The more critically we look for positive female characters in games today, the harder they are to find. So many of even the most memorable female characters fall victim (often literally) to be being damsels in distress, being sexualized/objectified, or fulfilling other types of cliche gaming tropes.
There are however, some great examples of utterly unforgettable characters in gaming - certainly more than the ten I'll list here. I tried to stick with characters in games that I've played myself, rather than heard about, and tried not to default to the more obvious choices (like the indisputably badass, yet overused example of Lara Croft).
This list isn't perfect or definitive, nor does it make any academic statements. It is simply a list made by someone who thinks women are people and that these leading ladies were recognized as great characters first, and women second.
American Mcgee's Alice: Madness Returns
This is a game that probably slipped under a lot of people's radar, but I was fortunate enough to give it a go on PS3 (and was so glad I did). Not only are the environments designed beautifully, but the overarching metaphor of Alice fighting her mental battles to overcome trauma and tragedy in a fantastically macabre world was powerful, yet understated. Alice is dark and twisted, with a tragic past that lands her in a mental hospital. Throughout the story, she fights her way through these issues in a grotesque take on Wonderland, with antagonists that parallel the abusers and villains in her reality.
There was an aesthetic to both her and the environments in the game that I absolutely fell in love with. In her reality, she is worn and broken. But in her fantasy world, she empowers herself to overcome her problems and take back her life. She certainly starts as a victim and has definite moments of weakness throughout the game, but always keeps pushing forward no matter how ugly things get. By the end of her experience, she overcomes all of the evil in her life to open up the hope for a brighter future.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Hideo Kojima's games are weird as hell, and I'm just one of the people that loves him. While a lot of his female characters are tough, they're also needlessly sexualized. But The Boss is an exceptional character. Throughout the game, she is both a nurturing mentor to the protagonist and a formidable foe as well.
The boss fulfills both the motherly female archetype and the badass (a la Lara Croft) female archetype simultaneously. She mentors Snake and cares deeply about him, but she also won't hesitate to break his arm and throw him off a bridge to teach him to survive. Let's all be thankful the mother figures in our life aren't quite that hard on us.
While few things are ever totally clear in Kojima story lines, the one thing we learn about the Metal Gear Solid series in Snake Eater is that without the loving and brutal mentorship from The Boss, Big Boss would never have become the legendary hero he's known to be.
While your immediate impression may be that Nariko is beautiful and sparsely-clothed, she is inarguably strong-willed and unmatched in combat. Wielding a sword that is both badass and looks heavy enough for two people, she makes combat both deadly and graceful.
Even before obtaining this unique weapon, Nariko is a fierce warrior who defends the last of her people with whatever she has, no matter what. Despite being shunned by her clan when she was born, she defends them from the very beginning. She proves that she is destined to defeat evil and save her world from destruction, in spite of the fact that the prophecy foretold a male savior.
If you haven't played or seen Heavenly Sword, it only takes a quick glance at the combat to see just how impressive of a warrior Nariko is.
Portal, Portal 2
Taking a page from the "strong and silent type" book of previous Valve protagonist, Gordon Freeman, Chell has zero dialogue in either game, yet still comes off as strong and unstoppable. GLaDOS, the Portal antagonist, puts Chell through countless humorous and blatantly torturous puzzles filled with near-death experiences, but Chell never so much as slows down for a single moment.
Even without saying a word, or even really being seen, Chell is an example of a female character that looks completely average and is thrown into challenging situations that she never ceases to overcome time after time.
Abigail "Fetch" Walker
Infamous: Second Son, First Light
While Infamous: Second Son had that issue of diverging the story arc into a good side and evil side (which didn't really fit Fetch's established character), she's still a strong character in the flagship game.
But Fetch really shines in her own standalone game, First Light, where we learn more about her past, her relationship with her brother, and what makes her such a great character. She has those moments of weakness and feeling helpless, but always picks herself back up and fights.
There are some moments in First Light where Fetch is relentlessly hit on, receiving gross and creepy one-liners that, while annoying and a little out of place, are unfortunately a reflection of the real world. Fetch is certainly never okay with them, and I suppose it does make eventually killing the aforementioned creep that much sweeter.
The Last of Us
If you own a PS3 or PS4 and you haven't played The Last of Us, go pick it up now! It has one of the most powerful stories I've played through in years, and Ellie is a strong character that only gets stronger before the end of the game. She's only 14 and is thrown into a dangerous journey across a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic world where some of the people she encounters are more horrible than the actual monsters.
There are moments where Ellie is saved by her companion and protector Joel. But for every one of those instances, there are twice as many cutscenes or actual gameplay where she fights tooth-and-nail to survive in bleak scenarios.
In Mirror's Edge, Faith took badass-parkour to a whole new level as she runs, jumps, punches, kicks, and slides her way through the world without ever slowing down. The story is never as important as the action, but it still had enough background to paint Faith as a fiercely independent character who has lived on her own from a young age and is not subtle in her rebellion against the totalitarian regime of baddies that creep into the city she calls home.
Whether she's bounding rooftop-to-rooftop, taking out enemies in flash of melee attacks, or taking risks to stand up for what she believes in, she never slows down or hesitates in making the next move.
This is another silent female protagonist. Unlike the others, Red at least has the excuse that her voice was stolen by the game's antagonist. But like the other women of few words on this list, she doesn't let that hold her back from being a force to be reckoned with.
Being a singer with no voice must be a terrible feeling, and we can hear that melancholy in the melodious humming that Red graces the player with throughout the game as she hums along with the background music. While her sentient sword does all the talking, Red does have more and more of a personality as you progress through the game and better understand her background and her journey to become a revolutionary influence on the world.
Alyx Vance is easily one of the best AI companions ever. So many games pair you up with a companion or force you to escort a character too stupid to deserve protection. But Alyx was not only one of the most competent AI companions to this day, she is also a strong and smart character that demands respect with her very presence. She is a leader in a massive resistance against alien forces, and is more often telling Gordan Freeman what to do instead of asking what's next.
She's smart enough to build herself a pet robot and tough enough to hold her own throughout the entire game without letting any obstacle stand in her way for long. Lists like these are always made up of subjective details but Alyx Vance should be on all of them, no matter what.
It should be enough to say that Maya is awesome just because she is one of six super-powerful women (called "Sirens") in the Borderlands world, but there's more to it. Not only was Maya a truly badass companion to have alongside me in my several playthroughs of Borderlands 2, but she has an awesome origin story.
Discovered by a shady secret order and raised by monks, she practiced her powers in secret. When she realized that the monk's planned to enslave her and use her as weapon of fear and intimidation to control the people of that world, she kills them and peaces out to Pandora to learn more about Sirens and the world in general. It's a story that is only touched on briefly by listening to an audio recording, but hearing her story of overpowering her captors and escaping to explore the world and her identity makes me love her character even more.