our female and feminist fans, do you feel that Samus's gender is well-portrayed enough, or is that steely exterior a gender-concealing cop-out? To our non-female fans, do you feel like any less of a man when playing as Samus, or is she just simply another video game character whose person you can seamlessly inhabit? Voice your thoughts in the comments below!