The damsel in distress is an ancient (and, quite frankly, antiquated) role for female characters which has been used over and over again to the point of being the epitome of a stock character. The victim of some sort of foul play, she is totally dependent on a strong man to save her. The rescue of this powerless woman is the be-all and end-all, leaving the damsel in question reduced to a prize to be won or an object to be obtained.
It’s not like there can never be a distraught woman in games who needs the aid of a man without it being stereotypical. It’s just the way it’s done... There is a great game example which avoids the cliché of the damsel in distress even if the goal is to rescue a woman; Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. In this (excellent) game, the protagonist’s life is dependent on rescuing the woman, Trip, as she has placed a slave headband on him which forces him to follow her orders and which kills him if she dies. In addition to the fact that the plot niftily stays clear of the banality, Trip is actually a very cool chick. So there is a way to rescue female characters without being uninventive and stale.
The other trope is the sex kitten. The most notable of all sexualized female characters is probably Lara Croft. In theory it’s all well and good: an intelligent, fearless and athletic archeologist and world traveler. Still, the immediate thought is “sex symbol”. In the case of Lara Croft I don’t think it’s accurate to point the finger entirely at her creators. This one is mainly on the hands of the fans. They have famously found ways to angle the camera in order to get a closer view of her cleavage, perform in-game actions where it looks like she is in the middle of a sexual act and even created patches to remove her clothes. Sadly, the game’s marketing department has taken this and run with it, focusing squarely on her sexuality.
There are, of course, much more sexualized characters out there, and in my opinion fighting games are the worst offenders. Pretty much all of the women in these games look like they belong in x-rated movies, with massive, gravity-defying breasts, hardly any clothes (for increased agility maybe? ...Probably not.) and who keep moaning in fights. The reference to sex is so thinly veiled that they might as well have portrayed them as stark naked and on their backs.
I’m happy to say that this year we’ll see some big titles featuring female leads. And they all seem to be strong, tough and intelligent women with rich backstories. As a matter of fact, there are just as many female protagonists as there are male in our list of top ten most anticipated games of 2013. This is a great sign, and hopefully a precursor of what’s to come in the future!