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Illustration Marija Marc

An ode to the Y2K It girls of survival horror games

They lived through the ghosts, zombies and men of the 2000s – now they are being reclaimed by the gamer girls of today > They lived through the ghosts, zombies and men of the 2000s. Now, they are being reclaimed by the gamer girls of today

Femme, chic and with an aura or torment: this is the aesthetic of the It girls of PS2-era survival horror games. Whether they were kidnapped and held hostage in a creepy provincial Spanish village, forced to fight zombies with nothing but a mini skirt and a blunt object à la Ashley Graham in Resident Evil 4, or roaming through a monster-filled town with a revolver and Chinese cleaver like Maria from Silent Hill 2, these pixelated women of video game history not only fought battles and survived, but served looks, too.

These women arrived onto gaming consoles during a time when gaming was still in its ‘Dude Bro’ era. This was the golden age of Jackass, Yorkie bars and American Pie; as long as the beer was cold and the chicks were hot, all was well. As a result, game developers catered to this demographic, with many in-game ladies crafted for a target audience of young men – to quote the narrator of the documentary The Making of Silent Hill 2, “Maria would turn the head of any red-blooded male player”.

Nevertheless, while created to titillate teenage boys, these fashionable final girls also opened up a gateway for women into gaming during the early 2000s. When Resident Evil 4 was released in 2005, getting to play as Ashley was about more than just her chic knee-high boots. Instead, she was a reminder that there could be more women in video games than just Lara Croft. The PS2 era of horror games proved the potential for female-focused games, their success confirm that women wanted more bite.

The mini skirts and crop tops may not have been intended to be cool and relatable for female fans, yet for many gamers, that’s what these characters became. These women’s initial role as eye candy does not take away from their legacy; they have become iconic in their own right. They survived the ghosts, zombies and men of the 2000s. And now they are being reclaimed by the gamer girls of today.

Search on TikTok and you'll see endless videos of young women mimicking horror game heroines, with outfits consisting of frilly mini skirts, blouses cinched at the waist, and knee-high boots. This trend, dubbed “tormented soul summer”, also seems to hold more value than your typical Y2K nostalgia kick, with fan edits appreciating these characters’ story arcs and not just their garms. Two decades since they made their on-screen debuts, a new generation of women are celebrating these legendary characters.

This reappraisal is understandable. The women in these games cover a series of character tropes as well as styles – not one PS2 horror girl is the same. As the kidnapped daughter of the President, Resident Evil 4’s Ashley Graham becomes the damsel in distress; it’s our job, playing as himbo hero Leon Kennedy, to rescue her. Ashley’s aesthetic is distinct, too: sporting a plaid green mini skirt, orange sweater vest, a chunky belt, and knee-high boots, it’s preppy, autumnal and wholly American private school girl. 

In contrast, the style in Fatal Frame, the cult Japanese horror game series where you play various women repelling ghosts with a Camera Obsura, has a softer, more feminine aesthetic, leaning into Gothic Lolita fashion. In Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly we play as Mio, accompanied by her sister Mayu, as we try to escape from a haunted village. Their frilled milkmaid tops and ballet flats differ from Ashley’s Americanised look, but the women have the same overarching goal: to survive, and to survive in a mini skirt.

Of course, in comparison to their male counterparts, the women of these games are stylistically and fundamentally unprepared. In Resident Evil 4, Leon is kitted out; he’s a federal agent ready to not just survive but to rescue and fight. Meanwhile, Ashley, being the hostage, lacks the weaponry and the experience of combat – her impractical clothing implies that she was snatched right out of a Washington DC Starbucks and dropped unwillingly into the depths of a nightmarish situation.

You can see similarly stark contrasts between clothing and environment in Fatal Frame, Silent Hill 2, Rule of Rose and Clocktower 3. These women have been placed in a situation against their will with nothing but a camera, a flashlight, and, if they’re lucky, an ineffectual blunt object. They are then left to fight for their lives and they look hot doing it.

It’s this combination between fashion and survival that perhaps resonates with people on TikTok. For many young women today, it can feel as if we’re simply just surviving as we choose between paying rent or eating properly, navigate the current threat to bodily autonomy, wavering between having an unwanted pregnancy or looking for unregulated ways to undergo an abortion, and battle against the perpetual tides of misogyny.  

As a result, playing these survival horror games, particularly as a woman, can be a cathartic experience. Not only is the perpetual state of terror relatable, but unlike our real lives, we can go back should we perish, load a new save, and try to kill the zombies again. That we can do so in perfectly constructed Y2K outfits without breaking the bank is the icing on top. 

Still, the reclamation of these PS2 era It girls also arrives in the midst of the horror game renaissance, with games like Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2 both getting the remake treatment. With these reimagined versions of these games, developers are also reappraising their approach to these characters. For example, in the Resident Evil 4 remake, Capcom attempted to patch up Ashley Graham by taking away the helplessness that had previously made her one of the most “hateable video game characters and giving her more independence, along with a (shorter) skort instead of a skirt. 

However, the inevitable girlbossification of Ashley, paired with the smooth textures of modern graphics, has somehow neutered the character, transforming her from pixelated nu-metal ingénue to milky skinned, bland AI dream girl. As Ashley Bardhan noted in Kotaku: “Capcom’s remake thankfully cut Ashley’s upskirts, but it forgot to add a personality.” 

Of course, personality was never really Ashley’s appeal. Instead, players were drawn to this fashionable woman doing her best to survive, despite the odds. It’s the reason why the IT girls of the PS2 era are having their moment, inspiring a generation of young women on TikTok to experiment with the lo-fi gloom and pixelated Y2K aesthetic, while celebrating the fortitude of these iconic characters. It’s an homage to the women who crept around fogged woodlands with flashlights in hand, only to beat a monster over the head with a branch or a meat cleaver. After all, girls don’t want dewy skinned and doll-like girlbosses. We want rough and ready heroines we can truly relate to; ones who wear crop tops while trying to scramble out of the worst case scenario. 

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