As a feminist (the sex-positive kind) and a critical media studies scholar who studies sex and gender, I've always wanted to do a series on my favorite lady video game characters. As a GI intern, I worked on a lot of news pieces and features about game studies in academia and so on, but because I was so busy with those things, I didn't get the chance to talk about some of my other interests.

Thus: welcome to Ali's Great Women in Games. This five-part series will explore five female game characters who aren't typically included in lists of popular digital ladies. Chell? Faith? Samus Aran? Pfft. Old news.

Now, it's wrong to assume that this will just be a list of women who kick ass. Androcentrism is the term used to describe the (bad) practice of putting the traditional male experience at the center, and all other experiences at the periphery. If we're talking about androcentrism in games criticism, it means that just because Lara Croft shoots bears and so on, doesn't necessarily mean she's a fair, relatable representation of a woman. Why? Because in order for her to be taken seriously as a "cool" character, she has to act like a badass dude with huge boobs. I hope the five video game women I choose for this series are characters who are great women, yes, but also, more generally, great people who exhibit both compassion and heroism.

We'll start the series off with an underappreciated and oft-unrecognized heroine of a PSP game released in 2010. She is the only one of three main characters to master her deadly weapon, and to save her friends and the fate of the world(s), she sacrifices herself to the darkness. She's blue-haired, beautiful, and magical. I'm talking, of course, about Aqua, from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

[Spoilers ahead]

Aqua is one of Birth by Sleep's three main characters and Keyblade wielders. Her best friends, Ventus and Terra, are also Keyblade wielders, though Aqua and Terra are the only two old enough to vie for the rank of Keyblade Master, the ultimate type of wielder. Birth by Sleep requires gamers to play each of the main character's complete storylines, and in true Kingdom Hearts fashion, no matter how good everyone's intentions or the player's ability, everything goes to hell in the end.

Among the three characters, Aqua seems like she'd be the most traditionally weak: She is a heavy magic-user, she is the only woman in the main cast, and she exhibits obvious motherly affections for her comrades. Terra, on the other hand, exhibits traditionally powerful characteristics, such as physical strength, and Ventus easily fits the mold of the plucky Kingdom Hearts hero originally created by Sora. Yet, in the end, when the fate of the worlds hangs in the balance, Aqua is the only character of the main three to receive the rank of Keyblade Master and the only character to survive the game in a fully-conscious form, heart (both literally and figuratively) intact. Though she ends up trapped in the dark realm indefinitely, she does what she can to save Terra and Ventus, at least until a young boy named Sora she once met on Destiny Islands can save them all for good. Aqua exhibits mental and physical strength, loyalty, and wisdom in times when her male companions fall short.

Aqua is a bit more sexualized than some of her contemporaries in other games, such as Mirror Edge's Faith, but her sexually-suggestive costume is rarely, if ever, a focal point of her portrayal. She is empowering as a strong-willed and well-skilled, yet feminine character who defies common Kingdom Hearts and more generally, Square Enix female tropes. The other two main female characters in the Kingdom Hearts series, for example, are Kairi and Namine.* Both are plot-drivers in their own rights, but nonetheless take relatively passive, stationary, and often objectified damsel in distress roles compared to their male counterparts and/or love interests, Riku, Sora, and Roxas.  Contrastingly, Aqua is an active participant in the story, she is rarely objectified, and she retains her femininity.

Aqua is a talented, beautiful, strong, and compassionate woman who succeeds at the rare task of saving her companions without having to essentially become a man. She remains a woman –no, a complete person – to the end, and is an excellent character with which to begin this five-part series of Great Women in Games.

*Edit 10/9/12 10:50 PM: I conveniently forgot about Xion (she's definitely not a personal favorite of mine) but now that I think about it, I'm not sure I feel comfortable calling her a girl/woman for the purposes of this article. She's essentially a Sora replica, and she appears to be biologically male and female at different times to different characters. She's very interesting and I probably should have at least mentioned her, but the haziness and fluidity of her gender and its impact on her portrayal would have been too complex for me to adequately tackle in this article.

Ali is a former Game Informer editorial intern and is currently a master's student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies games, virtual communities, manga, and other nerdy crap. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, or her personal blog.