[Here there be serious spoilers for the plots of Uncharted I, II, and III]
Before we go anywhere, some backstory: Uncharted is a series of third-person, action/adventure, platforming videogames. They trace the adventures of treasure hunter Nathan Drake and his mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan, et alia, as they think and fight their way through dense jungles, Nazi bunkers, ancient temples and lost cities. The series is developed by Naughty Dog, the same studio responsible for The Last of Us and Crash Bandicoot.
The Uncharted series of games is one of my favorites of all time. I can’t think of a single series (with the possible exception of all the Pokémon games put together) that I’ve logged more time playing, especially including multiplayer. I played Uncharted II: Among Thieves first; it was, after all the much lauded, universal “Game of the Year” for 2009. I bought it at the suggestion of a friend and played through it in a single sitting, only getting up to use the bathroom. I was completely enraptured by the storytelling, the combat, and the game’s ability to perform exposition and character development in what just isn’t that long of a game.
Until I played The Last of Us, I was convinced that there was no game that I could enjoy more. I went back and played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and blew off an exam when Uncharted III: Drake’s Deception came out in 2011. There’s a pair of jet ski scenes in Uncharted that are just obnoxious and are reminiscent of Crash Bandicoot, but with the exception of those excruciating minutes, there’s not a second of the Uncharted series that I don’t enjoy. Unfortunately, it seems that I can’t manage to keep my critical eye closed while enjoying a perfectly good video game.
The Uncharted series will go down as a video-gaming classic largely due to its use of tropes and themes that we are familiar with. For example, while lacking a Ph.D, Nathan Drake is a ruggedly handsome white man possessed of a deep knowledge of history and archeology, a crack shot, and a skilled (if undisciplined) hand-to-hand combatant. The biggest difference between Drake and Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones is that Drake is much greedier and more self-absorbed. But that difference is rather refreshing, and Nolan North’s voice acting brings the character to life so well that it is entirely forgivable. On the subject of his character, now would be a good time to mention that Nathan Drake claims to be the descendant of Sir Francis Drake. I will hereafter refer to the English sailor/privateer as “Sir Francis Drake” only, so you know.
What, for me, is less forgivable is the treatment of women in the games. Now, before someone calls me crazy or vilifies me for even mentioning treatment of women as a concern, I still think that the games are amazing, and it’s exactly that fact which makes me wonder what happened to the women in these games.
To begin with, in the Playstation 3 titles, there are three women: Elena, Chloe, and Marlowe. Elena Fisher, journalist, television host, and since meeting Drake, adventurer, is the foremost woman in the series. Elena is characterized by her good girl charm, her stubborn and enduring character, and maybe by being the only good person in the entire cast of characters. She meets Nathan Drake in Uncharted I as her network funds an expedition to find the coffin of Sir Francis Drake. She encounters our hero Drake again in Nepal and helps him to save the world, nearly dying in the process. Between the second and third games, Nathan and Elena are married, only for him to walk out on their union. In Uncharted III, she helps sneak Drake into Yemen, and aids in his mission to rescue Sully.
There’s Chloe Frazer, who is a charming, bad girl foil to Drake, a talented getaway driver, and a bit of schemer. She and Drake are known to have a sexual relationship which persists at least through the middle of the second game, though when it begins is unknown. She serves as a double agent in Uncharted II, acting as a member of the crew for Serbian war criminal Zoran Lazarevic while secretly aiding Drake & Co, and, like the rest of the crew, stumbles her way to heroism. In Uncharted III, her dark and manipulative traits are more muted in relation to the story, and she aids the good guys but bows out before the end of the game.
Then there is Marlowe. The primary antagonist of Uncharted III, and arguably the primary antagonistic force in Drake’s entire life, Katherine Marlowe is the leader of a centuries-old hermetic secret society, as cold as she is ruthless. The head of an organization flush with resources, weapons and soldiers, she has competed with Nathan Drake to uncover the secrets of Sir Francis Drake since Nathan was a thirteen-year-old orphan in Colombia.
Each of these three women is determined, capable, and a strong character in her own right. To varying degrees they are all persistent, deadly, capable, and well-connected, and their actions make the difference between salvation and destruction for Nathan Drake as well as the world itself. They are nuanced; they have complex emotions and conflicting motivations. They serve as exemplars for how to develop a female character in an action game, and this is often credited to Amy Hennig, writer and director for the Uncharted series.
And yet, they all live their lives for Drake. Since meeting him, the pivotal events in these women’s lives seem to occur because of Drake’s actions or while they are with him. This is perhaps least true of Chloe, although she goes to the ends of the earth for him, risks her life for him multiple times, and then says yes when he says “let’s do it again!” She does, however, have the least time for Nate’s crap (which is still a lot of time) and knows how to bow out when it’s time. She not only serves to compare with Drake’s risk-taking and self-interested behavior, she’s presented in the second game as a competing love interest. It’s obvious, however, that she will not be his ultimate choice because she has her own shit going on, and at the end of that game chooses to cut her losses.
Marlowe, perhaps, cannot avoid having Drake in her life. As she pursues the deadly secrets of Sir Francis Drake, Nathan’s Drake’s possession of a pair of critical artifacts perseverance in beating her to them make him impossible to circumvent. As a character, I consider her trope rather troubling, dying as a result of her cold ambition. That is not problematic per sé, except that I’m not a big fan of how often ambitious and powerful women are punished in popular narratives. Again, my critical eye appears to be locked in the “on” position.
Elena, on the other hand, continuously chooses to have the very dangerous Drake in her life, and serves as sort of a sidekick. I’m not saying that she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because I don’t think that trope’s applicable here, but she chooses Drake when it endangers her safety, her journalistic credentials, and her own goals. She’s capable in her own right, and in Drake’s Deception even organizes a complex and daring plan to rescue Sully on her own. However, Drape swoops in at the last minute and cuts her out of the plan because he “can’t bear to almost lose her again” or something like that. That’s touching and yes, human, but it’s also kind of bullshit in terms of Elena’s character. Despite her bravery, loyalty, and persistence, she never gets the chance to stand on her own feet.
None of the games even pass the Bechdel test. Elena is the only woman in Drake’s Fortune, so no opportunities for success there. In Among Thieves, Chloe and Elena work side by side, but most of their time talking is spent quipping about Drake, complaining about Drake, or talking over Drake’s plans. Drake’s Deception never sees two female characters even talking to one another. I love this game, so this leads me to ask: why develop such cool, nuanced, well-designed characters, and give them fantastic voice actors only to stick them in the wife, girlfriend, sidekick or “evil b—” boxes and leave them there?
I think that Naughty Dog can do better. We’ve seen improvements in their writing relationship with female protagonists from Uncharted to The Last of Us, but they still have improvements to make. Their next title will be for the PS4, though there’s some doubt as to whether it will be another Uncharted game. Hopefully, whatever it is will be just as groundbreaking as their previous games, and will maybe give their female characters a little more room to breathe.