In my varied gaming career, I have noticed one common character type in particular (although there are of course many, many game tropes). That is, that of the female villain. Certainly, 99% of the time, the big baddie tends to be one sex or the other - or at least implicitly so - but the female villains stand out because of how extreme and absurdly simplistic they tend to be.
One example is Knight Commander Meredith in Dragon Age: 2, a woman who rigidly enforces chantry doctrine and eventually "goes crazy" after buying a magical item on the black market, which is definitely a chantry no-no (hypocrisy, stereotype of "female hysteria," the message that women who are leaders just eventually lose their minds and/or are hopelessly tyrannical).
Other examples are Maghda, Adria, and Leah in Diablo III. These three are essentially the only women who figure prominently in the game, save for the somewhat ineffective enchantress follower Eirena. Maghda is a ruthless, mindless follower of Belial, a lesser lord of hell; she could not possibly be more one-dimensional (or wear a more revealing outfit without being naked --> objectification). Adria and Leah again follow the "female hysteria" model of Meredith in Dragon Age: 2 - as soon as Adria and Leah gain a sizable amount of power, they either switch to the side of evil (Adria) or have their soul literally consumed by an evil entity, losing all of their individuality to the evil (Leah). Any woman with power in Diablo III is essentially a witch, perceived as a thing filled with more power than it can handle that is constantly on the verge of destroying itself and everything around itself.
Although villains must by definition be antagonistic, they do not need to be simplistic, even when portrayed in 8-bit or on a budget. I find examples of strong, complicated female villains in stories everywhere - Maleficent from Charles Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, Medusa and various goddesses from Greek/Roman mythology - but even these figures are over-simplified by video games. Medusa actually was once a priestess of Athena, beautiful and devoted, but Athena turned her into a monster after the goddess caught Poseidon raping Medusa in Athena's temple. Punished for getting raped - there has to be a vibrant, dark, complicated woman inside Medusa that video games essentially ignore, preferring to dwell on the snakes that comprise her hair and how her gaze can turn one to stone (God of War, Disney's PS1 Hercules). The game Kid Icarus and its sequel offer improved interpretations of Medusa - a female entity caught in her own revenge plot who eventually tires so much of being Hades' puppet that she wishes for death...and eventually gets it.
Maleficent only appears (officially) in Disney's Kingdom Hearts series for copyright reasons, but glimmers of the villain have made their way into Flemeth, a very delightfully ambivalent female character from the Dragon Age series. Like Maleficent, Flemeth is extremely old and powerful, can turn into a dragon (or perhaps is a dragon that can turn into a human), and the matter of her beauty is a touchy subject.Maleficent is more misunderstood in the original French tale than in the watered-down Disney interpretation. She lives alone (is powerful enough to do so), she "pricks the finger" of Sleeping Beauty with the intent to "kill" her. In French, the phrase for an orgasm is une petite mort - a little death. It's entirely feasible that Maleficent's spinning wheel prick is a substitute for a penis. That is, that she is sexually interested in Sleeping Beauty/Princess Aurora and is thus potentially at least bisexual.
Where is this richness in female villains in video games?
Flemeth is a female video game villain who rivals Maleficent's complexity. In discussing this entry, a friend also recommended GLaDOS from the Portal series, and I concede that she is more dynamic than many other female villains (and female characters in general). GLaDOS still unfortunately fits the "female hysteria" trope, but because she's technically AI, she is reminiscent of the horrifying HAL 9000. Both are products of human hubris.
Flemeth's allure, though, is that she is morally ambiguous. She helps the Grey Warden and the Champion of Kirkwall, but she is an ages-old "abomination" who allegedly preserves her beauty and lifeforce by raising and killing her daughters over and over again. She hides her allegiances and doesn't want to involve herself too deeply in the affairs of good and evil...but it seems certain that she will eventually pursue her daughter Morrigan. Only the evolution of the series will tell.
Copyright Alexandra Lucas 2013