Uncharted’s inspirations are about as classic as they come. Epic set pieces, exotic locations and witty banter; these are all ingredients in a recipe that we know well. Nathan Drake’s globe-trotting escapades owe a lot to the classics of the adventure genre; everything from Treasure Island, to King Kong and, most obviously, Indiana Jones.
These inspirations are what give Uncharted its undeniable charm; they’re a set of games that take you on a rousing adventure, before tucking you safely into bed at the end. I’ve greatly enjoyed playing them over the last few months (via the Uncharted Collection on PS4).
**warning: spoilers for all games in the Uncharted series**
However, there was something niggling in the back of my mind the entire time; something seemingly inconsequential, but constant nevertheless. It wasn’t until I played Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, that I realised what that niggling was; the Uncharted series doesn’t treat its female characters very well.
The first three games (and you’ll find out why it’s only the first three later on) have a habit of slipping whatever female characters they had into neat little roles, something that classic adventure stories have been doing for a long, long time.
Uncharted has never aspired to being anything revolutionary; it’s a franchise that has rarely strayed from the comfortable narrative paths that other adventure stories have walked many times before. And this works, for the most part. But at the same time, having to experience age-old gender stereotypes being played out again, and again, was frustrating to me.
Let’s break these down, shall we?
Uncharted’s titular protagonist; the loveable wise-cracking rouge Nathan Drake, is on a boat with the young naïve Elena Fisher. This is the very beginning of the very first game in the series. Nathan is here because of his lust for adventure, whilst Elena appears to have been dragged into this quest under the impression that such an incredible find (the corpse of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake), will give her career a much needed boost.
It isn’t until Nathan and his silver-haired mentor; Sully, scarper with all the equipment, that Elena realizes she’s been led on this entire time. This is turns out to be a running theme of the first three games in the series. Elena gets dragged into Nathan’s schemes, stumbles along with him for a time, before being fobbed off by the boy’s club.
Elena does eventually return to the plot, but only to be inevitably kidnapped. Elena plays her role; the comic relief and then the damsel in distress. Nathan unearths the mysteries. Nathan saves the day. Nathan gets the girl. The end.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, attempted to shake things up a bit; with an unusual narrative structure and the inclusion of intrigue and double-crosses giving the game extra layers of espionage on top of all the adventure.
But the series still fumbled when it came to depicting its female characters. In Among Thieves players are introduced to Chloe Frazer; fellow adventurer and Nathan’s ex-lover. In contrast to Elena’s naive innocence, Chloe is the series’ femme fatale, Uncharted’s very own Marnie.
Chloe’s most obvious purpose is the appeal to all those hot-blooded Uncharted fans who were desperately craving yet more shapely female arses to ogle. Chloe’s the bad girl with the nice bum that Nathan is allowed to play around with, before learning his lesson and once again returning to the safety net of Elena’s sweet embrace.
Whereas Chloe’s behavior unpredictably paints her as a temptation, Elena is the woman who steers Nathan towards the right path. And it’s no accident that Elena is the woman that Nathan ultimately walks away with in the end, not Chloe.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception introduces our very first female antagonist into the mix. Katherine Marlow is pretty much evil Queen Elizabeth reincarnate; she’s power-hungry, not married and works with the Masonry. Her true motivations aren’t entirely explained. All we know is that she’s posh, English and leans pretty far to the right on the political spectrum.
We are given some insight into her backstory, during a flashback to Nathan’s childhood as a professional street-urchin. Several years back, Marlow and Sully seemed to have been an item. But when Marlow sends her henchmen to hunt down poor little Nathan Drake, Sully decides to give her the boot. Years later, it seems that bitter old Marlow likes to hold a grunge. She’s essentially the woman much scorned, who enjoys lording it over her submissive male henchmen and getting back at past boyfriends.
Elena serves a fairly similar role here as she did in the previous two games, except this time, she also here to tut tut at her estranged husband’s reckless behaviour. However, the moment that really pushed me over the line from mild irritation, to outright disappointment, was when Nathan convinces Elena not to board a plane with him because he wants her to be safe.
I actually sat in disbelief and said “But why?” Why can’t she join him? That moment felt so contrived and unnecessary, like they weren’t going to include Elena just for traditions’ sake.
Fortunately, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End sought to do right by Elena.
The fourth (and probably last) entry in the Uncharted series is easily the best, for a multitude of reasons. Not only does the game look dam spectacular, but it also sees a seriously big improvement to the combat. Naughty Dog clearly learned a lot from making The Last of Us, as the addition of stealth mechanics adds some much-needed refreshment to gameplay that was beginning to feel stale.
They also apparently learned how to write female characters as well, because both Elena and the game’s female antagonist are given much bigger roles to play this time around.
After settling down into marital bliss, Nathan’s getting restless. The urge for adventure is calling once again, and he’s really due a midlife crisis. But rather than be a suffocating ball-and-chain, Elena is actively encouraging her husband to ditch his current job and seek what really makes him happy. I was genuinely surprised by this response from Elena. She isn’t afraid of Nathan risking their stability, but just wants to him to be happy and share in that happiness.
Instead, Nathan decides to sneak off to save his long-lost brother Sam, telling Elena that he’s going on a business trip. Rather than include her on what is a pretty serious problem, he, once again, goes off on his own and seeks to solve his problems without her.
This lie doesn’t hold out for long, and soon Nathan gets confronted by a rightfully furious Elena. Elena’s reaction to finding out that her husband has been lying to her is probably one of the most emotionally effective moments of the series. Seeing the hurt as she realizes that Nathan just can’t seem to trust her or have confidence in her, feels startling real.
A Thief’s End really seems to want to examine this unhealthy habit that Nathan has of pushing away someone so important to him, for the sake of ‘protecting’ her or for fear of (often non-existent) disappointment. It’s almost as if Nathan is inventing a suffocating version of Elena that doesn’t actually exist, to feed his ego. It’s only when Elena comes to save Nathan that he realizes the gravity of his mistake and how important she is. An entire chapter is given to rebuilding his relationship with Elena, cementing how essential she is to the world of Uncharted.
Nadine represents another refreshing change to the series, as Naughty Dog prove that they can craft an interesting villainess, as well as a heroine. An ex-military officer and leader of a group of powerful mercenaries, Nadine Ross is the no-nonsense business partner of Uncharted 4’s other antagonist; Rafe Adler.
Unlike Marlow, her goals aren’t driven by emotional insecurity or a need to assert herself. Instead, she’s the voice of reason to Alder’s irrational and pathetic spoiled-brat behaviour. Whereas Rafe lets his insecurities get the best of him, Nadine stays calm and in control. When things are no longer going to plan, Nadine cuts her losses and calls it quits. You can tell that Nathan has a clear amount of respect for her, despite fighting for the other side. And it’s Rafe’s ego that ultimately dooms him, with Nadine walking away unscathed.
This highlights the clear line of separation between Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and the previous games. Whereas the earlier titles celebrated the glory of the male ego, Uncharted 4 identifies it as a source for tragedy: the pirates’ downfall, Nathan’s lies to Elena and Rafe’s demise. Which is what ultimately makes A Thief’s End shine in contrast to its predecessors; it retains that sense of wonder and adventure we love, whilst actively challenging the status quo of gender in the adventure genre.