Note: This article contains spoilers for the first two games in the Uncharted series.
I’ve been planning on playing the Uncharted series for years. I remember sitting in my high school boyfriend’s room while a mutual friend of ours explained the how the lighting, textures, and complexity of the Uncharted series was built for a post-PlayStation 3 device. I don’t know if that guy was right, and I didn’t know much about the series beyond it being one of the exclusives I couldn’t play (I was an Xbox 360 gamer for that generation-I’ll always pick the console with the lower price point).
But I grew up on Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, so it definitely seemed like something I might like.
I grew older, and more frustrated with gaming culture. I became a PlayStation 4 gamer, and finally bought the remastered Uncharted series to compare it to the new Tomb Raider reboot series. Considering the controversial role that rape metaphors have played in that franchise, I was disappointed to see Nathan Drake make a rape joke within the first two minutes of Drake’s Fortune before ditching his business partner, Elena Fisher, and going off on whatever grand adventure the game was setting me up for. It felt like Uncharted was telling me that it was okay to have fun, but only if you were a certain kind of person.
But a little while later, Elena comes back. She calls out Nate on leaving her behind, and insists on going with him. She doesn’t just come back; she wants in on the action, and she’s a reporter who wants to get her story. Later, after Nathan and Elena are separated and things get rough, she’s the one who wants to stay and find the titular McGuffin when Nate wants to leave.
Female characters being a male protagonist’s conscience is nothing new, but a female character showing the ways in which a male lead character is kind of a coward? That is much rarer.
Suddenly, Nathan Drake went from monolithic male protagonist to kind of a flawed, scared guy who doesn’t have a lot of friends and knows when to call it quits. At that point in the first game, he’d just thought he watched his mentor die. As soon as he realizes that Elena, another person, might also be in genuine, irreparable danger, his instinct is to get out of Dodge.
Elena—spunky, charming Elena—is why I thought there was something for me in Uncharted and didn’t stop playing, even when I had doubts. She might not be a playable character, which is a shame, but she’s capable and funny, and it’s been fun to watch her relationship with Nate develop over the 20+ hours of gameplay of the first two games. Sure, it might be a gendered stereotype that in the second game, Among Thieves, she tries to get him to put the greater good above his own self-preservation, but her presence was a bright spot for me. I realized that I looked forward to every moment with her.
Then, in the second game, there’s also Chloe.
She seems like the game’s Bond Girl. Elena is nowhere to be found at the beginning, and Chloe is a seductive woman with questionable morals and even more doubtful loyalties. Chloe isn’t an adventure-seeking philanthropist like Elena—she’s trying to make a dime and get out in one piece.
This could easily position her as the Bad Woman to Elena’s Good Woman, but Uncharted fortunately makes it more complicated than that. She’s the voice trying to convince Nate and Elena to save themselves and run for the hills. Then, at the end, Chloe decides to help Elena and Nate save the world and stop the bad guy (“but let’s go save your bloody world”). She’s allowed to be won over by Nate and Elena’s heroic optimism, and ends up helping Nate drag an injured Elena out of Shambhala (Shangri-La).
Throughout the second game, I was worried that Chloe would be one-note, that she would die, or that she and Elena would compete with each other over (anti)hero Nate. While they never passed the Bechdel Test, Elena impacted Chloe as much as she impacted Nate, eventually inspiring her to unrepentantly side with them during the dramatic conclusion of Among Thieves.
Female characters are often trapped in their moral alignments, and are punished for stepping outside of them. Although it seems like a minor detail, allowing Chloe that freedom to transgress, to doubt, to be as cowardly as Nate can be, and then still be able to be a hero at the end, is cool to see.
It’s not perfect—for instance, at the end of Drake’s Fortune, Elena is damseled, and I could do without Nate’s casual homophobic jokes (particularly the ones he shares with Harry in Among Thieves). But ultimately, Uncharted is fun, and despite its flaws, I’m pleased about the role women play in Nate’s life. I’m glad that, although Nate is the main character, his female friends are able to have complete character arcs.
I wouldn’t still be playing the series if Elena wasn’t such a huge part of it, or if Chloe had been at the receiving end of a punishment narrative. As it is, I’m loading up the third game and planning to purchase the fourth on launch day.
In the end, there’s a lesson here about the importance of background diversity in a major title: even when your main character isn’t a woman, you can still make female gamers feel included by treating your supporting cast with care.. Even though Elena and Chloe are side characters, and Nate is clearly the protagonist, their treatment, and the ways in which their characters are relatable, has kept me invested in a series I otherwise might have traded in.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End comes out in May, and I hope female anti-hero Chloe makes a return appearance, and that Elena remains as important to the developers as she is to Nate.