1. King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994)
The Bechdel Test is a litmus test for female representation in film that was first popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. As outlined in a 1985 strip (which gives credit for “The Rule” to Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace), the test requires that a movie fulfill three requirements:
One, it has to have at least two women in it, who
Two, talk to each other about
Three, something other than a man.
The test has endured as a potent form of commentary because its requirements are so low, yet a great many movies fail to meet them. The Bechdel Test proves equally interesting when you try to apply it to video games. (Since games are generally less dialogue-driven than films, we considered tweaking the second requirement to allow two women who have a meaningful, distinctive interaction with each other, even if it’s wordless. This proved to make little difference, though.) Even when a game passes a test, it can be revealing to look at how it passes. For instance, the adventure game King’s Quest VII, which features two women as its heroines, should be a slam dunk. Yet the opening scene sees Queen Valanice and her daughter Rosella arguing over the need for Rosella to find a man and get married already. It’s always the third component of the Bechdel Test that proves to be the sticking point, and while King’s Quest VII ultimately passes—for instance, when Rosella seeks the aid of a female troll—it takes longer to clear the hurdles than you might expect.
2. WWE SmackDown Vs. Raw 2010 (2009)
While the Bechdel Test is an interesting lens for pop culture, it’s important to note that it’s not a “feminism test” or a test of progressive-gender-politics “goodness.” On occasion, though, it can highlight bits of female empowerment in unexpected places. Wrestling is hardly a great bastion of feminism—we’re talking about a pretend sport where tall drinks of testosterone and protein power are pressed into humanoid shape and sent to do battle. And yet, nestled deep in the heart of WWE SmackDown Vs. Raw 2010, we find the tiny exception that proves the rule. Here, the talented female wrestler Mickie James tells her suitor of the moment, Brian Kendrick, to take a hike so she can discuss a Women’s Championship opportunity with talented female wrestler Natalya Neidhart. The Women’s Championship is all very cordial (by pro wrestling’s standards), and there’s hardly any sexy posing. Since the game’s release, though, WWE has retired the venerable, decades-old Women’s Championship belt in favor of the new Divas Championship belt, which is shaped like a butterfly. And female wrestler storylines are nonexistent in WWE SmackDown Vs. Raw 2011, so this moment in the Bechdel Test sun was a brief one for the franchise.
3. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
When you’re knee-deep in the laudable quest of vanquishing the Gogolithic Mass, there’s not really time to linger about, twirling your hair and gossiping about boys. Heroes take action, and that’s exactly what the noble female hero of Superbrothers’ Sword & Sworcery EP does. The Scythian, as she’s known, collects a Megatome, slays beasts, and claims the three shards of a powerful artifact known as the Trigon. Like all good fantasy epics, there are villagers to protect from evil and to provide context and rumors. The village girl, known simply as Girl, wonders aloud why a flock of sheep have fled from their field and proposes that the Scythian might free the hiding fairies by singing her song of “sworcery.” Fluffy animals and songs about fairies may be “girl stuff,” but it’s but totally-important-regarding-the-end-of-the-world girl stuff.
4. Space Channel 5 (2000)
You wouldn’t expect a Japanese game where a space reporter in a dayglo miniskirt named Ulala dance-battles a chick with blue hair named Pudding to pass muster with Bechdel, yet here we are. Ulala doesn’t have too much time for idle talk, as she both reports on and prevents alien abductions by dancing. Most of her interactions are actually with her male producer, who basically functions as a narrator. The exception is Pudding, Ulala’s rival anchor from Space Channel 42. They talk briefly and then get to dancing, which involves quite a bit of yelling at one another.
5. Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
Given the Bechdel Test’s roots, the post-coital performance analysis of a lesbian fling in Dragon Age: Origins might get extra credit. But the conversation between busty sea captain Isabella and the usually demure Leliana is only one of the interactions in Origins that passes the test. The game also features an early scene between the witches Morrigan and Flemeth, where Flemeth kicks her daughter out of the house and sends her off to help your party fight the Darkspawn that threaten to destroy the world. One of your party members may be a man, but it’s really two women talking about monsters—in other words, it passes.
6. Bayonetta (2010)
It can be hard to shake the feeling that Bayonetta is too genuinely horny to qualify as satire. The only game in history that has you play as a witch in a catsuit made of her own hair, Bayonetta spends a lot of time below its titular heroine’s equator as she slaps around phallic angels. Yet a little salacious camera work doesn’t disqualify a game from Bechdel eligibility. Bayonetta’s best friend and erstwhile nemesis Jeanne is always swooping in, making fun of Bayonetta, kicking her a bit, and then flying off. In the scene above, one of many that pass the test, Jeanne explains to Bayonetta precisely why she’s so miffed at her.
7. Castle Of Shikigami III (2008)
The localization of the Japanese shooting game Castle Of Shikigami III is so strange that it passes the test almost by accident. Let’s set the stage: Two young ladies, Reika and Yukari, are floating in the air above a gothic cathedral. Yukari vamps for the players at home, then cryptically tells Reika she can go no further. So Reika threatens to reveal Yukari’s deepest cosplay secrets, which she knows presumably because time cops use their infinite powers to visit all of history’s greatest Comic-Cons. This actually would have defused the confrontation, but the people at home demand bullets, and so bullets they shall have. Also Reika wants us to know that “the summer makes a woman feel free.” It’s not entirely clear what either of them are talking about, but it’s probably not men, so the game technically passes. That is unless Yukari’s cosplay secret is that her costume is a live human man, which in this context is…plausible, but let’s give it to them anyway.
8. Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix (2001)
Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix is mainly remembered 11 years after its release for eclipsing Lara Croft as the poster femme fatale for sexual exploitation on the PlayStation. Actually, it’s not even the game that’s remembered so much as its print ads from around the world. (Translation from the Italian: “Don’t let us play together alone.”) The game doesn’t really seem like it likes women very much when you fire it up, either. The very first image in the game after you press “start” is a half-naked man throwing money on top of a sleeping naked woman. Nonetheless, just five minutes after that, the game passes the test as main characters Hana and Rain discuss the mundane details of their super-secret mission. The two spend plenty of time talking about dudes later in the game, but more often than not, they’re talking about each other or what to do next.
9. Final Fantasy XIII (2010)
Final Fantasy XIII commits many sins, but the biggest is the central cast. Many of them are unlikable nimrods whose relationships with each other only make them more offputting. Pretty boy Snow? Of course lady warrior Lightning can’t stand him—the guy’s trying to marry her 18-year-old sister. Sisters Fang and Vanille, however, while annoying independent of each other, have the most human, affecting relationship in the story. Final Fantasy XIII’s rare stirring moments come mostly from these two talking about their history growing up in the game’s feral wilderness, Gran Pulse. Their reunion scene here also earns the game Bechdel Test passage. There are plenty of women throughout Final Fantasy history. Some are fierce and independent, while others are relegated to support, in battle and in story. Final Fantasy XIII is singular in that it only soars when its leading ladies talk among themselves.
10. Mass Effect (2007)
Many BioWare games present a tricky proposition for the Bechdel Test since the player’s character can be either male or female, so a conversation that passes in one player’s game may fail in another. For Mass Effect, we had to go an extra level to debate whether the Asari, a mono-gender alien race, actually count as women. But in the end we decided to include Asari in femaledom—the game’s Codex says that the Asari are female, and they certainly read as female on screen, which is probably the pertinent consideration here. So the game passes for this alternately disturbing, touching, and tragic scene between Dr. Liara T’Soni and Matriarch Benezia, which shows the complicated relationship between a daughter and her badass brainwashed mother.
11. Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Tens of super villains, dozens of incarcerated police officers, hundreds of high-risk convicts, and all they can talk about for hours on end is Batman, Batman, and more Batman. It’s enough to give a certain caped crusader a swollen cowl. Thankfully, Arkham City is also home to a number of femme fatales, and when Catwoman decides she needs help breaking into a vault, she turns to her old friend and roommate, Poison Ivy. Pleasantries go out the window faster than you can say “defenestration” as the ladies break into a domestic dispute over the proper care and maintenance of house plants. When the men are all talking about blowing each other up, leave it to the women to argue about keeping things alive.
12. Gravity Rush (2012)
Gravity Rush is beautifully enigmatic. There are plenty of hints about the former life of gravity-manipulating protagonist Kat, but you never get her full story. You never get to know much about her adopted home, Heskeville, either. It’s a game that opens in medias res and never really ends. If there’s an arc of beginning, middle, and end, it’s the story of Kat’s relationship with the world’s one other gravity manipulator, Raven. Raven tangles with Kat time and again on orders from the leader of Heskeville’s military, but their relationship is always deeply personal. Come the back half of the game when they make their peace, Kat and Raven discuss both practical matters and how to use their abilities for good. They’re the only truly detailed characters in the game.
13. Steal Princess (2009)
A talkative female protagonist helps Climax Entertainment’s puzzle-platformer Steal Princess pass with flying colors. Master thief Anise spends time chatting with the pompous Princess Charlotte and thief-turned detective Delta, but the most common interactions are between Anise and her fairy sidekick, Kukri. While they do sometimes talk about a man—the prince that Kukri wants Anise to save—Kukri mostly offers tips on how to deal with puzzles while nagging Anise to stop stealing things and act like a proper hero.
14. The Misadventures Of Tron Bonne (2000)
Tron is the star of the Bonne family in the odd Mega Man Legends series, but the men in her life define most of her screen time. If she isn’t directly talking to or about her nemesis/crush Mega Man Volnutt, she’s listening to big brother Teisel Bonne, who tells her what to do and who to rob. Tron’s own adventure The Misadventures Of Tron Bonne is actually about the plucky air pirate trying to pay off ransom for her brother. It’s also the game where Tron makes her first friend, the hapless police officer Denise. They start out as sworn enemies, as Denise tries in vain to stop Tron from pillaging, but eventually Tron sympathizes with the officer and they bond over their shared struggles to succeed in their chosen professions. What’s impressive is that the Tron and Denise never fall into the “trying to make it in a man’s job” conversation. It’s hard to be good at what you do, period, and that’s mostly what their conversations are about. That and Tron mocking Denise for failing to catch her again.
15. Perfect Dark (2000)
Toward the end of the superspy shooting game Perfect Dark, agent Joanna Dark has been captured by a race of aliens that disguise themselves as Scandinavian men but are really space lizards of indeterminate gender. Her cellmate, the villainous business leader Cassandra De Vries, was working with these fictitious Nordic fellows until she discovered they were just reptiles with less of a taste for herring and more of a taste for intergalactic war. De Vries tells Dark that these horrible creatures used her, and that she hungers for revenge, so she sacrifices herself to distract the guards—thus giving Joanna a chance to exact sweet justice on her behalf. It’s a quick conversation, but since the scaly, screeching aliens are as much men as a crocodile in boxer shorts is, the game squeaks by on a technicality.