Gaming’s Greatest Unsung Heroine

Gaming’s Greatest Unsung Heroine

It would be a real shame to forget about Cate Archer. Over the past week, I’ve been replaying the spy game No One Lives Forever for the first time since it came out in 2000. I’m struck not only by how well the first-person espionage-fest holds up all these years later, but how audacious it all feels, even today.

In a world where people still doubt that a woman can be a great video-game protagonist, here’s a game that pulled it off 13 years ago. And while on its surface, No One Lives Forever may be about Cold War spy games and larger-than-life James Bond gunplay, underneath its action-packed exterior is a story about workplace sexism and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. No, really!

When we first meet Cate Archer, the superspy Scotswoman at the centre of the now-bygone series, she feels like a caricature: A well-coiffed killer in go-go boots, more or less a video-game incarnation of Austin Powers’ sidekick Vanessa Kensington. But as the story gets underway, it becomes clear that agent Archer is much more than that — she’s supremely capable, funny, brilliant, and possessed of an inhuman level of patience as she deals with her lunkheaded, sexist male colleagues.

Many strong video-game women, from Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft to Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade to Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard, simply exist, their respective fictional worlds being enlightened enough to get out of the way and let them be. By leading and triumphing, those characters make an implicit statement about how women can do this video-game action stuff just as well as men.

In essence, her superiors are repeatedly telling her that she doesn’t deserve to star in her own game, despite the fact that she’s doing a smashing job of it.

Cate Archer, by contrast, is regularly challenged on her right to undertake covert missions simply because she’s a woman. Time and again she’s asked to prove herself, and time and again her incredible acts of derring-do fall short of frustrating institutional double-standards. In essence, her superiors are repeatedly telling her that she doesn’t deserve to star in her own game, despite the fact that she’s doing a smashing job of it.

Archer, wonderfully voiced in the first game by Kit Harris and in the 2002 sequel by Jen “Cortana” Taylor, is an agent for UNITY, a fictional pan-governmental agency assembled to wage counter-espionage against the Soviets during the 1960s. In true Bond fashion, UNITY more frequently winds up taking on criminal organisations like H.A.R.M., the primary antagonists of both the first game and its sequel.

UNITY is a woefully old-fashioned place, as is made clear during Archer’s first briefing with her commanders:

One of the most enjoyable bits in that (lengthy) cutscene is when Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith mention Dimitri Volkov, H.A.R.M. executive officer and the story’s main bad guy. No one in the briefing, including Archer’s mentor Bruno, is quite sure who he is. But when asked what she knows, Archer rattles off an astounding array of facts, dates and places. She’s clearly memorized his entire file on the off-chance that she might need to know something about him.

No one in the room notes how amazing her display was — they simply carry on. That’s cool; UNITY seems like the sort of place where extraordinary competence should be taken for granted. But at the end of the meeting, the odious Mr. Smith is sure to toss some shade Archer’s way, telling her that he doesn’t think wetwork is compatible with a woman’s fragile psyche.

That kind of horseshit doesn’t let up as the game goes on; in fact, it becomes a running theme. Every character Archer meets immediately remarks upon her gender while expressing doubt that she’s up for the task. Every early mission ends with Archer’s superiors questioning their wisdom in “sending a woman to do a man’s job.” Ironically, the only character who doesn’t dismiss her out of hand is ostensibly a villain, a feisty Scotsman named Magnus Armstrong who immediately identifies her as a fighter and a fellow countrywoman worthy of respect.

When Archer exchanges code phrases with other field operatives, they’ve been written as snickering pickup lines. Clearly someone at HQ has been having fun with the idea of a woman field operative, which serves the dual purpose of A) being pretty eye-rollingly funny and B) illustrating just the sort of boys-club “humor” that women had to put up with in the 60s. (“Who writes this stuff?” asks one of her colleagues, mortified. “Someone in need of a girlfriend,” Archer responds, patient as always.)

She’s a bloody superhero! Why can’t she get any respect?

Things tend to go awry during the early missions, requiring Archer (under the player’s control) to turn on a dime and demonstrate endless resourcefulness, staying alive and salvaging some part of the operation. But for a good long while, it’s not enough for her superiors. It’s an odd feeling, surviving a thrilling video-game shootout only to have your post-mission briefing screen berate you for things that were completely out of your control.

The disconnect between Archer’s in-game actions and the way men in her world treat her is best exemplified when she first meets Dr. Otto Shenker, a scientist she’s helping defect from Berlin. As it turns out, Dr. Shenker is something of an ass:

I love this scene so much. We’ve seen a variation in plenty of movies: After braving hell and high water to reach her goal, the heroine is greeted with doubt. “Hold that thought,” she says, turns, and proceeds to blow away like seven dudes. She turns back, cool as anything. “What were you saying?”

I’m surprised that no other video game I can think of has stolen that idea in the thirteen years since NOLF came out. The scene perfectly underlines an idea that recurs throughout the game: You’re going to give me a hard time for being a woman? Look buddy, I am singlehandedly winning the Cold War over here, I don’t have time for this shit.

Throughout No One Lives Forever, players will routinely manage the sorts of superheroic, impossible feats we so often undertake in video games. She’ll infiltrate East German military bases, steal impossible-to-access documents, fight off legions of enemy troops, harpoon sharks on a sunken ship… only to be met with disdain and disapproval for not doing an even better job.

After leaping from a burning aircraft, Archer blasts a dozen bad guys out of the sky while in free-fall, then grabs one, commandeers his parachute and lands safely. She then arrives back at HQ only to be berated for the mission’s “failure.” It’s a great joke, albeit a bitter one.

Time and again Archer is expected to prove herself when, we are meant to assume, a man in her position would have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Afterward, her two superiors are discussing her work, and Mr. Smith says he doubts the veracity of her reports. He suggests that she’s been falsifying them to make herself look better. The audacity of this guy! I played through those “reports” alongside her! I wanted to reach through the screen and smack him. She’s a bloody superhero! Why can’t she get any respect?

Time and again Archer is expected to prove herself when, we are meant to assume, a man in her position would have been given the benefit of the doubt. That idea is best illustrated by Tom Goodman (actual name), the beefcake all-American operative Archer spends the middle section of the game working alongside. Or really, beneath, as her superiors waste no time telling her that she is to obey Goodman while in the field.

When she first meets Goodman in a club in Berlin, they have the following (amazing) exchange:

Goodman: So tell me, *Mizzz* Archer…

Archer: Ah, now don’t start with that.

Goodman: What?

Archer: There’s no need to patronize me.

Goodman: Was I patronizing you?

Archer: Yes, you were.

Goodman: Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t realise I was gonna have to baby-sit on this assignment.

Archer: I may be a woman, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take care of myself.

Goodman: Oh, I get it, you’re one of those women’s libbers! Dress up in men’s clothing, ride motorcycles, smoke cigars, that kind of thing.

Archer: Just because I can take care of myself doesn’t mean I’m not a woman. They’re not mutually exclusive, you know.

Goodman: But isn’t the point of women’s liberation to allow young ladies, like yourself, to become men?

Archer: The point is to allow young ladies to become whatever they please.

Goodman: Ouch. Well, if you’re as deadly with a pistol as you are with your tongue, you can watch both our backs.

Archer: Alright, I will!

Ha! Cate Archer for Prime Minister!

That exchange perfectly encapsulates No One Lives Forever‘s particular brand of confident, low-key feminism. It’s not about women being men, it’s about women being whatever the hell they want to be. It’s noteworthy that Archer herself explicitly lays it out, particularly since she’s not living in some abstract video-game fantasy world; she’s a 1960s woman living in the era the women’s liberation movement actually got underway.

The only people making a big deal out of Archer’s gender are men; she’s perfectly content to just go about doing an awesome job and saving the world. The way she confidently, smilingly takes Goodman’s bait — “Alright, I will!” — just slays me. We know she’s going to save the day; we’ve seen her do it before. Goodman has no idea who he’s working with.

The only people making a big deal out of Archer’s gender are men; she’s perfectly content to just go about doing an awesome job and saving the world.

Later, Archer manages to hoodwink Goodman into agreeing to flip a coin to determine who will get to undertake each mission. Of course, she (suspiciously) wins every toss. At that point in the story, the missions stop going wrong. Archer begins to rack up victory after victory, all while Agent Goodman stands on the sidelines, looking handsome and being mostly useless.

That said, eventually she begins to feel a platonic fondness for Goodman. He’s something of a buffoon and is less skilled than she is, but he is one of the good guys. When he eventually sacrifices himself to save Archer from Volkov, she’s visibly distraught at his death, and for the first time questions herself in the briefing room. Mr. Jones chooses this time to finally acknowledge what we’ve known all along:

You’ve performed remarkably well under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” he says. “I confess I was somewhat sceptical at first, but that was before I grasped the magnitude of the situation. In my entire tenure as a field operative, I never once faced a crisis this formidable, and certainly can’t say I would have done so with the aplomb and competence you’ve demonstrated thus far.

Amen, Mr. Jones.

While it’s a shame to see Cate Archer so frequently overlooked for more well-known woman characters, it’s not entirely surprising. After all, No One Lives Forever itself has been somewhat lost to the sands of time — thanks to a quagmire of corporate acquisitions, the game is out of distribution and therefore difficult to purchase and play today. It’s not available through digital retailers like Steam or, and according to Activision’s Dan Amrich, it’s not even entirely clear who owns the rights to the series. The only ways you can play it are if you’re lucky enough to still have your original PC discs or if you’re willing to buy a used copy someplace like or eBay.

For a variety of reasons, I have a hard time imagining No One Lives Forever getting made today.

It’s too bad more people can’t easily revisit No One Lives Forever. In addition to being a heck of a lot of fun to play, the game provides an eminently worthwhile touchstone for our current-day discussion of video games and gender representation.

All of the scenes I’ve referenced here were written with intention — rather than imagine a fictional 1960s where men and women co-existed harmoniously, creative director Craig Hubbard and his team at Monolith decided to explore the way things really were, albeit in an entertainingly exaggerated setting.

I don’t get the sense that they made No One Lives Forever as a feminist manifesto or anything, and the game certainly isn’t some bastion of political correctness. Most every race (including Americans and Brits) is portrayed as a ridiculous caricature, there are more than enough lowbrow fat jokes, and I’m sure some would complain about Archer’s cleavage-revealing jumpsuit. (I’m more offended by how fugly it is than how revealing it is, but that’s a separate conversation. Fortunately, she dresses much more sensibly, and stylishly, in the sequel.)

In directly approaching the gender inequalities of the 1960s, Monolith simply chose to explore the interesting conflicts inherent to an interesting time period and in so doing, made their game more interesting. (What a concept!)

For a variety of reasons, I have a hard time imagining No One Lives Forever getting made today. It embraces its more ridiculous aspects with a joie de vivre almost unheard of in the gritty, realism-obsessed realm of modern action games. It’s a spy game in which you spend a good amount of time actually doing spy stuff, not just shooting people. Its design is challenging and idiosyncratic, an at-times punishing stealth game that opts for simulation above scripted action, sometimes to a fault. The writing is smart and self-indulgently funny in a way I haven’t seen in ages, and it stars one of the drop-dead coolest protagonists in video game history.

On top of all that, it somehow manages to be both a mainstream action game and a lengthy parable about workplace sexism and women’s liberation. Of No One Lives Forever‘s many uncommon attributes, surely that is the rarest and worthy of celebration.

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