The era: About five years ago
The games: Final Fantasy X, Beyond Good & Evil, Silent Hill 3, GTA III and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
The babes: Yuna, Jade, Heather, some hookers and the entire cast of DOAX
Stage in evolution: Well now. Throw in a few million extra triangles and the vaguely feminine constructs from before start to look a lot like real women, eh? Lara Croft fell off the edge of the world, making way for the tasteful likes of Yuna and Jade, two damn-near normal-looking girls who stand out both in terms of design, capability and sex appeal. Heather still comes across as one of the most believable girls in all of gaming. No training, no slinky outfit, just a normal girl in normal clothes. She a combination of two girls' spirits sprinkled with a touch of godhood, but otherwise, yeah, she's normal.
GTA III brought us gameplay innovations that are still in heavy rotation today. It also forced us to stare at the ugliest humanoid figures we'd seen in years, female or otherwise. Granted, all that processing power was used for the city and actual gameplay, but we just had to mention the ham-fisted beasts that Rockstar passed off as people.
Then there's DOAX, the world's first "legitimate" cheesecake video game. Already known for having the most top-heavy fighters in the world, DOA took the fight to the beach, replaced said "fight" with "slightly nude volleyball" and managed to pass it off as a pseudo lesbian slumber party. DOAX represented the pinnacle of boob tech, including bouncy physics that made each breast act as if it were being fondled by a seizuring invisible man.
Witness gaming's only M-rated "sports fantasy simulation."
The early 2000s saw the biggest leap in female leads, probably due to the fact that the average gamer age jumped to the mid-20s and girls were now playing in force. Still, for every thoughtfully created female lead, there were at least 50 scantily clad piles of eye candy strutting around for the sole purpose of selling games. A poor practice, but damn does iteverwork.
What these games taught us: It's OK for a girl to behave like a normal person as long as she later sheds all her clothes and tramps it up (Yuna, we're looking at you).